CONCORD, N.H.—The New Hampshire Senate narrowly voted Feb. 11, to pass a bill that would make it the first state in the Northeast to outlaw the union shop.
The New Hampshire Right to Work Act, approved by a 13-11 margin, would void all union-shop contracts in the state, making it a misdemeanor for collective-bargaining agreements to require employees to join a labor union or pay fees to one. It would also bar employers from deducting union dues or fees from paychecks without the written consent of the worker.
The vote was along party lines, except for Sen. Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry) who voted no.
“There is no call for it in New Hampshire,” state AFL-CIO President Glenn Brackett told LaborPress before the vote. “It’s all special-interest money.”
At the Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing on the bill Jan. 26, he added, 75 witnesses testified against it, and only four in favor. Of those four, only two were local: the representatives from the Business and Industry Association (the state’s chamber of commerce) and the state affiliate of the National Right to Work Committee. The other two were from NRTW’s national office and Americans for Prosperity.
Workers in states with union-shop bans on average make $8,500 a year less than they do in New Hampshire, the state AFL-CIO says, and their risk of dying on the job is more than three times as high.
“They’re trying to weaken the unions’ bargaining position,” says Jeremy Allen, an industrial painting instructor and Iraq war veteran from Epping, in the state’s southeast.
Sen. John Reagan (R-Deerfield), the bill’s lead sponsor, contends that states with “right-to-work protection attract manufacturers with skilled well-paying jobs,” and many union members support the idea.
“I have been a labor union member since I was 15 years old. I have contributed to the salaries and bonuses of many union bosses. There has been little benefit to me for paying union dues for almost 50 years. I still pay dues as a retiree, but that is my choice for showing solidarity with brothers I worked with for nearly 30 years,” Reagan, a retired International Association of Fire Fighters member, wrote in an email to LaborPress. “I see unions being the captives of the socialist Democrat Party. The union dues support the Democrat candidates who then support the unions but give no choice to the selection of the candidates.”
The political landscape
Similar measures have been introduced annually in the General Court, the state’s legislature, for almost 40 years. One passed both houses in 2011, but was vetoed by the governor. In 2017, a bill passed the Senate, but the House defeated it by 200-177, with more than 30 Republicans voting no.
This year might be different. Republicans recaptured both houses of the General Court last November, and Gov. Chris Sununu is a strong supporter of banning the union shop. A victory against “forced unionism” in New Hampshire would give anti-union forces a beachhead in New England and the Northeast, much as Indiana enacting its law in 2012 paved the way for Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Kentucky to follow over the next five years.
“It’s very serious,” says Brackett. “The new Republicans don’t understand the issue.”
Some GOP legislators are union members, and in the past, Brackett says, labor advocates have been able to reach traditional frugal-conservative and libertarian-leaning Republicans by arguing that the state has no business interfering with contracts fairly agreed upon by two private parties. But now, “some are just ideologically driven.”
“I think it has a chance to be defeated,” says Rep. Doug Ley (D-Jaffrey), who is also president of the American Federation of Teachers New Hampshire. With Republicans holding a 212-186 majority in the House, a 14-vote swing would be enough.
One reason, he says is that House members are uniquely vulnerable to pressure from constituents: They represent districts with an average population of less than 3,500 people, by far the smallest of any state legislature.
But the COVID-19 virus might present a bigger obstacle to blocking the bill, Ley says. There is a group of 70 to 80 Republicans who refuse to wear masks, and elderly representatives with health conditions might not want to take the risk of showing up for an in-person session. In December, more than a quarter of the members didn’t show up for their swearing-in ceremony after several Republicans tested positive, including newly elected Speaker Richard Hinch. Hinch died a week later.
The Republicans have also refused to allow the House to meet remotely, he adds, although both houses hold committee meetings remotely, and the state Supreme Court has ruled that legitimate.
“It works in committee,” he says. “They just don’t want to allow it for the full legislature.”
Getting enough votes to defeat the bill, Ley continues, won’t be an easy task, “but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
If it were passed, the bill would not affect teachers directly, as the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 decision outlawed the union shop for public-sector workers. The AFT is campaigning against it out of solidarity with other unions, says Ley, but public-school teachers are facing a bigger legislative threat: HB 20, a bill he says would create “the most extensive voucher system in the country.”
That measure, a priority of Gov. Sununu’s, would allow parents to put their child’s share of the state’s per-pupil public-school spending into “education freedom accounts” that could be used to pay for private, religious, or home schooling. It would bleed public-school funding in a state that has no income or sales tax, Ley says, and it would not require financial audits, academic assessments of students, or certified teachers.
Jeremy Allen says the phrase “right to work” grates on his sense of justice.
“It’s fraud. It really has nothing to do with whether anybody has the right to work,” he says. “That’s not what I fought for.”
Allen, a member of District Council 35 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, is active in New Hampshire Families for Freedom, a coalition of military veterans and union supporters. He served in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, parachuting into northern Iraq during the drive to Baghdad in 2003.
“Why can’t we be straightforward?” he asks. “When I teach my apprentices, I’m very straightforward. When I send guys out there trained, I know they’re going out there safe.”
“We already work very hard for what we have,” he continues. “This doesn’t give any job protection. It’s easier to fire a worker under ‘right to work’ than with a union.”