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Twenty-seventeen is shaping up to be another tough year for organized labor. The year started with Republican lawmakers in Kentucky passing so-called right-to-work laws that affect how labor unions collect dues. That made Kentucky the 27th state with right-to-work laws. Missouri and New Hampshire could be next in line. Todd Bookman of New Hampshire Public Radio reports that if the bill passes in his state, it will be the first in the northeast to rollback union rights.
TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Union leaders have successfully fended off right-to-work bills in New Hampshire for decades, so it wasn't a surprise when hundreds of rank-and-file members, many in red T-shirts, filled the statehouse during a recent public hearing. State Senator Dan Innis held the gavel, but at times struggled to handle the crowd.
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DAN INNIS: Let me first ask those in attendance if we could please refrain from applause and other activities so we can continue to move this forward...
INNIS: ...Including booing - I would greatly appreciate it, as would your fellow folks who are here today. So please...
BOOKMAN: While opponents were fired up, their preferred candidates didn't fare as well during the November elections. Republicans now control the New Hampshire House, Senate and governor's office, and they've made passage of right-to-work a priority. Broadly speaking, these laws prohibit unions from forcing non-union members to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. For State Senator Andy Sanborn, that policy is a natural fit for New Hampshire, where about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized.
ANDY SANBORN: This is the Live Free or Die state, so we're about personal freedom. We're about personal liberty. And what makes a stronger statement than reaffirming the fact that you're not being compelled to have to pay into a union if you don't want to pay into it?
BOOKMAN: But for opponents, the laws create what's called a freeriding problem. Bobby Jones is with AFSCME Local 3657, which represents public safety and corrections workers. He says employees who don't chip into the union still get the advantages of collective bargaining, like higher wages and benefits.
BOBBY JONES: So it's just like you and I want to go out one night for a couple of beers. I choose the bar. We go out. We both have a couple of drinks. We're talking about whatever the topic is - the Patriots going to the Super Bowl. You know, when the bill comes out, I pull out my wallet, and you don't reach for yours.
BOOKMAN: Both sides of this debate toss around competing statistics. Backers say it will draw jobs and investment to New Hampshire, while opponents call it right-to-work-for-less and say that workers will lose bargaining power and see their wages erode. But in the end, it's become less of an economic argument and more of a purely partisan fight - one aimed at weakening unions, which generally back Democratic candidates with campaign cash and volunteers.
DEAN SPILIOTES: Some people do view it as kind of Republican payback against the role of unions in elections.
BOOKMAN: Dean Spiliotes is a political analyst with Southern New Hampshire University. He says right-to-work laws are a central part of the conservative platform, even if it's not an issue that gets lots of attention from most voters.
SPILIOTES: From time to time, you have these issues that kind of transcend the impact that they may have on an individual state and become kind of a litmus test for where you are ideologically.
BOOKMAN: After years of trying, New Hampshire Republicans are turning that ideology into action. The bill cleared the state Senate by a single vote and now heads to the House, where the GOP holds a 50-seat majority. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, N.H.
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