Republicans’ National Right-to-Work Proposal Faces Hurdles

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Tyrone Richardson

The new GOP-controlled Congress has revived Republicans’ decades-long effort to get a national right-to-work measure signed into law, but there still may be hiccups getting the bill through both chambers.

“We have continued to make progress. For about 20 years, this has been introduced in Congress and the support for it has been growing,” Greg Mourad, vice president for legislation at the National Right to Work Committee, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 21. “It takes 60 votes to get it through the Senate, and we don’t have the 60 votes there.”

The National Right to Work Act ( H.R. 785), was reintroduced Feb. 1 by Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Steve King (R-Iowa). The measure would prohibit “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements. The clauses require nonunion members who are covered by the agreements to pay representation fees. Such fees are part of the lifeblood of labor unions, which are facing dwindling memberships and rising anti-union measures on the state and federal level.

Numerous efforts for a national right-to-work law have failed since at least the 1990s, but supporters say GOP control of the White House and Congress could make this time different. There is also an added sense of optimism now that more than half of the states already have right-to-work laws in place.

The national bill will need some Democratic support to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Other hurdles include potential reluctance from some Republicans in states that use existing right-to-work laws as a tool to lure business from states without similar restrictions on union organizing.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), a former labor lawyer who was recently named chairman of the Education and the Workforce committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee, says right-to-work is a state issue.

“I’m always open to looking at ways to grow the economy and connect more Americans with good paying jobs,” Byrne told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 21. “I think right-to-work laws have traditionally found much more success at the state level, where those policies have given a number of states a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting new industry.”

The National Right to Work Committee has been part of the longstanding effort to move the measure at the federal level. Even though there could be some resistance in the new Congress, Mourad added, the group will continue to educate lawmakers “that this is something their constituents want.”

Even though it could be hard to pass the legislation in the Senate, Mourad said that there are indications it could pass in the House.

Leadership Mum on Bill Support

It’s still not clear whether Republican leadership will push to get the measure passed or even bring it to the floor for a vote. A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) referred Bloomberg BNA to the Education and the Workforce committee for comment.

The bill, which has been co-sponsored by seven Republican House members, was referred to the committee Feb. 1. Wilson is vice chairman of the committee.

Committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) has not officially taken a position on the issue, committee spokeswoman Bethany Aronhalt told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 22. Aronhalt added that the panel is tasked with revisiting several issues that attracted Republican criticism during the Obama administration.

“After years of an extreme and partisan agenda that promoted the interests of union leaders at the expense of workers’ rights, there is a lot of work to do to restore fairness and balance to labor policies,” Aronhalt said in the statement. “The committee intends to take a number of steps to strengthen protections for workers. This legislation will continue to be an important part of the discussion as we move forward.”

Staffers for majority leaders Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Steve Scalise (R-La.) didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s inquiries about the lawmakers’ positions on the issue.

King in January 2015 introduced the National Right-to-Work Act (H.R. 612). The legislation, which had 128 co-sponsors, was referred to the Education and the Workforce Committee but never proceeded beyond that. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a similar right-to-work bill in the Senate during the last Congress. The measure, which had 29 Republican co-sponsors did not move.

An aide for Paul told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 22 that he is expected to re-introduce a right-to-work bill “very soon.”

Democrats Push Against Right-to-Work Bills

National right-to-work bills have faced strong opposition from Democrats, who say the measures are a threat to labor unions. Some of those lawmakers have already vowed to fight against the bill.

“This legislation clearly has one purpose: to undermine the capacity of unions to protect workers and defund them,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the Education and the Workforce Committee’s ranking member, said in a written statement. “This bill is a direct attack on workers and their families, by weakening unions’ ability to collectively bargain and negotiate for good wages and benefits.”

Despite some resistance, there’s a strong chance that the Workforce committee could schedule a hearing for the proposed measure this Congress, Mourad told Bloomberg BNA.

The optimism is fueled in part by the knowledge that Foxx “has co-sponsored the bill in the past and there is some hope that she will do a hearing,” he said.

Wilson and King have voiced optimism that the legislation could gain more support than in previous years, now that many states have adopted their own version of the law.

“We need to expand common-sense reforms, like those in the National Right to Work Act to protect American workers and create jobs,” Wilson told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 31.The national proposal also comes amid the White House recently voicing support for right-to-work laws. President Donald Trump expressed support for right-to-work laws on the campaign trail in 2016.

More States Adopt Right-to-Work Laws

The latest try at a national right-to-work law comes as a growing number of states have adopted their own laws. Twenty-eight states have right-to-work laws on the books, including Missouri, where Gov. Eric Greitens (R) signed the measure into law Feb. 6.

Some states have used their right-to-work status as a recruiting tool to attract new businesses. That includes Alabama, where voters in November approved a right-to-work amendment to the state’s constitution.

“Here in Alabama (on November 8th), voters gave Alabama’s right-to-work statute constitutional protection and signaled that we are indeed open for business,” William Canary, president and CEO of the pro-amendment Business Council of Alabama, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail Feb. 22. “Over the last two decades, many businesses that were once located in heavily unionized states chose to move operations and locate their facilities in the right-to-work Alabama due to the ability to compete in the global marketplace.”

Canary has told Bloomberg BNA that right-to-work laws make up one of four “pillars” that a state can cite to attract businesses and boost job numbers, along with infrastructure, education reform and health-care quality.

Brad Jones, Missouri state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, lauded Missouri’s right-to-work status as leveling the competition with its neighboring states.

“Seven of the eight states touching Missouri already have right-to-work legislation on the books,” he said after Greitens signed the measure. “Becoming a right-to-work state will immediately make us more competitive regionally and nationally. Employers look at a state’s right-to-work status when deciding where to locate or expand.”

Right-to-Work a State Issue?

Competitive interests could fuel some reluctance for the national bill. Byrne said he’s open to further discussions about the federal measure.

“While I am open to a discussion about changes at the federal level, I believe the issue is best addressed on a state-by-state basis,” he said.

Staff members for Wilson and King did not respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment about the concerns.

Philip Rosen, a principal at Jackson Lewis, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 21 that despite the competition, states will likely support a national measure.

“If they can get a federal bill passed, then their constituencies would be supportive of that,” he said. “Those right-to-work states still have a competitive advantage because those states presumably have lower levels of unionization.”

—With assistance from Christopher Opfer.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law