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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Senate panel all business on right-to-work

CONCORD – Roberta Blackler is a 30-year state employee currently with the state Liquor Commission but has never been a union member.

But she urged a state Senate committee Wednesday to reject a right-to-work law that would bar private and public management and labor from forcing employees to join a union or contribute to the cost of collective bargaining.

“I was given the choice. I did not have to be a union member to get my job and I was not forced to join after I was hired. I oppose this piece of legislation for that reason,” Blackler told the Senate Commerce Committee.

“While it is my choice on whether to be a union member, I think it is wrong for the Legislature to suggest that individuals like me shouldn’t at least pay our fair share.”

Jim Roche, president of the Business & Industry Association, said companies eying New Hampshire would welcome this becoming the 24th state to embrace right-to-work.

“We think it is pro-business and pro-economic development,” Roche began. “For some companies, it is at the top of the list. For most companies, I believe it is on the radar.”

The Senate panel agreed with the BIA voting 3-1 to endorse it (HB 1677).

The committee did strike a controversial provision from the House-passed version that would have allowed non-union members to negotiate their own contracts.

The bill’s prime author, Rep. Will Smith, R-New Castle, made a partisan appeal to the Senate where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 19-5.

“This is a bill all Republicans should support. It is a freedom for the individual bill,” he said.

Sen. Matt Houde, D-Meriden, admonished Smith for his party-laced comments. For the same reason, Houde gave a brief tongue-lashing when Rep. Tim Horrigan, D-Durham, aimed his opposition of the bill at the state GOP.

“It’s rare we hear a party reference so often in a Senate committee hearing,” Houde said to Smith. “You are introducing a bill that affects Republicans and Democrats; both serve in unions as far as I know.”

Smith noted while New Hampshire has the fourth-lowest unemployment in the country, the three states ahead of New Hampshire are all right-to-work states.

And he claimed studies showed that over the past decade, wages in right-to-work states have gone up 11 percent while only 4 percent in New Hampshire and less than 1 percent in all states without the anti-union law.

“This bill is good for employers and the employees. For employees, it gives them leverage against the labor unions to make sure they are meeting the needs of all workers,” Smith said. “This is a jobs bill.”

State AFL-CIO President Mark McKenzie reported that a union-hired economist confirmed the union’s branding of the bill as the “Right to Work For Less” legislation.

“Wages will drop by $1,500 in New Hampshire if we adopt right-to-work,” McKenzie said. “That’s not political argument by me; it’s economic fact.”

Rep. Gary Daniels, R-Milford, chairs the House panel that two years in a row has embraced right-to-work and authored the move to eliminate free riders on a union contract.

“We took an oath to uphold the right of our citizens to freely associate. That is embodied in this bill,” Daniels said.

Dexter Arnold of Nashua, a member of the United Auto Workers, said the Daniels gambit would open a legal can of worms.

“It is unnecessary. We already have an answer to free rides; it’s called fair share,” Arnold said.

The Senate committee hearing is the sequel to this political drama that became a dominant fight in 2011 between Gov. John Lynch and House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.

O’Brien declared this cause to be one of the biggest incentives for the Republican-dominated Legislature to promote job growth should New Hampshire become the only right-to-work state in the Northeast.

Lynch said the bill would dismantle the right of labor and management to negotiate either a mandate that employees become union members or pay so-called “fair share” fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

As governor, Lynch negotiated this benefit for state workers who five years ago reached the 60 percent threshold that now deducts “fair share” fees from the paychecks of all other workers.

O’Brien spent the summer and early fall last year trying to mobilize support and overcome Lynch’s veto.

The House last November voted 240-139 to override Lynch’s veto, which was 13 votes short of reaching the mandatory two-thirds majority benchmark.

Last month, the House again approved the 2012 edition of this issue (HB 1677), 198-139 as O’Brien clearly failed to win over any new converts.

Jay Ward, political director for the State Employees Association of New Hampshire, said there were 15 anti-right-to-work votes who were absent for the latest House vote.

The New England Right to Work Committee and the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, both pro-private sector groups, have vowed to mount campaigns against right-to-work opponents, particularly GOP legislators who defied their leadership.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).