The decision by gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger to build new facilities in North Carolina and not New Hampshire has resurrected the old debate over whether right-to-work laws harm a state’s economy and quality of life.
As the top labor leaders of two states with very different experiences with right-to-work, we maintain that right-to-work is not a viable strategy for economic growth. In North Carolina, which has had a right-to-work for less law since 1947, it has encouraged the development of a low-wage economy and institutionalized poverty and an environment that puts corporate profits ahead of the well-being of North Carolina families.
The reality is that Sturm, Ruger’s decision has less to do with right-to-work and more with a demonstrated practice of increasing its profits at any cost — including the elimination of a strong middle class. And it is moving to a state whose legislature has embraced the same extreme ideology, at a terrible cost to the people who live there.
Recent job postings reveal that Sturm, Ruger offers its lower-level jobs in New Hampshire through a temporary staffing agency. By keeping workers on “long-term temporary” contracts, Sturm, Ruger undermines the stability of our workforce, shirking its responsibility to New Hampshire workers and their families. Its values are incongruous with New Hampshire’s long-held belief that our strength comes from a strong middle class.
Over the past decade, Sturm, Ruger has also spent exorbitant legal fees suing George W. Bush’s Department of Labor to dodge a standard safety inspection mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Why would any reasonable employer not agree to basic health and safety inspections that protect workers from injury or death on the job?
Granite Staters have long understood that economic prosperity comes from a strong middle class. Companies who choose New Hampshire locate there for a combination of strengths — an educated workforce, a unique tax structure, an unparalleled quality of life and a business-friendly government. It is no surprise that the people of New Hampshire have repeatedly rejected attempts to pass right-to-work for less.
In contrast, North Carolina’s legislature has made it a priority since 2010 to pursue an economic agenda that puts corporate profits over the well-being of its own citizens.
Elected officials in North Carolina have recently slashed state unemployment benefits and raised unemployment taxes on businesses, carelessly triggering the immediate loss of all federal benefits for 70,000 unemployed workers, with 100,000 more set to lose those benefits through the end of 2013. And in a state that already ranks 46th in the nation for teacher pay, the legislature is set to slash pay further, while repealing limits on class sizes, firing teaching assistants and cutting 10,000 kindergarten slots and services for disabled children.
Where has much of the money for those services gone? Toward tax cuts and tax incentives to woo companies like Sturm, Ruger to North Carolina.
Current economic statistics point toward a much better economic situation for workers in New Hampshire than for those in North Carolina. North Carolina has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the United States today and ranks 41st in highest average income, according to the U.S. Census. By comparison, New Hampshire has the sixth lowest unemployment rate and ranks second in average income.
Data from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration reveals that North Carolina’s rate of workplace fatalities in 2011 was higher than the national average — and three times that of New Hampshire’s.
Many Tar Heels have already pushed back on the direction that North Carolina is heading in. Since April 29, thousands of workers, faith leaders and people of all stripes have assembled for our “Moral Monday” protests, speaking out every week at the General Assembly against the vision of a state where the rich and corporations profit at the expense of our schools, our unemployed and our poor and disabled. More than 700 people have chosen civil disobedience in the face of this injustice and have been arrested.
The people of North Carolina recognize that this is not the kind of state they want to live in, and they are fighting now to restore an economy where everyone has the ability to earn a living with dignity. We agree with our brothers and sisters in New Hampshire that widening income inequality and poverty should not be a by-product of economic growth.
For too long, American workers have been forced to compete against one another in a desperate race to the bottom. It does not have to be that way. There is an alternative, and it starts with rebuilding a strong middle class, the backbone to a vibrant economy for all of us.
Mark MacKenzie is president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. James Andrews is president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.