Right-to-Work Debate Heating up in New England

March 24, 2012 Updated: March 24, 2012

The debate on controversial right-to-work legislation has moved to the northeast. New England has long been supportive of unions in both the public and private sector, but that may not be true for long.

Supporters of right-to-work say it gives employees a choice to opt out of an overbearing union, while critics insist the legislation makes it harder for employees to form unions, and aims to weaken existing organizations.

Indiana became a right-to-work state this February amidst much controversy, and tensions are mounting in states like Michigan where lobbyists and lawmakers are pushing hard to pass the legislation. Recently, national organizations supporting right-to-work have zeroed in on a new target, New Hampshire—the New England state where right-to-work is most likely to pass.

This week the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 198 to 139 in favor of HB 1677, as reported by the Nashua Telegraph. HB 1677 is one of four right-to-work bills currently before the House.

But the bills need more than a House majority. Last November state Gov. John Lynch vetoed similar legislation and will likely do so again. However, Lynch won’t be around much longer—the four term governor announced earlier this year that he won’t be running in 2012. With the primarily Republican New Hampshire legislature in favor of right-to-work but unable to garner enough support to override a veto, a new Governor could change the game.

Among gubernatorial candidates for the 2012 election, support of right-to-work falls along partisan lines. Democratic candidates Maggie Hassan and Sen. Jackie Cilley both oppose the legislation, while Republican candidates Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith, support it.

Most important to voters, however, is how right-to-work will affect the job market.

While opponents of the legislation cite examples of states where similar bills lowered wages and standards for working conditions, supporters claim it will bring businesses and jobs to New Hampshire.

Gubernatorial candidate Kevin Smith went so far as to announce his goal to “poach jobs” from Massachusetts. It’s been a talking point during many of Smith’s campaign stops, for what he calls the increasing migration of New Hampshire residents who go over the state border to work in Massachusetts. Smith says he wants to put an end to this border hopping, and part of his plan to bring jobs to New Hampshire involves right-to-work legislation.

Nowhere is right-to-work legislation more relevant than in the construction industry. Nationally, the American Builders and Contractors, Inc, (ABC) is the biggest opponent of trade unions, and has invested heavily nationwide and in New Hampshire in support of legislation that would limit worker access to collective bargaining.

But comparing the construction industry in Massachusetts with the one in New Hampshire tells another story. In Massachusetts, where the majority construction work is in union jobs, the industry is bouncing back strong from the recession. As many as 1,000 new jobs were created in January alone, according to state employment data published in the Boston Globe.

New Hampshire, in stark contrast, is languishing, with several large projects, including the Department of Labor Job Corps Center in Manchester, stalled while the political debate wears on.

While the view from the ground differs drastically from the rhetoric, the debate in New England has just begun. Although a slim majority of states (twenty-three) have passed the legislation, most of them are found in the South and Midwest. A win in New Hampshire would break new ground for supporters.