TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Labor leaders in blue-leaning New Jersey, still licking their wounds after losing a fight over pension and health benefits in the Democratic Legislature last month, are being told a new anti-union bill doesn't stand a chance.
The Democrat who leads the state Assembly, Speaker Sheila Oliver, said New Jersey won't become a battleground over allowing public- and private-sector workers with union shops to opt out of joining or paying dues.
A right-to-work bill, barring union dues from being deducted from the paychecks of public employees, was quietly introduced last week amid a scathing partisan battle over the state budget.
"Workers ought to have the ability to decide whether they want to join a union or not," said the sponsor, Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, the top-ranking Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee. "If the unions can make a case they can benefit workers, I'll withdraw the bill. If they fail to make that case, why should the government order people to join or comply?"
He said the opt-out legislation helps control building costs and therefore encourages economic growth.
Oliver, who angered unions because of her support for the legislation raising employee health care and pension contributions, said the right-to-work measure is "dead on arrival."
"This type of move may play elsewhere, but, quite simply, this anti-worker bill will never see the light of day," she said.
There are 22 right-to-work states, where labor unions can't force workers to be members or pay dues. Most are in southern and western states, but they're gaining interest in other places, especially states where Republicans control the Legislature and the governor's office. In all, 42 right-to-work bills are pending in 24 states, according to the national Conference of State Legislatures.
"It really weakens unions. That's what it's designed to do," said Jeffrey Keefe, an associate professor at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations, who has watched the ebb and flow of battles over right-to-work measures.
The National Labor Relations Board has sued Boeing Co., claiming the aeronautics giant retaliated against its unionized work force in Washington state by opening a new production line for its 787 airplane in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The agency wants a judge to order Boeing to return all 787 assembly work to Washington. President Barack Obama, ordinarily a reliable supporter of organized labor, has avoided taking a position on the case.
In Michigan, birthplace of the United Auto Workers and a relative union stronghold, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has said right-to-work isn't among his high priorities. But supporters are anxious to get legislation to his desk to see if he might sign it. The measures have grass roots support from Michigan Freedom to Work, but none has seen votes in either house.
In New Hampshire, unions scored a victory last month when Republicans failed to garner enough votes to override the governor's veto of a right-to-work bill. The measure, which Republicans insist isn't dead yet, would allow private-sector workers to opt out of joining a union or paying dues at union workplaces.
New Jersey's bill would affect public workers, still reeling from last month's battle with the Legislature that ended with sharply higher employee pension and health benefits costs being signed into law and the suspension of collective bargaining over health care for four years. That bill was muscled through the Legislature with minimal support from Democrats, leaving pro-labor Democrats feeling betrayed and furious labor leaders vowing revenge at the ballot box.
Christie, who's become a national GOP icon known for tough talk and fiscal restraint, has been unrestrained in his criticism of unions, particularly the state's powerful public teachers union. The New Jersey Education Association, which recently spent $2 million in six weeks on anti-Christie ads, has been the recipient of many a Christie tirade, often for spending union dues teachers are required to pay to finance favored candidates or attack political foes.
O'Scanlon said the governor had not asked for the bill. "He may or may not embrace it. This is something I've been thinking about for a while," he said.
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