Special report: The sinking of SB 11

An in-depth look at how this session’s right to work bill went down

Sen. John Reagan introduces SB 11, his so-called right to work bill, in a hearing at the House.

Sen. John Reagan introduces SB 11, his so-called right to work bill, in a hearing at the House.

Early this year, the news on so-called right to work bills didn’t look good for working people. Kentucky and Missouri approved so-called right to work laws, and here in New Hampshire, newly elected Gov. Chris Sununu made the issue a priority. The Senate fast-tracked a bill and had it on to the House before the end of January.

Even as national news outlets ran with the story – what would happen if New Hampshire passed the bill? – supporters had their doubts as to whether they had the votes to pass the House. In the end, the right to work supporters were right. The House ultimately killed the bill 200-177, with a bloc of Republicans joining Democrats to put the issue to bed for the session. Here’s the story that led to that vote.


Then-Executive Councilor Chris Sununu took part in the SEA's Republican gubernatorial forum last summer. The candidate said at the time that he believed NH needed right to work.

Then-Executive Councilor Chris Sununu took part in the SEA’s Republican gubernatorial forum last summer. The candidate said at the time that he believed NH needed right to work.

Last summer, as then-Executive Councilor Chris Sununu was running for governor, he joined Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas for a republican gubernatorial forum put on by the SEA. Perhaps knowing the crowd, Sununu was ready for the inevitable question about so-called right to work.

“We need a governor that stands up and says ‘New Hampshire is open for business,’” Sununu said.

Sununu told the audience that right to work was something businesses had been asking for.

“When I talk to the businesses that refuse to come into the state, they say, ‘we’ve got better options in other states that have right to work,’ and they’re going to those states,” he said. “It is an issue, there’s no doubt about it.”

That argument of drawing businesses into the state was used frequently by supporters, but Sununu also mentioned high energy costs as a deterrent for businesses.

“It’s not just about right to work,” Sununu said. “It’s about all these pieces.”

On the fast track

Sununu went on to win the Republican primary and the general election. Republicans retained control of the House and Senate, as well as the Executive Council. When the legislature convened in January, a so-called right to work bill SB 11 was one of the first up. A five-hour public hearing drew hundreds with passionate testimony against the bill.

“I urge you to vote this bill inexpedient to legislate, so the legislature can focus on bills that actually help New Hampshire citizens,” SEA President Rich Gulla told the Senate Commerce Committee. “SB 11 is a tired and recycled bill pushed by out-of-state interests, and has been defeated year after year.”

This year, Gulla continued, instead of focusing on issues that help Granite State families — such as combatting the opioid crisis — one of the first bills of the new session was aimed at dividing. For the most part, the division held up. The Commerce Committee endorsed the bill along party lines, and a week later, the full Senate voted 12-11 in favor (Sen. Sharon Carson was the lone Republican who voted against it). SB 11 was immediately sent over to the House for consideration.

‘The right thing to do’

SEA President Rich Gulla, member Betty Thomas and Director John Hattan held signs outside the State House on the day of the vote on SB 11.

SEA President Rich Gulla, member Betty Thomas and Director John Hattan held signs outside the State House on the day of the vote on SB 11.

That Senate hearing for SB 11 was packed with union members and others supporting workers’ rights, and plenty in the seats were clad in SEA purple. In addition to President Gulla, several members waited hours to testify against the bill. Others sat for upwards of five hours just to be a presence. Likewise, SEA members called and emailed their senators, and joined in phone banks in which we patched other members through to their senators. This effort continued in the House, and like the Senate hearing, the House hearing on the bill was packed with union members.

Unlike the Senate, though, the House committee hearing the bill had several “labor-friendly” members. Despite facing pressure, the committee recommended rejecting the bill by a bipartisan vote, setting up the climactic House floor vote in mid-February. Republicans who opposed right to work were facing strong pressure from some in party leadership. Rep. Marty Bove said he knew what he was going to do, regardless of the pressure.

“I was going to vote against it, no matter what,” said Bove, a longtime SEA member who recently retired from DHHS. “I just felt it was the right thing to do.”

When the votes were cast, Bove was happy to see he wasn’t alone. The bill was rejected 200-177, and “indefinitely postponed” by a vote of 193-184. That second vote meant the issue was dead for the remainder of the two-year session.

“I thought, if we stop it, great, but I’ll take the hit,” he said. “I just didn’t know how many others were voting that way. I was pleasantly surprised that it went down with that number of Republicans.”

Bove said so-called right to work is always framed as a partisan issue, but this vote showed it’s not necessarily the case.

“This showed there were 30-plus Republicans who wanted to stand up and say, ‘no, this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue,’” Bove said.

Rallying the troops

While Republicans like Bove were splitting from their party for this vote, on the other side of the aisle, Democrats were working hard to get full turnout for the key vote. Rep. Christy Bartlett, wife of Chapter 1 President Peter Bartlett, said snow was in the forecast for the day of the vote. She said Democratic leaders were working with representatives who live farther away to ensure they’d be able to get to Concord in time for the vote. For some, that meant a sleepover in Concord.

“Rep. Pam Gordon lives in Portsmouth, and after the Wednesday session, she drove home to get clothes, then came back and stayed with us,” Bartlett said. “Everybody was making an effort to make sure we were present for the vote. Even though we’re a strong vote on the issue, we’re in the minority.”

Bartlett said that while Democrats are united against the subject of right to work, they weren’t told to vote a certain way. This ran in contrast to some of the pressure exerted on Republicans in the days leading up to the vote.

“Remember what Will Rogers said, it’s like herding cats,” Bartlett said. “But on this issue, we’re united. We’re never told to vote a certain way. We’re always told to vote our conscience.”

Leading up to the vote, Bartlett said she knew it would be a complicated issue to debate, so she prepared accordingly she left her knitting at home that day.

“Anyone who sees me knows I’m usually knitting I made 34 pairs of mittens,” she said. “I left my knitting at home that day. I knew I was going to have to keep my wits about me. It can get confusing really quickly when the maneuvers start, especially the indefinite postponement.”

Six Republicans spoke on the bill, three in support and three opposed. Then came the votes. The first, on the committee’s recommendation of “inexpedient to legislate,” was 200-177. Next, opponents moved to put a stake through the heart of the issue, with the vote to indefinitely postpone. That passed by a vote of 193-184. Finally, there came a motion to reconsider the vote to indefinitely postpone. That failed by about 9 votes, with 183 yeas and 194 neas.

Finally, for this session, the issue was dead.

What’s next

Though so-called right to work is a dead issue in our legislature until at least 2019, we expect another right to work challenge at the Supreme Court level, and legislators backed by groups such as ALEC are continuing to advance bills that aim to hurt unions in other ways.

“We know we’re going to fight this fight again,” Bartlett said.

She’s right, which is why it’s so important to continue to support candidates for office who stand with working people — candidates like Reps. Bartlett and Bove and the 198 others who helped turn back this bill.

If you don’t already do so, please consider making a contribution to our political action fund (SEAPAC), which works to support these candidates, as well as fight off legislation such as right to work, or changes to retiree health care. You can make a contribution to SEAPAC here.

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