Labor Unions Appear Set For More State-Level Defeats In 2017

Jan 30, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 4:39 pm

One consequence of Republican gains in the 2016 elections is playing out at the state level where organized labor appears likely to face big setbacks in the coming months.

Within days of convening this month, Kentucky lawmakers passed "right-to-work" legislation that prohibit labor unions from forcing non-union members to pay fees to the union.

It's the 27th state with such laws. State legislatures in Missouri and New Hampshire are also actively debating similar bills that could become law by February.

If all three states succeed in enacting "right-to-work" bills, it would be the most states rolling back union power in one year since 1947, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Success in New Hampshire would also make it the first state in the Northeast with a "right-to-work" law.

The bills are a further reflection of organized labor's falling clout. Just 10.7 percent of American workers belonged to a labor union in 2016, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, when the agency began tracking the data.

Over time, the legislation is also likely to further reduce the state-level clout of Democrats, who rely on union money and volunteers during election years.

'Personal Freedom'

Last fall, Republicans held onto the New Hampshire statehouse and their candidate, Chris Sununu, was elected governor. After that, GOP lawmakers quickly sprang into action. They passed a "right-to-work" bill in the state Senate this month with just one vote to spare, despite boisterous opposition from union members. The legislation now heads to the House, where Republicans hold a 50-seat majority.

"This is the Live Free or Die State. So we are about personal freedom, we are about personal liberty," said state Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Republican. "What makes a stronger statement than reaffirming the fact that you are not being compelled to have to pay into a union if you don't want to pay into it?"

In Missouri, enactment of the policy became inevitable after Republican Eric Greitens captured the governorship last year. The political newcomer made signing "right-to-work" a major priority.

"We miss jobs every year and we miss businesses every year because of not being right-to-work," said state Rep. Holly Rehder, the Republican who sponsored the bill in the Missouri House.

It's an argument echoed in New Hampshire, where business executives have said they plan to give the state another look if it passes "right-to-work."

"This law would provide a solid foundation for New Hampshire to begin building a reputation as a state that welcomes companies, along with the jobs, economic stability and growth that come with them," said Tom Sullivan, an executive at firearms maker Sturm, Ruger and Co. during a recent hearing.

'Free riders'

Still, just one-third of New Hampshire's approximately 62,000 union members work in the private sector with the other two-thirds belonging to public-sector unions (think teachers, government employees, public safety workers). With 9.4 percent of the workforce belonging to a labor union, New Hampshire is in the middle of the pack for union membership among U.S. states.

Opponents argue the laws create what's called a "free-riding" problem where non-union members reap the benefits of collective bargaining, such as higher wages and better benefits, without paying for it.

"It's just like you and I going out one night for a couple of beers. I choose the bar, we go out. We both have a couple of drinks," said Bobby Jones, which AFSCME Local 3657, a government worker union, "And then when the bill comes out, I pull out my wallet, and you don't reach for yours."

While Republicans and Democrats spar over the economic impact of the bill on wages and employment levels, its most visible impact may be during election season. Unions spent millions to successfully elect former governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, to the U.S. Senate even as they fell short in the gubernatorial race.

"Some people do view it as Republican payback against the role of unions in elections," said Dean Spiliotes, a political scientist at Southern New Hampshire University. "If you are reducing the level of funding through cutting their dues, that's going to have political impacts."

With reporting from Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio.

Copyright 2017 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Twenty-seventeen is shaping up to be another tough year for organized labor. The year started with Republican lawmakers in Kentucky passing so-called right-to-work laws that affect how labor unions collect dues. That made Kentucky the 27th state with right-to-work laws. Missouri and New Hampshire could be next in line. Todd Bookman of New Hampshire Public Radio reports that if the bill passes in his state, it will be the first in the northeast to rollback union rights.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Union leaders have successfully fended off right-to-work bills in New Hampshire for decades, so it wasn't a surprise when hundreds of rank-and-file members, many in red T-shirts, filled the statehouse during a recent public hearing. State Senator Dan Innis held the gavel, but at times struggled to handle the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN INNIS: Let me first ask those in attendance if we could please refrain from applause and other activities so we can continue to move this forward...

(BOOING)

INNIS: ...Including booing - I would greatly appreciate it, as would your fellow folks who are here today. So please...

BOOKMAN: While opponents were fired up, their preferred candidates didn't fare as well during the November elections. Republicans now control the New Hampshire House, Senate and governor's office, and they've made passage of right-to-work a priority. Broadly speaking, these laws prohibit unions from forcing non-union members to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. For State Senator Andy Sanborn, that policy is a natural fit for New Hampshire, where about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized.

ANDY SANBORN: This is the Live Free or Die state, so we're about personal freedom. We're about personal liberty. And what makes a stronger statement than reaffirming the fact that you're not being compelled to have to pay into a union if you don't want to pay into it?

BOOKMAN: But for opponents, the laws create what's called a freeriding problem. Bobby Jones is with AFSCME Local 3657, which represents public safety and corrections workers. He says employees who don't chip into the union still get the advantages of collective bargaining, like higher wages and benefits.

BOBBY JONES: So it's just like you and I want to go out one night for a couple of beers. I choose the bar. We go out. We both have a couple of drinks. We're talking about whatever the topic is - the Patriots going to the Super Bowl. You know, when the bill comes out, I pull out my wallet, and you don't reach for yours.

BOOKMAN: Both sides of this debate toss around competing statistics. Backers say it will draw jobs and investment to New Hampshire, while opponents call it right-to-work-for-less and say that workers will lose bargaining power and see their wages erode. But in the end, it's become less of an economic argument and more of a purely partisan fight - one aimed at weakening unions, which generally back Democratic candidates with campaign cash and volunteers.

DEAN SPILIOTES: Some people do view it as kind of Republican payback against the role of unions in elections.

BOOKMAN: Dean Spiliotes is a political analyst with Southern New Hampshire University. He says right-to-work laws are a central part of the conservative platform, even if it's not an issue that gets lots of attention from most voters.

SPILIOTES: From time to time, you have these issues that kind of transcend the impact that they may have on an individual state and become kind of a litmus test for where you are ideologically.

BOOKMAN: After years of trying, New Hampshire Republicans are turning that ideology into action. The bill cleared the state Senate by a single vote and now heads to the House, where the GOP holds a 50-seat majority. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.