RALEIGH — Backing up comments promising North Carolina would remain the “least unionized state in the United States,” Speaker of the House Thom Tillis has sponsored a bill that would place on the November 2014 ballot constitutional amendments limiting union organizing.
House Bill 6, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, and Tom Murry, R-Wake, would allow citizens to vote on constitutional amendments that not only would cement North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state and guarantee the right of union members to elect their leaders by secret ballot, but also prohibit collective bargaining among public sector employees at all levels of government.
“We must protect our workers and their right to work,” Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, said in a January speech before the General Assembly. “We must send the very clear message to businesses already in North Carolina and those considering expanding here, that North Carolina will continue to be the least unionized state in the United States.”
Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw said the speaker’s message is part of the Republican majority efforts to turn the state’s economy around.
“We think that having this amendment in our constitution makes North Carolina more attractive for business and job creation,” Shaw said.
Once H.B. 6 was filed, it wasn’t long before pro-labor groups pushed back.
“North Carolina already has a right-to-work law and a ban on public sector collective bargaining. States that have passed amendments related to secret ballot union elections now face lawsuits and legal expenses. These amendments are a ridiculous waste of taxpayers’ time and money,” said state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan in a statement.
The N.C. Justice Center also criticized the bill, issuing a statement saying “research demonstrates that increased union membership leads to higher wages — for both union members and non-union members — and greater access to benefits such as health insurance and pensions.”
Left-leaning editorial boards weighed in as well. The Raleigh News &Observer stated, “given right–to-work is already law, a constitutional amendment is absolutely ridiculous,” while the Asheville Citizen-Times said, “North Carolina needs a constitutional right-to-work provision about as much as it needs one outlawing glaciers.”
North Carolina has banned collective bargaining by public employees since 1959. The state also faced a legal challenge to its status as a right-to-work state in the 1949 Lincoln Federal case, which also challenged Nebraska’s right-to-work constitutional amendment.
Both state laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state’s right-to-work status appears to be correlated with its low union membership. According to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.9 percent of North Carolina’s work force was unionized in both 2011 and 2012, for totals of 105,000 and 112,000, respectively. The other states with union membership at less than 5 percent of total employees are South Carolina (3.4 percent), Georgia (3.9 percent), Arkansas (4.2 percent), Louisiana (4.5 percent), Tennessee (4.6 percent), and Virginia (4.6 percent).
That’s compared with the most unionized states in the Lower 48: New York — where 24.1 percent of workers are union members — Washington (19.0 percent), Michigan (17.5 percent), Rhode Island (17.4 percent), Oregon (17.1 percent), and California (17.1 percent).
While the possibility of a legal challenge to North Carolina’s status as right-to-work state does not appear imminent, some say anything’s possible.
“Republicans are always worried about legal challenges. I can tell you that something you think is common sense and a slam dunk in the court system — well — no, it’s not,” said Rep. Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth, who is a secondary sponsor of the bill.
Conrad cited her experience as a Forsyth County commissioner and its legal battle with the ACLU over sectarian prayers at the opening of commission meetings.
That legal battle worked its way through the courts until the Supreme Court declined to hear Forsyth County’s appeal.
Supporters say the main purpose of a constitutional amendment is to send a message to companies that may be looking to relocate.
“Everything seems to be focused on one issue — making sure North Carolina attracts business. There seems to be one central mission — to figure out why North Carolina’s seems to be a great place for business, but yet it’s not happening,” Conrad said. “How can we get this stalled economy moving again? How can we get manufacturing back? If it takes a constitutional amendment to send the signal that we’re a right to work state, then that’s fine with me.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.