Senate Committee backs Right-to-Work bill in 3-2 vote after heated testimony
CONCORD — Mark Hounsell was a young state senator in 1985 when he sponsored the first attempt to pass Right-to-Work legislation, which prohibits labor unions from collecting any form of dues or payment from non-members.
Soon after that, he had a change of heart.
“Since that time, I’ve been trying to make amends by coming here every time this comes up,” he told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, as it opened a public hearing on the latest iteration of the legislation before an audience of more than 400 people packed into Representatives Hall, spilling out into the hallway and filling the balcony.
“This is my 16th time to say to you, ‘This is not a good bill.’”
Hounsell drew thunderous applause and foot-stomping support from the many union members in the hall sporting bright red T-shirts with the slogan, “Right to Work is Wrong for N.H.” They clearly outnumbered Right-to-Work supporters and on several occasions challenged the ability of Sen. Dan Innis, chairing his first hearing as a newly elected senator, to maintain order in the chamber.
That didn’t stop business owners and representatives of New Hampshire businesses from rising in support of the measure, sometimes amid catcalls from the audience.
After hearing more than four hours of testimony the committee voted 3-2 along party lines to pass the bill on to the full Senate with a recommendation “ought to pass.”
The heated rhetoric of the session included the vice president of the National Right to Work Committee describing someone being hijacked in a taxi and saying, “forced unionism makes no more sense,” triggering a chorus of boos.
Alone in the Northeast
If passed, the measure would make New Hampshire the only state in the Northeast that forbids unions from collecting any fee from unwilling employees, even the so-called “agency fee” now allowed in New Hampshire.
Employees who don’t want to pay full union dues and become union members can still be required to pay the agency fee, which is calculated to cover only the cost of union negotiations that benefit everyone in the bargaining unit, including non-members.
SB 11 would eliminate the agency fee requirement and would make it illegal for any company to withhold union payments of any sort from an employee’s paycheck unless the employee authorizes the deduction in writing, with the right to revoke the deduction at any time by giving a 30-day notice.
The bill has historically been described as a union-busting effort by opponents, and a matter of individual freedom by proponents. Those themes persisted on Tuesday.
Many proponents, including prime sponsor Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, said they were and continue to be dues-paying union members, but feel it should be a matter of personal choice.
“I am a 50-year dues-paying member. Even in retirement I still pay dues to my union,” said Reagan. “I firmly believe that everyone should be in some kind of an organization if you want your voice to be heard, but I don’t believe that you should be required to pay for it as a condition of employment.”
Tom Sullivan, vice president for operations at firearms manufacturer Sturm Ruger, said his company, which employs 1,200 in Newport, would only expand in a Right-to-Work state.
“We are by no means alone,” he said. “From what I understand, about 75 percent of companies consider Right to Work as an important or very important factor in their decision (to expand). If New Hampshire wants to be a serious contender for new jobs, passing this bill will move one step closer to that goal.”
Others testified that high energy prices and lack of a skilled workforce are impeding business expansion, not the lack of a Right-to-Work law.
Worker shortage cited
Larry Preston, who owns a franchise appliance repair company with nine employees in Pembroke, said Right-to-Work legislation would hurt business growth by discouraging workers from coming to the state and depressing the wages of those who are already here.
“What this state needs are more workers, not more businesses,” he said. “With the unemployment rate at 2.7 percent, many of us are struggling to find workers. Let me be honest; this bill is designed to kill unions and hurt workers. It encourages workers to leave the state instead of bringing them in.”
Last week, Kentucky joined 26 other states, mostly in the south and Midwest, that have passed Right-to-Work legislation.
“Right now in manufacturing the preponderance of growth is in Right-to-Work states, which puts New Hampshire at a severe disadvantage,” said Val Zanchuck, president of Graphicast in Jaffrey and president of the N.H. Business and Industry Association, which supports the measure.
“High power costs make New Hampshire an (expensive) place to be,” he said. “If we were a Right-to-Work state, we would be the only one in the region, which would give us a distinct marketing advantage.”
Right-to-Work was narrowly approved by the House on a 149-146 vote in 2015, but failed when the Senate deadlocked 12-12 on the measure.
Lawmakers in both chambers passed a Right-to-Work bill during the 2011 session, but the House failed to override a veto by then-Gov. John Lynch.
If the measure passes both chambers this year, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has promised to sign it.