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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Capitol Watch: Labor remains issue for legislators

Last year’s fight over organized labor, which has divided lawmakers and union workers for months, proved only to be a prelude to this year’s continued battles, according to leaders on both sides.

Less than a year after Gov. John Lynch vetoed a controversial right-to-work bill, the state Legislature is weighing a similar proposal, along with a series of other bills that have intensified the ongoing labor battle around the state.

Sponsors of the new right-to-work bill and other legislative leaders contend that the proposals, several of which are on their way to the state Senate for consideration, would encourage job growth, drawing employers from across state lines, and they would save taxpayers money by allowing employers to bypass unions and negotiate directly with workers.

“I’m anti-union. But it’s the system that is broken,” said state Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, who sponsored two union bills. “We can have good employees not getting paid because (the union) can’t come to an agreement.”

But firefighters, teachers and other public workers around the state disagree, arguing these bills would only lead to lower salaries and benefits, discouraging workers – both current and future – from pursuing public service jobs.

The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to approve the right-to-work bill, HB 1677, which would prohibit employees from being forced to join unions or pay union dues, and they approved several other union bills, as well.

But the votes failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override another gubernatorial veto.

“When you’re dealing with a bottom-line-type mentality, it’s easy to balance public safety with the cut of a pen rather than having the employees involved in the bargaining process,” said Jim Kirk, a Nashua firefighter who’s president of the department union.

“You could say initially this was a freedom issue, but (it’s) not about freedom at all,” said Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. “They’re really at the core about eliminating organized labor.”

‘New world’

Across New Hampshire, nearly 70,000 employees, about 11 percent of the state’s workforce, belong to unions, according to state estimates. Union supporters say the labor groups protect competitive salaries and employment benefits for their members.

“You see everything that’s happened since (collective bargaining started). It’s a competitive field now,” said David Lang, president of the New Hampshire Fire Fighters Association, the statewide union.

But opponents argue the state’s current labor laws, which allow unions exclusive negotiating rights, only cost taxpayers, preserving antiquated and costly benefits.

“The reality of our world right now is that approximately 80 percent of the cost of running a municipality … is in labor costs,” said state Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, the House Majority Whip who sits on the House Labor Committee.

“There needs to be some legislative changes to deal with the new world that we’re living in,” he said.

Last year, Lynch, a Democrat, brought a stop to the Legislature’s proposed changes when he vetoed the right-to-work bill. In November, the House failed to gather the votes needed to override the veto.

But less than two months later, lawmakers returned to session in January, filing a new right-to-work bill along with nearly a dozen others that proposed further reforms to the state’s labor laws.

One bill proposed to prohibit automatic payroll deductions of union dues, while another proposed to restrict collective bargaining rights entirely.

These bills drew strong opposition from state unions, among other workers, and legislators then re-structured the proposals in committee, amending them to their current forms.

As it stands now, HB 1206 would force employers and workers to split increases to health insurance costs 50-50 if union contracts expire, and HB 1645 would allow employers to call for a vote to decertify unions if membership falls below 50 percent of the workforce.

“If someone doesn’t want to be in the union anymore, it gives them this other vehicle, which is to go to the employer,” said Lambert, who sponsored the decertification bill, among other proposals.

But others disagree, saying disarming unions would leave contracts more to the will of employers and that it could create different groups of employees competing for pay.

“You might therefore begin to get favoritism of one group over another group where you begin to have individuals or groups treated differently,” said Robert Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers’ Union, which represents about 1,500 teachers and school staff.

“It’s like going back to the old days, before there were any unions. The practice was paying elementary school teachers less of a wage than high school teachers. We don’t want to be going back to that.”

Peering ahead

Looking backward could also have severe consequences moving forward, too, union leaders said.

Changes implemented to the state Retirement System last year have already led dozens of public employees around the state to retire or consider retirement, union organizers said.

There are as many as 10 firefighters considering retiring from the Merrimack Fire Department, according to union President Shawn Brechtel. And, with the threat of lower wages and benefits under the legislation, more are likely to think of joining the private sector.

“If your benefit package is going to disappear and your competitive salary is going to disappear, there may not be as much loyalty,” Brechtel said.

Further, it may become more difficult over time to draw future employees into public service, others said – leaving police, teaching and firefighting jobs, among others, to lesser qualified candidates to fill the positions.

“Right now, we have guys out there with four-year degrees in fire sciences, which provides the best service to the community,” said Lang, of the state firefighters union. “It may not always be like that.”

Others disagree, saying union status rarely affects employment decisions.

“I’ve hired teachers from outside the state of New Hampshire, and the right to work and joining unions has never been issues in a hiring situation,” said Elaine Cutler, Superintendent of the Litchfield School District.

“Certainly, most people respect the surroundings and the working conditions of wherever they choose to live. I have not had that to be any kind of an issue.”

Union leaders believe they’ve won the battle over right to work for this year. Lynch has promised to veto any right-to-work legislation, said spokesman Colin Manning, and the state Senate may focus its attention elsewhere, said Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, who co-sponsored the right-to-work bill.

“There are a lot of other education, safety and other bills that we might focus on,” he said.

Still, the other bills remain up for consideration. Having passed the House, both the 50-50 health care split and the decertification bill are set to move on to the Senate in the coming weeks.

“I’m hoping those have a better chance” of passing, said Jasper, the House Majority Whip. “They make a lot of sense.”

And, with Lynch set to give up his post at the end of the year, supporters on both sides of the argument are preparing for another round next year.

“It’s an import discussion,” said Shawn Murray, fire chief in Hudsonand the former president of the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs.

“It certainly affects the morale down at the local level. Those employees are looking for that security blanket and that security in collective bargaining agreements, but on the flip side, the problem is the towns and cities are running out of options because of rising health care costs. … It’s almost like a tug of war.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or