Will Committee Propose Minor Changes to Existing Law or End of Public Worker Unions?
It’s no secret that the tea-crazed element in the Republic Party is out to destroy unions, and with their disappearance further depress wages and benefits for workers across the labor market. With manufacturing unions in a weakened state due to globalization and technological changes, anti-union attention has shifted to the public sector.
Given the political context, New Hampshire labor activists and allies looked with apprehension on the creation of a committee made up of State Representatives and Senators to “study collective bargaining by public employees.” The committee’s mandate, established by passage of HB 580, gave the committee no more guidance than contained in those six words.
Sen. Raymond White said creation of the study committee was “an offshoot of all the discussions around pension reform.” While HB 580 did begin as a bill to overhaul the pension system, the context was actually much wider and more ominous. White may have forgotten that the House budget plan included a measure, introduced by Rep. Neal Kurk, that would turn all public sector workers into “at will” employees at the expiration of collective bargaining agreements. And HB 580 itself, also sponsored by Rep. Kurk, included the following provision in the version approved in the House:
Following the end of the term of a collective bargaining agreement and during any period of negotiation, the status quo shall be maintained as to the wages, hours, and conditions of employment of employees in good standing. Except where required by statute, the continuation, after the expiration of the agreement, of the provision of any medical, dental, and life insurance benefits, retirement or pension benefits, and any other fringe benefits, shall be subject to the exclusive authority of the public employer. [emphasis added]
In other words, the clear intent of the House was to strip unions of their power. The Senate, no hotbed of pro-labor sentiment, kept this radical approach out of the budget and pension bills. Instead of just killing HB 580, which would have been a desirable outcome, the Senate proposed the study committee as an alternative. .
Following the study committee’s first meeting September 15, it seems that this group is out to tinker with collective bargaining, not destroy it. The bigger assault depends on whether the legislature over-turns or sustains Gov. Lynch’s veto of HB 474, the Right-to-Work (FOR LESS) bill, and in an array of bills to be considered next year.
The study committee began its work by electing Rep. Gary Daniels, the ant-union head of the House Labor Committee, to be its Chairman, and Rep. John O’Connor to be its Clerk. Daniels made it clear that their scope is only the state and local public sector, for which the collective bargaining process is set out under RSA 273-A. (That public employee collective bargaining is governed under state law, not federal, appeared to be news to Rep. Steven Winter, a former airline pilots’ union member who voted for “Right to Work.”)
David Lang of the International Association of Firefighters explained that the current system could be improved. In particular, the lack of dispute resolution methods in the law can make it hard to complete complex negotiations in a system where contracts not only have to be approved by union members and municipal officials, but also funded by votes of school districts and town meetings. Nothing that his own union, in Hampton, has been without a contract for six years, he said, “There has to be an end in sight.”
Unions are not just about pay and benefits, Lang testified. The issue the promoted unionization of Hampton firefighters, he said, was the quality of protective clothing. The union contract made it more likely that firefighters would return home alive after work. Acknowledging the sensitivities of taxpayers – a group that includes union workers – Lang said it’s “important for workers to have an understanding of what the pay and benefits are going to be” in order for cities and towns to attract workers to serve as police officers or firefighters.
Mark MacKenzie, who now serves as president of the NH AFL-CIO, was a Manchester firefighter when the law covering public sector collective bargaining was established. It was through collective bargaining, he said, that firefighters were able to improve their gear and training. Union contracts are not responsible for the rising cost of health care, he said.
Other speakers included Laura Haney of the NH Federation of Teachers; Diana Lacey, Jay Ward, and Dick de Seve of the State Employees Union; and Dean Michener of the School Administrators Association. In the back-and-forth between committee members and speakers, attention kept returning to whether negotiating sessions should be videotaped and broadcast on public access cable TV.
If the committee keeps its attention on minor matters, the committee report, due Dec.1, might be of relatively little consequence. It’s still possible that Kurk-like proposals will be put on the agenda. We’ll get more indications at the committee’s next meeting, Thursday, September 29, at 9 AM. Rep. Daniels said there would be other opportunities for members of the public to present testimony before the committee winds up its work in November.
Regardless of this study’s outcome, attention should be focused on the 2012 legislative session, for which 794 bills have been proposed by House members. At this time, the details of these bills are still being worked out, so all we can see are their titles. But these include such gems as:
“Prohibiting all public employees from participating in collective bargaining,” “Requiring 100% consensus vote by union members to be included in a collective bargaining agreement,” and “Prohibiting the state from withholding the union dues of state employees.”
The war on the workers goes on.