By Patrick Bruce
“Right-to-Work” legislation has been introduced in the New Hampshire General Court over 30 times in the last 50 years, usually falling victim to partisan checks-and-balances. These abusive laws are not a problem unique to New Hampshire: to date they have bled their way into 28 states. Time and time again, New Hampshire’s labor community has waged quiet war against this reactionary menace and won.
New Hampshire’s historic rejection of Right-to-Work is more than a victory for the people of that state. Capitalist money pits like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) view New Hampshire as a gateway to the Northeast. Right-wing profiteers used the conversation in New Hampshire to increase organizing efforts in Maine, Rhode Island, and even the liberal bastion that is Massachusetts. As Donald Trump continues to assemble the most anti-worker administration in a generation, no state is safe from the union-busting specter of Right-to-Work.
Riding the wave of a sweeping GOP victory in November, New Hampshire’s Republican-majority House and Senate, along with its Republican governor, began the legislative session with an appetite for union blood. A central campaign issue for newly-elected Governor Chris Sununu and State House leadership, Right-to-Work was seen as a foregone conclusion when the session was gaveled in.
On February 16th, the Right-to-Work act “prohibiting collective bargaining agreements that require employees to join or contribute to a labor union” was defeated by a 23-vote margin in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. This was the result of an intense five-week organizing campaign executed with laser accuracy by labor unions, student organizers, and faith leaders, and can serve as an inspiration for us all in the shadow of an emboldened radical right.
Right-to-Work legislation seeks to suck funds from organized labor by making certain agreements between workers and management illegal, forcing both parties into constricting bargaining methods while limiting a union’s ability to collect fees from the workers they represent. Right-to-Work has become a proud staple of former slave states and, apart from New Hampshire, has found success in every legislature in which it is introduced.
Proponents of Right-to-Work cling to the claim that they defend “worker freedom,” a tired and intentionally inaccurate representation of “agency shop” labor agreements under the Wagner Act. Economists across the political spectrum from Robert Reich to Milton Friedman condemn Right-to-Work as destructive and irresponsible. Any defense of such legislation requires intentionally turning a blind eye to the facts while pushing claims of “increased prosperity” in Right-to-Work states, many of which have the highest unemployment and largest wealth gaps in the country.
There is no better example of the power of organizing than an underfunded, rural labor movement warding off the forces of out-of-state billionaires. Following victories in Missouri and Kentucky earlier this year, pro-Right-to-Work super-PACs acted with an increased sense of urgency in New Hampshire. Capitalist titans led the state GOP chairperson to attempt buying legislative votes, promising a special campaign fund for Right-to-Work supporters. Pressure from the national Republican Party forced Governor Sununu to call out detractors, characterizing the vote as “us against them” and telling dissenting Republicans they did not belong in their own caucus. (It should be noted that several Republicans did indeed leave the room and go to the press when the young governor attempted to threaten them.)
While union leadership deserves some credit, this victory was largely secured by grassroots action from the rank and file. Right-to-Work battles in NH are historically long affairs carried out by lobbyists, but an energized Republican Party sought to waste no time in implementing their vile agenda. Senate Bill 11 (SB11) was quietly introduced to the State Senate during the first full week of the legislative session. Labor leaders, prepared for a long and expensive fight, were blindsided: one week later SB11 was already moving to the House of Representatives.
With only a few weeks to mount a defense, New Hampshire’s union halls were flooded with phone bankers urging their representatives to oppose this anti-worker legislation. Town hall meetings across the state saw rooms packed with teachers, nurses, and apprentices demanding their voices be heard. The organizational prowess of New Hampshire’s left was on full display when the bill was introduced in committee before a standing-room-only crowd of union workers. Over 60 trade unionists, contractors, and faith leaders spoke passionately against Right-to-Work during the five-hour hearing, resulting in an astonishing bipartisan ruling against a bill that, two weeks prior, was called a sure thing. The bill was killed on the floor of the State House by a vote of 200-177 the following week. Rhetoric from dissenters was of one theme: the people of New Hampshire have repeatedly said “no” to Right-to-Work. It’s time to move on.
Billionaire forces like AFP and ALEC will not move on. Their long-waged war against American workers will continue, but the unyielding efforts of New England’s left has laid bare the undemocratic nature of capital. Out-of-state money will no doubt continue attempting to undermine the people of the Granite State, but with luck, this impressive victory will buy that scrappy band of leftists more time to continue building their historic defense.
Stories about today’s labor movement tend to be stories of romantic defeat. Publicity goes to tales like the loud and visible opposition to Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership or Boeing workers’ attempts to unionize in South Carolina. These David and Goliath stories promote a narrative that has become a favorite of modern liberals: an ideological but disorganized left – having fallen out of step with the Democratic Party – tilts nobly against a windmill only to be swept off its horse. Meanwhile, our most impactful wins go unnoticed. The latter is sadly true of the monumental victory for New Hampshire’s labor community against union-busting legislation pushed by finance capitalists. We owe our attention to New Hampshire’s constant fight against Right-to-Work. They can’t do it alone.
Patrick Bruce is a member of the Boston DSA and a political organizer for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.
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