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Monday, March 7, 2011

GOP hoping to reform, not destroy, labor laws

Telegraph Editorial

It’s hard to blame the head of the AFL-CIO in New Hampshire for feeling a bit besieged these days.

Mark McKenzie, who’s worked on behalf of organized labor in the Granite State since 1975, told The Telegraph editorial board last month that he has never seen such antagonism toward unions in the Statehouse, particularly from Republican leaders.

He went so far as to claim that the Republican legislative agenda is part of a national effort to destroy organized labor.

It’s clear Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has that goal in mind. The unions representing his state employees have agreed to virtually all the contract concessions he has requested, yet he and his legislative majority push on with their efforts to ban or severely restrict collective bargaining by public sector employees in the Badger State.

Fortunately, New Hampshire’s legislative leaders say they have no interest in pursuing a Wisconsin- or Ohio-style “nuclear option.”

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, and Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, met with The Telegraph editorial board just days after McKenzie’s visit. O’Brien said Republicans in the state are not interested in following the Wisconsin model.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have labor-related legislative goals. One was repeal of the so-called “evergreen clause,” which guaranteed that public sector labor contracts would continue in effect even after they expired, unless a new agreement was reached. Put that one in the “done” column.

Next is “right-to-work” legislation that would prohibit agency fee clauses in union contracts. Contrary to GOP arguments, no one can be forced to join a union, and no one can be forced to pay union dues. But if labor and management agree in negotiations, they can require all employees who benefit from the terms of a contract to contribute an “agency fee” to help cover the union’s cost of negotiations.

Call them agency fees if you like, but in the eyes of some employees, they amount to forced payment to a union they may not support.

Repealing the state’s evergreen law and pursuing right-to-work legislation are certainly not union-friendly initiatives. They are clearly designed to strengthen the hand of employers in the collective bargaining process, at least in the public sector.

But they are not going to destroy unions or rob public sector employees of their right to organize and participate in a good-faith, collective bargaining process.

The rest of the Republican agenda for labor in New Hampshire is focused on much-needed reform of the state retirement system. The retirement age is too young, the portion of medical insurance paid by retirees is too low and guaranteed monthly pension amounts are unsustainable.

Most of the proposed changes would only affect new or recent hires, but one proposal would be more wide-reaching. Quoting from the GOP agenda, “Gone will be the days when a person can cash out at 125 percent of their salary” by spiking their earnings in the last three years through special duty pay and overtime.

Also gone would be the days when retirees could return to their previous jobs as consultants, or to other jobs in their field, while still collecting a full pension. The current Brookline police chief comes to mind.

“Gaming the system has helped contribute to the system’s current status,” according to the GOP document, “and we must make sure that employees don’t have those loopholes available to them.”

These may not be goals that appeal to the public sector unions, but they are not unreasonable. They are, in fact, essential to the long-term viability of the system.