Gov. Sununu emerges from right-to-work fight with three government union endorsements

“I can tell you with confidence that Governor Sununu has yet to tell us no on an important issue of ours.”

– Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire President Bill McQuillen

The quote above was the most interesting statement in New Hampshire politics this week.

(We know what you’re thinking. What about Sen. Jeff Woodburn’s Thursday claim, released incredibly during a live national television broadcast of U.S. senators hearing testimony on allegations of sexual assault? Well, the senator’s claim was filed in court papers and not made in a statement.)

McQuillen’s statement accompanied the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire’s endorsement of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu for re-election. The union hasn’t endorsed a Republican for governor since Gov. Craig Benson ran for re-election in 2004.

That 14-year gap between PFFNH endorsements of a Republican candidate for governor was noteworthy. But what made this endorsement extraordinary was McQuillen’s statement, for it came just a year after the state’s public-sector unions vigorously opposed Gov. Sununu’s first major legislative initiative: a right-to-work bill.

Right to work’s defeat last year largely neutralized it as a general election issue this year. (It played a role in Republican primary races). It’s near disappearance from the 2018 general election has made it easy to forget how big a topic it was in 2016 and early 2017.

Then-Executive Councilor Sununu made it a signature campaign issue. It was for a while the top political issue in New Hampshire, causing State House protests and prompting the state Republican Party to build a separate fund-raising campaign around it.

Just a year later, three public-sector unions have endorsed the governor who led the campaign for a right-to-work law. And the head of one of those unions seemed to suggest that right to work was not an important issue for the organization.

The N.H. Troopers Association hasn’t endorsed a Republican for governor since 2000. The N.H. Police Association endorsed Sununu in June, which is the earliest it’s ever endorsed a candidate for governor. These weren’t lukewarm endorsements. All three unions made them with enthusiasm. There were no caveats, no mention of right to work.

The State Employees Association (Service Employees International Union Local 1984) pointedly mentioned right to work in the union’s endorsement of Democratic candidate for governor Molly Kelly on Wednesday. But for the law enforcement and firefighters unions, right to work clearly is not at the top of the priority list.

Firefighters, for example, were far more interested in legislation granting them the legal presumption that a firefighter’s cancer was contracted on the job and is therefore covered under workman’s compensation. Gov. Sununu signed that bill into law in July.

Recent history suggests that right to work is not of zero concern to these unions. But the fact that it’s such a low priority suggests one of two calculations were made. 1.) These union leaders consider right to work dead and therefore not a threat in the next legislative session. 2.) These union leaders have reasoned that their members value the delivery of tangible benefits much more highly than they value the political clout that is the primary product of both a single-party political alliance and the absence of a right-to-work law.

They may also understand that political power is enhanced when loyalty is not taken for granted.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling doesn’t appear to be a major factor, though it’s possible that the changed environment for public-sector unions post-Janus could have been a contributing factor in the firefighters and troopers endorsements. (The police endorsed days before the ruling.)

As the Josiah Bartlett Center discovered through a right-to-know request this summer (and this newsletter was first to report), the agency fees which Janus outlawed were not a significant source of revenue for law enforcement unions. They made up a substantial portion of the SEA’s revenue, however.

Regardless of what influence the Janus ruling might have had, the big takeaway here is that a Republican governor who strongly supports right-to-work legislation won the endorsement of three public-sector unions the year after leading a big right-to-work push. That’s a most noteworthy development that hasn’t received the attention it deserves.