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March 5, 2013

State House sides with business lobby on labor laws

ATLANTA — The Georgia House of Representatives has approved two labor law changes that Republican leaders say would protect workers and boost market competition.

Democratic opponents, meanwhile, criticized the measures on Monday as an attack on the organized labor in a state that already restricts union power with so-called “right-to-work” laws. Those laws bar union membership as a condition of employment.  

House Bill 361 would allow workers to opt out at any time from automatic payroll deductions for union dues. Current law says workers must have only an annual option to opt out.

House Bill 362 would prohibit any state or local government entity in Georgia from requiring that bidders for public works contracts use unionized labor for a project.

The bills passed on party-line votes and now head to the Senate. Both are backed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and other players in the business lobby.

Despite the limited scope of the measures, the floor debate Monday afternoon quickly evolved into a back-and-forth over economic theory and labor policy.

Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, an Atlanta Republican and sponsor of the bills, said he believes that Georgia’s status as a “right-to-work” state is under attack. So, he reasoned, the bills restate what he framed as protections to shield workers from being forced to join unions and giving unions unfair advantages in competing for public contracts.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Virgil Fludd noted that the bill contains provisions that reaffirm federal labor law. “I’ve been unable to determine why we need this bill,” he said. “Seems to me this is just an attack on unions,” he continued, noting that less than 5 percent of the Georgia workforce is a member of a union.

Lindsey answered: “It seems to me that what opponents are arguing is not what is in the bill but whether Georgia should be a right-to-work state at all.”

Fludd highlighted victories secured by organized labor: a 40-hour work week with overtime pay, paid family and medical leave, restrictions on child labor. Lindsey conceded those points but said there is a long list of abuse and corruption by American union bosses.

Both sides claimed the mantle minimal government interference with a free market.

Lindsey said “right-to-work” laws level the playing field for all workers and potential workers. Barring governments from mandating union labor on public works projects simply extends that protection, he said.  

House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, D-Atlanta, countered by gently mocking Republican orthodoxy that government should avoid “picking winners and losers.”

“We pick winners and losers here all the time,” she said. “They’re called tax credits.”

She also said it’s inappropriate for legislators in Atlanta to control how local governments structure local contracts.


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