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Could ‘Right to Work’ Gain Traction in RI Senate?

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Right to Work is a controversial topic that has recently become a popular talking point in many states around the country as school districts look for new ways to save money and break away from some of the negotiated contracts with teachers unions that opponents say are too burdensome to carry any longer.

But in a state like Rhode Island, which is so heavily democratic that you can almost count the Republican and Independent General Assembly members on two hands, the odds of any meaningful legislation broaching the topic even being discussed at the State House are slim, right?

Not if one State Senator gets his way.

In a bill submitted to the Senate Labor Committee last week, District 21 Senator Nicholas Kettle (Coventry, Foster, Scituate, West Greenwich) proposed allowing the state’s teachers the option of opting in or out of a union, a measure he says is designed to give them a choice but which national opponents have consistently argued is a backhanded attempt to strip unions of their power.

The theory opponents to Right to Work argue is that once teachers are no longer forced to be in a union, they’ll opt out and take their dues money with them and, without dues money, a union would be unable to operate.

But Kettle says that’s not his intention.

“Teacher’s should have a choice whether or not they want to be a part of an organization like the (National Education Association) NEA which uses questionable tactics in dealing with the legislature,” he said. “They extort funds from teachers to go to candidates for campaigns of people they may or may not support and I think this is another part of our civil rights. People should be able to choose if they want to join a union or not.”
Kettle, a fairly new politician who only just turned 22 and is in his second term after a razor-thin victory of 1.5 percent on election night, says he knows his legislation faces tough odds and an even tougher opponent.

“The money,” Kettle said when asked what the biggest challenge to a Right to Work law is. “The unions, the minion system that the NEA has so perfected. They’re able to give money to candidates who then do the bidding of the unions and those who do not are basically ousted for non-compliance. They donate to all these senators and representatives so to put something like this forward is very difficult with the money that we’re going up against and just the absolute entrenchment of the democrats.”

Still, Kettle hopes submitting his bill will at least start the discussion at the state level.

“I would love to get it passed,” he said. “Obviously I know there’s slim chances but my constituents, with their election of myself as the youngest state senator in America, they want something different than what it being offered by the democratic leadership that’s up on Smith Hill.”

Kettle says he believes Right to Work would be a “game-changer” in Rhode Island and could even “accelerate” the state’s economy but opponents have constantly countered that argument with beliefs that all the system would really do is allow for districts to pay their teachers less and strip some, if not all, of the benefits made through years of negotiation.

“They have said in the past that it’s right to work for less money and that could be a possibility,” he concedes. “Non-unionized people, people who choose not to be a part of the union and take employment may very well make less money but it’s their choice. But also, keep in mind too that even though they may be making less money, they’re not having to pay dues every single week out of their paychecks.”

For Kettle, it comes down to making a change.

“We have big drops in education,” he said. “I just went through high school and now I’m in college and I see a lot of teachers in the classroom and they’re fantastic with our children. There are a lot of great teachers and I was lucky to have them but there are some teachers who fail our students and the NEA protects those teachers and those teachers are the ones that should not be in the classroom.”

And as for those arguments that this legislation is an attempt at stripping the teachers’ union one piece at a time?

“I’m not getting rid of the teacher’s union,” Kettle said. “I think the teacher’s union should stay but I think there should be a choice and those teachers who opt to not join the union, they can keep more money in their pockets by not paying out dues. This would allow districts to perhaps possibly attract high quality better teachers that are on a performance-based salary and basically this would help improve education.

It is just a choice. I do not want to eliminate the union, I just want to create a choice.”


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