January 30. 2013 9:54PM

'Right to Work' bill back on tap in Legislature

State House Bureau

CONCORD - Passing right-to-work legislation will help spur the state's economy and set the state apart in the Northeast, supporters of the bill said at a hearing Tuesday.

But opponents said House Bill 322 is an attack on organized labor that will drive down wages and destroy middle-class families in New Hampshire.

Like the bill, now dubbed the Franklin Partin right-to-work act, the arguments in support and in opposition have changed little over the past two years.

Supporters touted the economic benefits such a law would spur, saying no person should be forced to pay dues for something they disagree with or don't believe in. They said it was not a union issue, but a freedom issue.

But opponents argue the bill will not spur the economy but drive down wages and benefits for all state workers. They say right-to-work is a state intrusion into negotiations between organized labor and employers.

Former House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, the prime sponsor of the bill, pushed right-to-work legislation the last two sessions, only to have former Democratic Gov. John Lynch veto the bill and the House fail to override it in 2011. Last year, the Senate was not willing to engage in the debate, saying the outcome would be the same.

Federal law already prohibits forcing anyone to join a union, although several members of the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee said they were inundated with emails saying it would end forced unionization.

The bill would prohibit employers and labor organizations from including fees for non-union members in collective bargaining agreements. Unions collect the fees to pay for the cost of negotiating and maintaining the collective bargaining agreement from non-union members.

O'Brien told the House committee that the bill would restore job creation in New Hampshire and begin to bring some of the state's young people back home.

"I understand in New Hampshire Right-to-Work takes on almost religious overtones," O'Brien said, "where the facts don't make a difference, it's the emotion."

He countered the often-used arguments that right-to-work lowers wages, saying wages are low because the new jobs are at the introductory level, but grow over time.

"New Hampshire will be left behind economically," O'Brien said, "or we can eventually adopt and reap the benefits of being a right-to-work state."

Another HB 322 sponsor, Rep. John Cebrowski, R-Bedford, said passing the bill will bring the state additional revenue without raising taxes as manufacturing companies move here. The business climate is stagnant as business taxes have hovered around the $520 million level for the past few years, he said.

The additional money could be used to increase state aid to the university system, for the Children in Need of Services program, for the developmentally disabled and for the Department of Safety, all with legitimate needs, he noted.

Right-to-work will help differentiate New Hampshire from other states, Cebrowski said, adding that it will strengthen the New Hampshire advantage.

But opponents of the bill had a sharply different view.

NH AFL-CIO president Mark MacKenzie said forced union membership is prohibited both in New Hampshire and the rest of the country and is not what the bill is about.

The bill deals with provisions in collective bargaining agreements approved by both employers and unions, he said. "This would say to business you can't negotiate what you think is something in your best interest," MacKenzie said.

Fees to cover the cost of negotiations and contract maintenance are not something imposed by the union, he said, but voted on by both management and labor. The fees promote peace in the workplace, he said.

"I think we are all on the same page that we need to promote economic development in the State of New Hampshire. We have an out-migration of workers," MacKenzie said. "If I thought right-to-work was the end all and the economy would explode, I'd probably have a different opinion on this, but that has never happened. This is not a silver bullet."

Former Representative and current state Democratic State Chairman Raymond Buckley of Manchester noted in the 18 years he served in the House, no right-to-work legislation ever passed, although it passed the House twice in the last two years.

"Right-to-work is driven by radical ideology," he said. "There is no reason to implement it in this state."

Former Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, noted he ran in 2010 saying he would support right-to-work legislation but when he learned union members were a small percentage of the state's workforce, he did not see a problem and voted against the legislation.

"I lost my election because of this issue," Welch said. "All the emails I got about the union thugs, it turns out the thugs are not in the unions."

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.