John E. Sununu

The union fight is just beginning

By John E. Sununu
May 16, 2011

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THERE IS something quintessentially American about a showdown — two adversaries standing on principle, face to face. It brings to mind simple, iconic images: Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Burt Lancaster in “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” inmates vs. guards in “The Longest Yard.”

Lured in by the promise of a decisive conclusion, we quickly choose sides — another American trait — and focus on the contest itself. But whether a confrontation plays out amid the tumbleweeds or in a legislative chamber, focusing on just the fight can distract us from the underlying issues at stake.

That’s the danger in New Hampshire, where the showdown over “right to work’’ legislation continued to unfold last week. Governor John Lynch vetoed a bill that would protect workers from paying fees to unions they haven’t joined. It passed both House and Senate with big margins, and the drama over whether the House will override him is easily cast as a local “pro-union’’ vs. “anti-union’’ contest. But struggles over collective bargaining and union politics are happening all over the country, suggesting there’s much more here than first meets the eye.

It’s not just the result of the Republican surge in 2010. Republican majorities have controlled New Hampshire’s State House before, yet high-profile labor fights have been rare. Such widespread action in so many states suggests a more pervasive sentiment that unions have done something — perhaps several things — that run against the broader public interest.

In Ohio and Wisconsin, where new laws restrict the issues that can be negotiated under collective bargaining, it’s about the budget. Years of sweetheart contracts have given public employees pension and health care benefits that are unsustainable. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to raise state employee health care contributions to 12.6 percent, still well below the private sector. Even Massachusetts has a bill pending to restrict municipal workers’ bargaining rights on health care.

In states like Florida and Tennessee, the perception has grown that unions are the biggest obstacle to rewarding good teachers and punishing the bad. Both have passed legislation that make it easier to fire the poorest-performing teachers. Tennessee’s law requires an “effective” rating before teachers get tenure; it has received enthusiastic public support. Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey is now pushing a similar bill; look for other states to follow.

In New Hampshire, the argument comes down to freedom and competitiveness. On an individual level, no employee should be required to pay fees to a union they don’t wish to join. Besides, employment growth is higher and unemployment rates are lower in the 22 right-to-work states than in their closed-shop counterparts. This advantage has driven the National Labor Relations Board to an unprecedented level of government interference — recently demanding that Boeing locate a new manufaturing plant in union-friendly Washington rather than right-to-work South Carolina.

Nationally, these issues are unlikely to go away. States that have restricted public unions’ say over pension and health care matters are curtailing an enormous power base for union leadership, and one that won’t be given up without a fight. Moreover, with membership now less than 7 percent in the private sector, the union movement is now predominantly about government workers and their benefits.

Many of these states will still have budget troubles in 2012, so the high costs of pensions and health care will remain a front-burner issue in state and local races. Adding momentum to the reform movement, Bloomberg recently reported that Wisconsin’s borrowing costs have fallen by half since January. That’s a benefit that other states will be scrambling to duplicate.

And don’t forget presidential politics. New Hampshire, Ohio, Missouri, Florida, and Indiana are all considered battleground states. Presidential candidates will weigh in with money and organization to bring visibility to their own campaigns. In short, both sides will perceive that they have something to gain from maintaining the high-profile struggle through 2012 — raising money, generating turnout, and promoting their agenda. This is one showdown that won’t be settled by a quick-draw artist.

However much the public supports unionization in principle, it will not support what it views as the results of heavy-handed union politics: retirement at age 45, protection for bad teachers, or workers who don’t contribute to their own health care costs. In New Hampshire, the House leadership just might swing enough votes to turn a 225-140 margin into a veto override. Either way, however, the popular sentiment behind this movement will be with us for a long time.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.