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Idaho lawmakers targeting labor unions

BOISE – Idaho’s labor unions are already the 97-pound weakling, but the Republican majority in the state Legislature is trying to kick more sand in their face.

Less than 10 percent of Idaho’s working population belongs to labor organizations, even as lawmakers work to chip away at union leverage during the 2011 session.

The legislation started in late January, with a bill that would keep state and local governments from requiring contractors bidding on public works projects from paying workers predetermined wages and benefits. The Republican-backed measure also seeks to prohibit a requirement that contractors forge agreements with workers on issues such as paying union-scale wages as a condition of winning a bid on a government construction job.

Industry groups backing the bill complain these anticompetitive agreements are driving up the cost of projects and resulting in union workers from outside Idaho winning jobs within the state.

Dave Whaley, president of AFL-CIO Idaho, rejects the notion that unions are giving a leg up to out-of-state workers. “That’s not true,” he said. “It’s just an out-and-out attack on unions.”

Idaho marked its 25th year as a right-to-work state in 2010, a status that means employees can’t be required to join unions or pay dues as a condition of employment.

Another bill targeting unions seeks to forbid them from using dues to subsidize members’ wages to help union shop contractors win projects. These subsidies, known as job-targeting programs, can lower a union contractor’s overall costs and allow them to submit more competitive bids.

Other bills introduced in early February would weaken the influence of the Idaho Education Association, which represents 13,000 public schoolteachers and school employees.

The association already felt under threat this year with a proposal Republicans unveiled in January to overhaul the public education system. It includes a pay-for-performance plan and would require teachers to forgo coveted job security.

Legislation introduced by Republican Reps. Bob Nonini and Reed DeMordaunt last week would ban taxpayer money from going toward a labor organization for dues or to train workers, while also prohibiting school districts from including union activities in job descriptions or paying teachers for any time they spent on those activities.

Democrats called the bills a “shotgun” approach with far-reaching ramifications in Idaho, where participation in labor organizations is among the lowest in the nation.