The beginnings of bargaining rights

How a teachers’ strike led to NH’s collective bargaining law

In the early 1970s, public employees in New Hampshire didn’t have a lot of rights when it came to collective bargaining. They could, however, strike. Things reached a crisis point when, in 1974, teachers from the Timberlane School District went on the longest public employee strike in history.

Something needed to be done to instill order into the system of public employee collective bargaining.

“The legislature understood we needed to act and stop squabbling,” said attorney Dick Molan, who at the time was on the staff at the SEA. “The speaker of the House established a committee. They rented an office and put all of us in there — management and labor — and told us to hammer out a system.”

After about two weeks of give and take, the group emerged with what would become RSA 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. The proposed law would outlaw strikes, but compel public employers and employees to bargain in good faith. In short, it provided balance to an unbalanced system.

Executive order

While the SEA’s history dates back to the early 1940s, the idea of collective bargaining for public employees didn’t gain steam until President Kennedy issued an executive order allowing federal employees to bargain.

“After that, a wave spread across the country — mostly in northern states — to allow public employees to bargain,” Molan said.

New Hampshire actually had a provision going back to the 1950s that gave towns and cities the ability to collectively bargain if they chose to do so. The first contracts started to appear around 1953 in Manchester’s public works department. The movement caught fire with state employees in the late 1960s, Molan said.

“The SEA was able to push through a law in 1969 that allowed employees to bargain over everything except wages and benefits,” Molan said. “So you could talk about the color of the walls” but not those important financial issues.

In the early 1970s, different labor unions in New Hampshire all offered up drafts of laws that were aimed to closely mirror the National Labor Relations Act. None got much traction until the turning point — the Timberlane strike. The work stoppage wasn’t just a big deal here, it made national news on the pages of the New York Times.

‘The pressure was there’

Then-Gov. Meldrim Thomson wanted a resolution, and asked Molan and the commissioner of the Department of Labor to mediate. The teachers said yes, but the school district said no. Needless to say, the governor wasn’t happy.

“We had a very direct order from the speaker of the House, who said ‘you are going to come up with a bill,’” Molan said. “The pressure was there and no one was going to resist it.”

The law had mutual benefits. It put an end to public employee strikes that could prove debilitating to employers, but it also established a system in which labor and management were compelled to negotiate in good faith. The law also created the Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB), which plays a key role in the relationship between labor and management.

‘Things have changed’

The bill that created RSA 273-A was eventually approved and took effect in December 1975. That such a complicated and far-reaching bill came together so quickly and in such a bipartisan fashion might seem foreign in today’s political environment.

“Things have changed so much,” Molan said. “Back then, people actually did sit down together.”

Molan reminisced about Concord’s old Highway Hotel, which burned down nearly 30 years ago.

“The hotel used to give legislators a great deal on rooms,” he said. “Most stayed over Tuesday and Wednesday night. Everybody knew one another. Lobbyists were expected to have hospitality suites one of the two nights. The result was that you really got to know people on a personal level, and lawmakers got to know each other on a personal level. That made all the difference.”

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