JAFFREY, N.H. — As fellow Democrats reveled in Donald Trump’s presidential defeat, New Hampshire State Rep. Doug Ley (also president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire) watched the election results with unease. Republicans captured both chambers of the General Court of New Hampshire, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu handily won a third term.
In New Hampshire, a unified right-wing government is on a collision course with organized labor. And, aided by poor pandemic safety protocols (deterring Democratic officials from the State House), the GOP has its best chance in a generation to remake the Granite State.
Right-wing interest groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity have long pushed for conservative reforms such as so-called education savings accounts, which critics say will divert public funds toward private and religious education. But their true prize — and the greatest source of consternation for unions like the American Federation of Teachers — is a Senate bill known as SB 61.
SB 61 would make New Hampshire the 28th right-to-work state in the country, creating what Ley calls an “entering wedge into the Northeast.”
Right-to-work laws, which originated in the Jim Crow South, prohibit unions from negotiating contracts that require dues from non-union members for the benefits provided by the union — in practice choking off union funding. Over the past decade, the laws have expanded into labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin. New Hampshire has debated becoming a right-to-work state since former President Reagan took office, but more labor-friendly Republican state officials have resisted.
Legislators like Democratic State Rep. Brian Sullivan say there is now a new extremism in the Republican caucus. The Free State Project—“an effort to basically turn [New Hampshire] into a libertarian island” — is part of a larger ideological shift that is, he says, “definitely growing.”
Campaign spending has helped shape the New Hampshire legislature, too. A report in the New Hampshire Union Leader finds political action committees contributed nearly $100,000 to Republican state Senate candidates by exploiting a loophole that allows special interests to make multiple contributions. In this case, every contribution was traced to a single advocacy group, the New England Citizens for Right to Work, and to its out-of-state donors.
Glenn Brackett, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, says legislators who accepted “out-of-state money” should have to answer to the public. “[It was] an abdication of their sworn constitutional duties to the citizens of New Hampshire and their constituents,” Brackett explains. “Right to work is not an organic program. … It’s being driven completely by out-of-state special interests, and [people] are accepting basically campaign contributions for their votes.”
New Hampshire also has a requirement for legislators to attend sessions in person, despite the risks posed by Covid-19. That requirement could pave the way for right to work this year, despite past defeats. “We have a lot of Democrats that are not going to the general sessions because of concerns about Covid,” according to Democratic State Rep. Dan Toomey. “If everything were normal, I wouldn’t be worried about [right to work] at all.”
House Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Renny Cushing (who has stage four cancer), sued Republican Speaker of the House Sherman Packard over the requirement, alleging Packard violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to make remote accommodations for legislators with serious health risks. But a district court dismissed the suit February 22.
Toomey’s fears appear to be warranted. Other controversial bills have already advanced despite several state lawmakers being unable to cast votes, including anti-choice legislation passed two days after the district court’s ruling. According to the Union Leader, House Republicans also reversed the previous Democratic majority’s positions on education aid, gun control and redistricting that same week. The New Hampshire AFL-CIO has since distributed personal protective equipment in an effort to address the safety concerns of legislators from both parties.
Montana’s legislature voted down right-to-work legislation March 2, and a similar bill has been reintroduced in the Missouri state legislature, but New Hampshire would become the first right-to-work state in the Northeast — with potentially far-reaching consequences.
“When states like Wisconsin and Michigan went down to right to work, it was a message to the entire country that states that have a long labor tradition can be vulnerable to anti-labor legislation,” Sullivan says. “Wisconsin had the first public-sector bargaining law, and now they don’t have one.”
Although hopeful that unions and legislative allies can stop right to work and other conservative priorities, Ley is preparing for a fight.
“Labor unions lead the way,” Ley says. “The gains that we’re able to make often get transferred to and aid those who are not members of our unions. [This is] a corporate assault on working families and working people across the United States.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that SB 61 would make New Hampshire the 29th, rather than 28th, right-to-work state in the country. We originally included Missouri in our count, but Missouri’s right-to-work bill was blocked in 2018.