- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Hundreds of union members flocked to Concord last week to protest the New Hampshire Right to Work Act, which could curtail union membership and weaken collective bargaining power.

Lawmakers have debated the concept of right to work for more than 30 years, but it has rarely made it to a governor’s desk. This year could be different because Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has pledged to sign it.

The bill would bar public and private unions from requiring non-members to pay dues or other fees. Supporters say it promotes worker freedom and would lure new businesses into the state. Opponents charge its goal is to weaken unions, potentially lowering wages, benefits and worker protections.

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HOW DOES IT WORK?

State and federal law bars unions from requiring anyone to join or pay dues. But they can charge agency fees to non-union members, which cover the cost of negotiations and representation that benefit everyone.

If the bill passes, unions would no longer be able to charge those fees. That means workers who choose not to be in the union would still get the benefit of any bargaining without paying anything. Opponents worry dropping fee requirements would cause union membership to fall and weaken a union’s ability to negotiate.

But supporters say workers should have the freedom to choose whether they pay. And they believe the bill would make New Hampshire more attractive to businesses.

Already some unions don’t charge agency fees. Many teachers unions in the state don’t charge the fees because school boards won’t negotiate them as part of the contract. Still, union membership sits around 80 to 90 percent.

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UNION MEMBERSHIP

New Hampshire is not a heavily unionized state, meaning a small percentage of workers would actually be affected by right to work. Roughly 9.4 percent of workers, or about 62,000 people, were union members in 2015, according to federal data. Slightly more, 11.4 percent, were represented by unions but are not members.

The National Education Association is New Hampshire’s largest union, representing about 17,000 teachers and education professionals. The SEIU Local 1984, which represents state employees and various municipal workers, speaks for at least 10,000 members. About 30,000 workers fall under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, which includes unions in construction trades, utilities, education, postal services, metal trades, the automobile industry and more.

Public workers are more unionized than private workers. Union representatives estimate about 6 percent of New Hampshire workers are in public unions, compared with 2 to 3 percent in private unions.

New Hampshire has historically had the lowest union membership in New England. No states in the region have right-to-work laws on the books.

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WHAT BUSINESSES SAY

Jim Roche, the head of New Hampshire’s statewide chamber of commerce, called passing the bill the best thing the state can do to spur economic development without using taxpayer money. He said businesses might not consider New Hampshire for expansion if it doesn’t have right to work.

Jeff Rose, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, said right to work is just one of a number of factors most businesses consider when they’re choosing whether to come into New Hampshire.

Given New Hampshire’s already low rate of unionization among private workers, opponents are skeptical that the bill will make a significant difference.

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