New Hampshire lawmakers are again debating Right-to-Work laws, with bills currently moving through both the House and Senate. With Republican majorities in both chambers, and a newly-elected governor who favors Right-to-Work, the policy stands its best chance of passing in more than a decade.
But Right-to-Work isn’t exactly a kitchen-table kind of issue. If you aren’t in a union, or a large business owner, you may not know much about its history, what Right-to-Work does, or why it matters.
Broadly speaking, Right-to-Work laws prohibit unions from forcing non-union members to pay fees to the union.
The history of these laws date back to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which prohibited “closed shops." That is, joining a union (and paying union dues) could no longer be a condition of employment.
Taft-Hartley also left the door open for individual states to decide if they wanted to ban “agency shops,” where union membership isn’t required of employees, but even non-members have to pay “agency fees” or “fair share fees.” Those fees cover the cost of representation for collective bargaining purposes, but don’t go toward a union's political activities.
In the years following passage of Taft-Hartley, more than a dozen (mostly southern) states enacted Right-to-Work laws.
In New Hampshire, Right-to-Work legislation has been voted down consistently since the 1980s. In 2011, both the House and Senate passed a bill, but it was vetoed by then-Governor John Lynch.
As for that name: Yes, it is a bit confusing. The term “Right-to-Work” dates back possibly as far as 1903, when a journalist used it in an article about the dangers of crossing picket lines.
By mid-century, “Right-to-Work” became the rallying cry of supporters against “compulsory unionism.” Modern-day opponents of the policy often use the term “so-called Right-to-Work” when discussing the legislation.
Backers of Right-to-Work argue that these laws expand worker freedoms and protect freedom of association for employees. If an employee doesn’t want to give money to a labor union, he or she shouldn’t be forced to, even if they are covered under a collective bargaining agreement. That type of “liberty” argument obviously finds support in many corners of the Live Free or Die state.
Another argument is that having a Right-to-Work law sends a signal to firms that a state is business-friendly. That point was echoed during a public hearing last week by Tom Sullivan, an executive at Sturm, Ruger and Co.’s Newport facility: “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.”
One other point Right-to-Work supporters often make is that a “good” union doesn’t need to mandate agency fees from non-members. If the union is perceived to be benefiting its workers--through wages, benefits, whatever--employees will want to support it through voluntary dues.
Opponents of Right-to-Work argue these laws are designed squarely to limit the power of unions and depress wages. If employees don’t contribute, the union doesn’t have the resources needed to bargain effectively for its members and advocate for higher pay, better working conditions, and so forth.
Opponents also say that with Right-to-Work in place, non-dues paying employees are able to “freeride.” That is, they get the hypothetical benefits of collective bargaining (higher wages, stronger benefits) without having to chip in toward those costs. “They’re not paying for those service; their fellow employees have to pay for that service for them. And that’s not correct,” said Richard Laughton with Teamsters Local 633 during last week’s public hearing at the State House.
Another argument is that Right-to-Work laws inserts government where it doesn’t belong: the employee-employer relationship.
That depends who you ask. There is no shortage of research into the economic impacts of Right-to-Work, and finding consensus on just about any statistic is unlikely.
A report from Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire, which has been championing Right-to-Work legislation, finds that passing a Right-to-Work law in New Hampshire would boost growth in employment and GDP by half a percentage point by enticing businesses to relocate to the state.
It also cites a study from West Virginia University that found states with Right-to-Work laws saw their GDP grow faster “by a factor of 7.8,” versus non Right-To-Work states, which saw a growth factor of 5.3 between 1963-2013.
But opponents of Right-to-Work have their own data to point to, including a report from the Economic Policy Institute, which found that wages in Right-to-Work states were 3.2 percent lower on average than non-Right-to-Work states after controlling for other market conditions. For that reason, you’ll often hear opponents call this legislation “Right-to-work...for less.”
Opponents also point to studies finding higher worker fatality rates in Right-to-Work states.
One data point that both sides seem to agree on is that in states with Right-to-Work, the number of dues-paying union members usually falls over time.
While the percent of workers in a union has been steadily declining during the past 50 years in America, the last 30-years of data for New Hampshire show basically steady membership.
As of 2015, there were approximately 62,000 union members in New Hampshire.
About two-thirds of those were in public sector unions (think teachers, government employees, public safety workers), and one-third came from the private sector (manufacturing, trades). At 9.7 percent, New Hampshire is in the middle of the pack for union membership among U.S. states.
Currently, 27 states have passed some form of Right-to-Work laws, including Kentucky, where a Republican governor signed a bill earlier this month. Missouri, which also saw Republican gains in November’s election, is also expected to pass a Right-to-Work law in 2017.
New Hampshire would be the first state in the northeast with a Right-to-Work law, something supporters say makes passage even more economically valuable. For now, all eyes are on Senate Bill 11, which is likely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate in short order. (The bill has 13 co-sponsors, all Republicans, enough to clear the 24-member body.) Right-to-Work, remember, also has a backer in newly elected Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who championed the legislation during his inaugural address.
The real tension will be in the often unpredictable New Hampshire House of Representatives: Despite a 50-seat majority for Republicans, it isn’t clear if Right-to-Work has the votes to pass. Expect long, well-attended public hearings when the bill reaches the lower chamber, and no shortage of debate on whether Right-to-Work is right for New Hampshire.