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Right-to-Work Showdown

Should New Hampshire be pro-choice when it comes to unions?

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By FRED BARNES
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Nashua, New Hampshire

Photo of New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien

New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien

Newscom

Republicans won a smashing victory in New Hampshire in the 2010 elections, capturing the state senate and house by staggering margins. Yet they’ve been unable to enact one of House speaker Bill O’Brien’s cherished initiatives, a right-to-work law allowing workers to reject union membership.

It’s an issue of enormous national significance. Twenty-two states have right-to-work laws, most of them in the South and West. If New Hampshire passes such a law, it will be the first state in the Northeast to do so. And this, O’Brien says, would “send a signal to the rest of the country.”

Indeed, New Hampshire would be a beacon in the economically troubled Northeast. When Texas governor Rick Perry was interviewed on a radio show in Nashua recently, he said New Hampshire could post an “open for business” sign, since it is already the only state besides Alaska with neither an income tax nor a sales tax. That would give the state a trifecta of incentives for private investment, economic growth, and job creation, says Pete Silva, the Republican whip in the state house.

New Hampshire’s rate of unemployment, 5.2 percent, is remarkably low. But census figures show that people in the 25 to 34 age group are leaving the state. “We’re not producing jobs for our young people,” says O’Brien. He believes right-to-work would keep more of them home.

Given the Republican landslide, passage appeared likely when the legislature convened in January. Republicans gained an eye-popping 124 seats in the House, giving them a 298-102 advantage. In the Senate, they picked up 9 seats for a 19-5 edge.

The right-to-work bill sailed through the House (221-131) and Senate (16-8). Then two roadblocks emerged, one expected, the other a surprise.

Governor John Lynch, a Democratic survivor of the 2010 massacre, had vowed to veto right-to-work, and he kept his promise. The surprise was the emergence of 35 Republican dissidents in the House, nearly all of them active or retired union members who are prepared to vote to sustain Lynch’s veto.

O’Brien and his allies must turn a half-dozen of them, a difficult task. The dissenters are dug in. Few, if any, have been persuaded to change their vote. And last week, another Republican opponent, a firefighter, was elected in a special election. In that race, only the libertarian candidate supported right-to-work. Democrats won’t provide any help either. They voted unanimously against the bill.

No state has enacted a right-to-work statute since Oklahoma passed a referendum, 54-46 percent, in 2001. And the issue has a poor track record in New Hampshire. It’s been taken up repeatedly in the legislature since the 1980s, passing the House on occasion but never the Senate until this year.

The issue was barely mentioned in last year’s campaign, but when Republicans announced their legislative agenda for 2011, it got top billing. “For some of us, it’s always been a philosophical priority,” O’Brien told me. “It’ll be great for our state’s economy, and it’s a liberty issue as well.”

In recent years, states with right-to-work laws have done well economically as new industries—notably foreign automakers who reject unions—have moved there. The laws outlaw union shops in which workers are compelled to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment. Right-to-work allows workers to opt out of union membership and any obligation to pay dues. The result: Right-to-work states are very tough to unionize.

Organized labor has been fighting against right-to-work since the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 permitted states to bar compulsory unionization. Union officials regard it as a life-or-death issue. Thus their campaigns against efforts to enact right-to-work laws are well financed, passionate, and often heavy-handed.

When the issue was debated in the New Hampshire House, O’Brien cleared the gallery of union firefighters who were shouting their disapproval. Now, union lobbyists have been joined by other liberal groups in a united front against O’Brien and Republicans. They keep close tabs on the legislators allied with them, especially on their whereabouts daily.

There’s a reason for this. New Hampshire has a part-time, volunteer legislature. Members are paid $100 a year. (As speaker, O’Brien gets $125.) On a good day when votes are taken, 350 House members will show up. The trick for O’Brien is to call a vote when the numbers look good for an override. 

“If you change a few minds and a few people don’t turn up, there’s a shot,” says John Kalb, a Dartmouth graduate from Brooklyn who’s the New Hampshire lobbyist for the National Right to Work Committee. “But two-thirds is a high bar to jump over.”

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