All eyes on House Republicans before vote on right-to-work legislation

State House dome
Republican lawmakers plan to work on the absentee ballot legislation over the summer and reintroduce it during the next session. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Since the Legislature last defeated right-to-work legislation in 2017, there have been two significant changes that have both sides predicting victory in Thursday’s House vote. It will be at least the 30th time the Legislature has taken up a right-to-work bill in the last 40 years.

Proponents of the legislation point to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a 40-year precedent by prohibiting public employee unions from charging non-union members a “fair share” fee for contract negotiations. (It did not put the same limits on private employee unions.) The court’s decision, they say, means lawmakers can rest assured that public employees, such as state workers, and their unions won’t be harmed if right-to-work passes this year. 

The other side, which disagrees with that less-harm characterization, sees hope in the GOP’s 26-seat majority. Republicans enjoyed a 50-seat margin in 2017 and still couldn’t pass the legislation, in part because 32 members of the party voted with Democrats. 

“It appears to me when there is a strong Republican majority, the (national right-to-work lobbyists) try again to get it passed through,” said Rep. Marjorie Porter, a Hillsborough Democrat serving her sixth term. “But the experience I’ve had is when it comes to defeating it, it’s very much a bipartisan effort.”

Right-to-work laws, which have passed in at least 25 states, prohibit labor organizations from requiring employees who do not join the union to pay an “agency fee” or “fair share” dues. After more than two-dozen attempts, right-to-work passed the New Hampshire Legislature in 2011 only to be vetoed by then-Gov. John Lynch.

If the legislation passes, New Hampshire will be the only state in New England with a right-to-work law. 

The bill has the strong support of Gov. Chris Sununu, who campaigned on a promise to make the state more business-friendly by passing tax cuts and right-to-work legislation. When the bill failed in 2017, Sununu reportedly pressed Republicans behind closed doors. 

It’s also been endorsed by the Business and Industry Association.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for New Hampshire to separate itself from every other state in the Northeast,” said association President Jim Roche. “Passing this bill puts New Hampshire back on the map for employers in state and around the country who will only consider expanding or locating in right-to-work states. Public sector employees already enjoy right-to-work protections. The time is right for private sector employees to enjoy these same freedoms.”

Because the Supreme Court ruling already prohibits public employee unions from charging non-members dues, it’s unclear how many workers will be affected if the legislation passes. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that in 2020, 9.8 percent of workers identified as union members. That percentage increased slightly to 11.1 when the count included members and non-members whose jobs were covered by unions. But the percentages do not separate public and private unions.

This year’s legislation, Senate Bill 61, passed the Senate, 13-11, along party lines save for Republican Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry, who joined the Democrats in opposition. During the Senate’s public hearing, opponents far outnumbered supporters, 549 to 24. 

Backers included local and national right-to-work advocates and Greg Moore, state director for the New Hampshire chapter of Americans for Prosperity. 

Moore said right-to-work laws give employees more rights to decide where their money goes, and has been tied to an increase in business recruitment and manufacturing jobs and a stronger economy in states that have passed the legislation. 

“We certainly think from our perspective the best way workers cut the best deal is to have a strong economy,” he said. “The employee has all the leverage.” 

Opponents see these bills as an attempt to weaken unions by reducing income from “fair share” dues. 

Rep. Troy Merner, a Lancaster Republican, voted against the right-to-work bill in 2017 and said he will do so today. He doesn’t buy the argument that businesses will be more likely to relocate to New Hampshire if the measure passes. And if it does pass, he believes workers will lose income, benefits, and training that leads to safer working conditions.

“This is not a pro-jobs bill,” he said. “It’s not a pro-business bill. If they couldn’t pass it four years ago, I can’t see it passing now.”

Rep. Joseph Guthrie, a Hampstead Republican, said he will also vote against right-to-work today, just as he did in 2017. Guthrie, 92, was a union member in the 1940s during his years working at Western Electric. When he joined management, he was on the other side, negotiating with the union. 

“I always felt more comfortable working with a union steward who knew what was going on,” he said.

Rep. Aboul Khan, a Seabrook Republican, voted against right-to-work in 2017 and said there is a strong union presence in his district. He has been getting a lot of calls and mail urging him to vote for the bill, a fair amount from outside his district, he said. He declined to say how he will vote today.

The bill’s backers will pick up a vote from Rep. Fred Doucette, a Salem Republican who voted against the bill in 2017. Asked why he has changed his position, Doucette said, “It’s right for New Hampshire.” He declined to elaborate.