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Union curbs advance in New Hampshire

Governor vows to veto GOP legislation

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 22, 2011

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New Hampshire, fueled by an influx of Republicans inspired by the Tea Party movement, could become the first state in the Northeast to allow workers who opt out of a union to stop paying union fees.

On Wednesday, the state Senate passed a so-called right-to-work bill by a veto-proof margin, joining the House, which passed a similar measure in February. Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the bill, but legislative leaders say they have the votes in both chambers to override a veto.

If the measure becomes law, New Hampshire would join 22 other states — most of which are in the South, the Midwest, and the West — that have adopted similar laws. Supporters say the measures encourage businesses to locate in the state, while opponents call them an assault on labor and the middle class.

New Hampshire’s bill, which applies to private and public sector unions, advances amid a nationwide battle over the role of organized labor in the workplace. In Ohio and Wisconsin, Republican governors pushed through measures that severely limited collective bargaining rights.

New Hampshire Republicans have been flexing their muscles since the November elections, when they gained 124 seats in the 400-seat House of Representatives and picked up nine seats in the state Senate, where they outnumber Democrats 19 to 5.

Many of the newly elected Republicans were inspired by the Tea Party’s call for limited government and lower taxes and have helped push the right-to-work legislation into the spotlight. Supporters and opponents of the bill both point to their influence as a reason the bill, after years of circulating in the Legislature, may now become law.

“It’s always been attempted every single term, and now we just have a change in attitude in the state of New Hampshire’s Legislature,’’ said Senator Russell Prescott, a Republican who supports the bill and leads the committee that reviewed the legislation.

New Hampshire law currently allows workers to opt out of a union, but those workers can be compelled to pay fees in lieu of dues, if the union contract mandates those fees. Unions argue that even workers who opt out of the union benefit from the union’s bargaining for higher wages and better benefits.

But Republican lawmakers contend that workers in the “live free or die’’ state should not be forced to pay fees if they do not join a union. Their bill would bar employers and workers from including “fair share’’ agreements in union contracts. Those agreements allow unions to charge fees to workers who are not in the union, to help the union cover the costs of bargaining and administering the contract on the workers’ behalf. About 10 percent of New Hampshire’s workers are union members, compared to about 12 percent nationwide and 15 percent in Massachusetts.

“This isn’t a matter of going after unions,’’ said Senator James Forsythe, a freshman Republican from Strafford who identifies as a Tea Party member and is a cosponsor of bill. “For me, this is a matter of personal freedom.’’

William O’Brien — the recently elected speaker of the New Hampshire House, who is also aligned with the Tea Party — echoed the sentiment.

“It’s a liberty issue,’’ he said. “We’re also trying, in ways big and small, to make it clear that New Hampshire is the state you should be expanding into, and I think this is an important step in making that absolutely true.’’

But Democrats and union officials, who have been protesting the bill at the State House, say the measure will drive down wages and weaken workers’ ability to bargain for better wages and benefits. The bill is all the more unusual because New England has historically been more friendly to unions than states in other regions.

David Lang, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, accused Republicans yesterday of bowing to a hard-core conservative viewpoint that he said is out of step with the state’s moderate traditions.

“You’ve got the advent of some folks who were elected in November that really went past the bounds of normal, Republican conservatives in New Hampshire,’’ he said. “The election in November was about the economy and jobs. But the passage of this bill will put a significant crack in the economic foundation of New Hampshire.’’

Republicans in both chambers expressed confidence that they will be able to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill and put the measure on the governor’s desk. The House bill included a provision that would limit collective bargaining rights for some public employees. The Senate rejected that provision.

Lynch’s office renewed his veto threat again yesterday.

“The governor has been clear that he would veto this legislation, because the governor believes the state should not be passing laws dictating the terms of contracts between private employers and workers,’’ said the governor’s spokesman, Colin Manning.

O’Brien said that even though the House did not pass the bill with a veto-proof majority, he can find enough votes to overturn a veto.

“We’re going to override the governor’s veto,’’ he said. “We were only 14 votes shy, which in a 400-member House is not substantial.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@ globe.com.