Politics & Policy

Work Free or Die

Republicans in New England’s free-market bastion fight for the right to work.

With no income or sales tax — and a 5.2 percent unemployment rate — New Hampshire is “an island of common sense” in blizzard-blue New England, state representative D. J. Bettencourt tells National Review Online. As the Republican majority leader in the state house of representatives, Bettencourt, along with Speaker William O’Brien, hopes to fortify this bastion of liberty’s defenses by passing a right-to-work bill.

Although H.B. 474 passed the Republican-controlled house by a hefty margin of 225 to 140, Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, promised to veto it. Under the state constitution, the legislature can override the governor’s veto by passing a bill with a two-thirds majority in each house. Luckily, the GOP also controls the Senate, which approved the legislation by 16 to eight. To secure passage, therefore, Republicans need 14 more votes in the house — for a total of 239 — which they hope to cull from the 31 members who failed to vote last time. “We’re reaching out to members of the GOP caucus individually and making the case,” Bettencourt notes.

#ad#Among members’ concerns, Bettencourt says, is the contention that this is a “union-busting bill.” He makes two points in the bill’s defense: One, “the individual-freedom component,” is that “people who don’t want to join a union shouldn’t be forced to do so.” Two, New England is awash in government, and a right-to-work law would further distinguish New Hampshire from its left-leaning neighbors Vermont and Massachusetts. “To be a right-to-work state carries the potential to be a magnet for small businesses,” Bettencourt argues.

Turning Republicans’ free-market rhetoric against them, Governor Lynch retorts that the bill smacks of bureaucratic meddling in business decisions. “The governor has maintained for some time now [that] so-called right-to-work legislation has state government dictating to private businesses and their employees what should be included in a contract,” Lynch’s press secretary, Colin Manning, has said. Technically, the bill is written in such a way that it forbids private contracts from including provisions to mandate that employees join unions.

But Speaker O’Brien is having none of it. Labor relations are “such a heavily regulated activity that for the Democrats to point to one piece of legislation that promotes employee freedom is really disingenuous,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is make sure government doesn’t establish a mandatory regime of employee unionization.”

By way of an example, he cites Franklin A. Partin Jr., for whom the bill is named. “He was working for the Air Force satellite-tracking station in New Boston as a civilian employee,” O’Brien recounts. “The workplace became organized, and he was told he would have to join a union. For personal reasons he said, ‘I do not want to join,’ and he lost his job. It was the best job he ever had.”

The bill arrived on the governor’s desk on Friday, and, excluding Sunday, he has five days to respond. “This governor is very loath to make his position known on anything,” Bettencourt jokes. “So when he comes out with a position as clear and concise as he has done on this [issue], my feeling is he will act quickly” — that is, he will veto the bill early this week.

If he does, O’Brien expects the bill to resurface in the house on May 25. And he expects to win: “We’re going to work it hard and I think we will pick up those extra votes.”

Nonetheless, the unions are trying to finagle a victory. O’Brien contends that they have fostered disagreements between the house and the senate. Initially, the house passed an amendment to the bill that would make clear that unions would not be responsible for negotiating on behalf of non-members. In other words, it would prohibit free-riding. In the senate, however, “we’re told the unions requested that they take out that amendment we put in,” O’Brien says. Now that the house has accepted the revised bill, the unions are squawking that it treats them unfairly.

“It’s as if a person who went in front of a judge after having been convicted for murder of his parents were to plead for mercy as an orphan,” O’Brien quips.

Still, Republicans are cautiously optimistic. They plan to push some further reforms before the legislative session ends in June. In their proposed budget, they have an item that would return unionized public employees to “at will status” should their contracts expire before they are renegotiated. And in the senate, the GOP is considering legislation — already passed in the house — that would prohibit card-check elections.

Onward Republicans are marching, confident that the argument is on their side. “If unions are providing a benefit to employees,” O’Brien says, “then they don’t need to pass a law to force them to join.”

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute. 

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