Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, brought the National Right to Work Act to the House of Representatives Feb. 1.
The bill aims to let private sector workers across the country opt out of paying union dues if they don’t want to be members.
Currently, in states that don’t have right-to-work laws, an employee can decline to join a workplace union — but they can’t avoid paying at least some dues if they work at a unionized facility.
That’s because unions are still required by law to represent all workers equally — even those that decline to officially sign up as members. Labor organizations have successfully argued for decades that they’re entitled to at least some dues if they have to cover the costs of protecting a non-union member.
Since King brought his national legislation to Congress — where it awaits a committee hearing — Missouri became the 28th state to enact right-to-work legislation. It passed a right-to-work law Feb. 6.
Last week, New Hampshire narrowly missed becoming the 29th state. It rejected a right-to-work bill in a tense 200-177 vote in its House of Representatives.
The Teamsters, one of the nation’s largest unions, had launched a massive call to action ahead of the Feb. 16 decision.
“Our members and their families worked hard to send a message to the legislature that right to work is wrong for New Hampshire,” said Jeffrey Padellaro of Local 633, adding that he was “thrilled” with the result. But the Granite State was a rare win for unions in recent years, as right-to-work legislation has gained traction.
Before Missouri flipped, a bitter battle was lost in Kentucky on Jan. 7 — and another in West Virginia on Feb. 12. In Kentucky, Democrats were able to quash right-to-work laws for years because they controlled the state House. But when the party lost its majority in November, the legislation flew through to land on the Republican governor’s desk — and he promptly signed it.
Kentucky also got rid of its prevailing wage act — a law that prevents bidders for state construction job to go below the set wage used by union workers.
Twenty-eight states are now operating under right-to-work laws — a fact those officials often tout when trying to lure companies to move to their areas.
Twenty-two states, including New York, have held off on the legislation. There is no immediate concern among labor leaders that the Empire State is in danger of change — but the future of other states is not so secure.
“You can’t rule out anything,” said Kuba Brown, business manager for International Operating Engineers Locals 94, 94A and 94B. His 6,300 members are engineers working in high-rise buildings, public schools, hotels, power plants and all kinds of large buildings.
“Our union is reaching out, through email blasts and phone calls, trying to get the message out to members,” he said.
Groups that are pro-right to work often couch their message in terms of choice, point out that their laws free workers from “forced fees” and allow for managers to pay well-performing employees higher wages than less skilled workers.
Those messages can be seductive, Brown acknowledged.
“Initially it might sound great, but then what is the worker going to lose? If the union goes under — and without dues-paying members, that can happen — that’s people’s health funds and pension and of course their middle-class wages. It drives down the wages and benefits for everyone,” he said. “It’s not good for families and it’s not good for the country.” According to the AFL-CIO, the poverty rate in right-to-work states is 15.3%, compared to 12.8% in other states.
The average worker in a right-to-work state makes $6,109 less per year than workers in what the AFL-CIO calls a “free bargaining state.”
Right-to-work states also have a 13% rate of uninsured employees versus 9.4% in other states, the AFL-CIO said.
“Right to work is a lie dressed up in a feel-good slogan,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said Feb. 1, after King introduced his national legislation.
Mark Mix, head of the National Right to Work Foundation, a group that promotes the legislation on the state and national levels, said his organization is hopeful that for the first time ever, the federal bill might actually come into play.
“It’s been introduced before, to several Congresses,” he said.
It’s never garnered enough bipartisan support to make it through either house and it still faces a rough road, he admitted.
But now there is more support up high in D.C., he added.
“Vice President Mike Pence… he is an advocate for right to work,” Mix said. Indiana was the 25th state to adopt the legislation in 2012, before Pence became governor.
“He has said he found it helpful in creating new industry and investment opportunities,” Mix said.
As for Trump, it will still “take a lot of work” to get a federal bill to the White House, Mix said. But he believes the President will support the effort, based on recent comments from Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Spicer said “the President believes in right to work” during a press briefing Feb. 3.
“He wants to give workers and companies the flexibility to do what’s in the best interest for job creators. Obviously, the Vice President has been a champion of this as well,” Spicer told reporters at the meeting.