Mitt Romney can attack public-employee unions all he wants. Rick Perry can attack collective-bargaining rights. Newt Gingrich can call for eliminating child labor laws so that school janitors can be replaced with adolescents.
But those are not winning positions in mainstream America, where polling suggests Americans recognize the value of labor unions and of laws that maintain the right to organize and bargain for better wages, better benefits and better services for children and communities.
And they are not winning positions in New Hampshire, the first-primary state where the Republicans who would be president are waging a fierce battle to out-conservative one another.
On Wednesday, after months of wrangling over the issue, the New Hampshire House of Representatives killed a plan promoted by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to make New Hampshire a so-called “right-to-work” state. The law was blocked because not just Democrats but almost two dozen Republicans rejected the counsel of presidential candidate Perry -- who addressed the legislature Wednesday morning -- and voted with organized labor and community groups that rallied to defend collective-bargaining rights.
Twenty-two American states, most of them in the Southern states of the old Confederacy or the West, have “right-to-work” laws on the books. These laws undermine the ability of unions to organize all employees in a workplace and make it dramatically harder for organized labor to provide a voice for workers on the job or in the political debates of the day.
New Hampshire has long been a target of the corporate interests that have, since the 1940s, funded efforts to pass right-to-work laws in Northern states. And after the Republican sweep of 2010, when the GOP took charge of both houses of the New Hampshire legislature by wide margins, it looked as if the campaign might succeed.
“Right-to-work” legislation was passed by the state House and the Senate. But Governor John Lynch vetoed it. Tuesday’s state House vote was on whether to override that veto.
It failed, when 139 legislators voted to sustain Lynch’s veto—meaning that the Republican leadership of the 400-member chamber lacked the two-thirds majority needed to go around the governor. Almost two dozen Republican legislators joined Democrats in taking the pro-labor position.
The vote came despite pointed efforts by Republican presidential contenders to secure support for the “right-to-work” legislation. Former Massachusetts Governor Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman urged the legislature to crack down on unions.
Perry went them one better, addressed the legislature just hours before the override vote, saying, “If you pass into law a right-to-work law, you may join my home state and take over the title of the state that’s creating more jobs in America than any place in this country.”
When Perry spoke, however, he encountered boos. The small state Capitol in Concord was surrounded by pro-labor activists wearing red shirts that called for sustaining the veto.
Voters across New Hampshire had sent a similar signal in recent special elections for legislative seats.
After Republican House Speaker Bill O’Brien advanced the anti-labor legislation—as part of a broad push dictated by ALEC, the national group that seeks to impose corporate-sponsored policies on the states—four straight special elections were won by candidates (three Democrats and a Republican) who opposed the “right-to-work” proposal.
“The Republican leadership in our state needs to wake up and smell the coffee,” says New Hampshire AFL-CIO President Mark MacKenzie. “This isn’t about party. Voters will support candidates who support the middle class. They want leaders who will strengthen their communities and create good family wage jobs, not strip our most vulnerable residents of vital services and pursue Tea Party-fueled policies like right-to-work.”
That’s a message that Republican presidential contenders should take in, as well.
Wednesday’s New Hampshire vote was the latest in a series of wins at the state level by unions that are pushing back against anti-labor measures. Several weeks ago, Ohio voted by a 61-39 margin to overturn Governor John Kasich’s legislation undermining collective-bargaining rights for public employees and teachers. And in Wisconsin, where voters removed two anti-labor state senators last summer, a mass movement backed by labor, farm and community groups has already collected more than 300,000 signatures as part of a drive to recall that state’s anti-union governor, Scott Walker.
In each of these state-based fights, national Republicans have arrived to attack labor and collective-bargaining rights, only to have voters—including a lot of Republicans—say they favor labor rights over corporate hegemony.