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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012, 10:09 am

With Romney’s Backing, New Hampshire GOP Pushes Right to Work Again

BY Josh Eidelson

Presidential candidates push New Hampshire to become first "Right to Work" state in the Northeast.

Five days before today’s presidential primary, the New Hampshire State House passed a “Right to Work” bill for a second time. The bill now heads to the State Senate, and is likely to land on the desk of Democratic Governor John Lynch.  In November, State House Republicans came within twelve votes – out of 400 legislators - of overriding Lynch’s veto of a prior such bill.

Republican presidential candidates egged on their New Hampshire counterparts in both debates held this weekend in the "first in the nation" primary state. “Right To Work legislation makes a lot of sense for New Hampshire and for the nation,” said front-runner Mitt Romney in Sunday’s debate on Meet the Press.  Romney’s call for a federal “Right to Work” law was joined by his opponents, including Rick Santorum, who has drawn fire for opposing such a law while in the U.S. Senate.  Asked if they saw any positive role for unions, Romney mentioned job training, and Santorum mentioned organizing community service activities “like a business does”—neither of which involves conflict with management.

Twenty-two states currently have “Right to Work” laws. None of them are in the Northeast United Sates. With Republican state house majorities swept in by the 2010 elections, several states are now considering “Right to Work” bills (perhaps the most prominent is Indiana, as Roger Bybee reported Thursday). “This is not about individual freedoms…” says New Hampshire AFL-CIO President Mark MacKenzie. “This is about destroying the labor movement in New Hampshire.”

“Right to Work” is proponents’ chosen title for legislation barring contract clauses that require employees represented by a union to pay for the costs of their representation.  Under a Supreme Court ruling governing private sector workers, and under most state laws governing public sector workers, employees can’t be required to pay full union dues, portions of which are spent on other costs, like organizing new members. But “Right to Work” laws mean employees can’t be required to pay for narrowly-defined union representation costs either. Thus such laws are a popular tactic for defunding and discouraging unions.

New Hampshire’s Republican Speaker William O’Brien has identified “Right to Work” as a priority since Republicans retook the State House in 2010.  O’Brien oversaw passage of such a bill through the House in April of last year, and Lynch vetoed it the following month.  O’Brien spent the next six months attempting to shore up the two-thirds support required in each chamber to override the veto, but came up short in a November vote.  Hours before the vote, Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman both testified in the State House in favor of “Right to Work.”

This time, O’Brien is attempting a narrower bill.  The version passed by the House last week only applies to state workers.  O’Brien may hope to exploit resentment against government unions, or reduce the motivation of private sector unions to take part in pushback.  MacKenzie says that won’t work.  Reached yesterday following a legislative planning session with affiliate unions, MacKenzie said “Most of the leaders, if not all of them, understand that really what this is about is an attack on workers in general in New Hampshire.”  The organization Granite State Progress has identified several sentences the version pushed in New Hampshire last year that match model legislation from the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Standard “Right to Work” laws don’t impact unions’ legal responsibility to provide “fair representation” to all members of the bargaining unit (if a union refused to arbitrate a worker’s grievance because the worker was not paying dues, the worker could file a charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board).  But the current bill would require workers who choose not to pay fees to sign a notarized statement that relinquishes union benefits.  MacKenzie says it’s unclear how such language would square with existing law, and it would guarantee legal challenges.

Republicans have an even larger majority in the State Senate (19 to 5) than in the House (294 to 103).  If this bill is also passed by the Senate and vetoed by the Governor, its fate will likely rest on whether opponents in the House can deny supporters a two-thirds majority.  Forty-one of the 294 House Republicans voted against the November veto override; with twelve of their votes, the next one could pass.  “There’s going to be tremendous pressure on these people to flip over” and support “Right to Work” on a veto override, says MacKenzie.  But he adds, “I don’t think that the Speaker is as popular now as he might have been at one point.  And that’s a polite way to say it.”

One of those forty-one, Republican state representative Susan Emerson, told public radio, “I was told I would be put back on Health and Human Service, the committee I was kicked off, if I changed my vote.  I was told that I would be redistrict[ed] if I didn’t change my vote on Right-to-Work.” Echoing media reports, State Representative Patten wrote in a letter to the Concord Monitor that his colleague, Republican Gary Hopper, had told him that he resigned his post as Chairman of the Fish and Game Committee because "any Republican committee chairmen who didn't support the speaker on the recent right-to-work bill would be asked to step down."

“It’s a myth that Right to Work stops organizing,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell's ILR School.  “But it does hurt unions.” Once “Right to Work” creates an option to pay nothing for union representation, Bronfenbrenner says managers often employ many of the same illegal tactics they’d use during an organizing campaign – threats, bribes, interrogations – to convince workers to choose that option. Once the number of dues-payers drops to a minority, a public- or private-sector employer has a pretext to force a new election or announce it’s withdrawing union recognition.

While international unions “will still send organizers to the state” to grow the union, Bronfenbrenner says “the locals will lose bargaining power.” She says ending automatic deductions for fees and PAC contributions makes it difficult to bargain effectively or wield political clout, “unless the union is really good at organizing.”

State House Republicans have introduced several other anti-union bills, including measures to restrict public employees’ collective bargaining. MacKenzie expects the House to take those up late next week.

At an event at a Radisson hotel in Nashua yesterday morning, Romney reiterated his call for New Hampshire to adopt “Right to Work,” and his charge that President Obama is appointing “union stooges” to the National Labor Relations Board.

Dawn Roy, a municipal employee in Nashua’s fire department and a Chief Steward in UAW Local 2232, attended the event with other UAW activists.  She says she took his words personally.  “What really disgusts me in this whole presidential campaign,” says Roy, “is Governor Romney coming into my state, giving these speeches to our states that the way to go is Right to Work. He’s calling us a stooge.  I’m not a stooge…I am a  person that took pride in taking a municipal job, because you know what, they’re not high-paying jobs, I’m not going to get rich.  But I wanted to give back to the community I live in.  And I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: "jeidelson" at "gmail" dot com.

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