A little labor history

The governor of Wisconsin makes it seem as if public collective bargaining has ruined America. His position and the response to it have received national attention.
Here in New Hampshire, a number of things related to unionized state workers have arisen in the present Legislature as well.First, the New Hampshire Retirement System reform legislation, which has passed the House and Senate in different forms, seeks to address a funding shortfall of billions of dollars.It is certainly true that having a system the board of which is populated with representatives of employee organizations and not necessarily the public or experts on pensions has not helped. While the reform legislation is controversial, everyone seems to be addressing the need to make sure it is viable and secure so that retired public employees and present public employees will have their retirement protected.So-called “right to work” legislation has also passed both House and Senate.In the House, it applied both to public and private employees and a curious provision was inserted that apparently would allow unions to represent only those employees who chose to join unions.The Senate stripped that provision from the bill and had the legislation apply to prevent and prohibit “agency shop” provisions, which require workers to support unions financially, whether or not they choose to join them.In the United States, there are several kinds of union relationships in collective bargaining under federal and state labor law, each differing on when and how the rules of membership and union dues are applied.”Agency shops” require that all employees must pay dues that support negotiations on behalf of all employees whether or not they choose to join a union.In “open shops,” employees can but do not have to be members of a union and cannot be required to pay for them.More interesting, however, is the fact that when the House right-to-work legislation got to the Senate, the provisions were stripped out and in their place was inserted a study commission to study public collective bargaining in New Hampshire.While this may diffuse the issue for a while, it is important to understand the history of collective bargaining under the New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Act.History lessonIn 1975, then-Gov. Meldrim Thompson Jr. consented to the passage of R.S.A. 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. Prior to that time, public employees had a vague right to organize but no formal collective bargaining rights and that the existing system was antiquated mirrored that in most states.Thompson appointed General Edward J. Hazeltine, private labor leader Joe Moriarity of Lee, public labor member James Anderson of Manchester, businessman Ed Alman of Manchester and businessman Richard Cummings of Lebanon to the initial Public Employee Labor Relations Board. These individuals basically shaped labor law in New Hampshire.In 1976, things came to a head when Manchester teachers went on strike. Strikes were illegal prior to the Public Employee Labor Relations Act and were specifically made illegal under it.Then Attorney General David H. Souter called his former boss, Warren B. Rudman, who was in private practice at Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green at the time, to deal with the situation. After a tough week of negotiations, the strike was settled and the attendant unfair labor practices handled.Then, all of the other cases that had backed up in the system were addressed, including a dispute between the Rochester teacher’s union and the mayor’s office, becoming the first case bringing R.S.A. 273-A to the court.Currently, members of the board are Jack Buckley, head of the Dover Housing Authority, as chair, Carol Granfield, Jim O’Mara and Kevin Cash, with one vacancy.Public employee collective bargaining in New Hampshire has worked. The idea that it somehow cripples the operation of government is fallacious.Critics need to recognize that those who are represented are our teachers, public servants, police, firemen and those who do our common endeavors. They are not the enemy.When there are problems with the law and definitions need to be changed, the Legislature has the capacity to do so.Criticisms of public bargaining certainly have some substance – when a contract is negotiated by the union and its own sympathizers – however, this is rare and even sympathetic officials recognize where the limits are to what is possible.In short, the Public Employee Labor Relations law in New Hampshire has worked for 35 years and any study of it should recognize that fact.Maybe Wisconsin has a problem. New Hampshire does not. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.