(Recasts and adds quote from governor)
By Scott Malone
Feb 16 (Reuters) - New Hampshire lawmakers on Thursday blocked a bill that would have allowed employees in union-represented jobs to opt out of paying their dues, a rare defeat in a Republican-controlled legislature for one of the party's national priorities.
Lawmakers in Missouri and Kentucky this year had already passed similar "right to work" measures, which are now in place in 28 U.S. states.
Despite support from New Hampshire's Republican Governor Chris Sununu, even advocates had acknowledged before the vote that it could fail, and the 200-177 margin showed significant numbers of Republicans voted against it.
One was a Republican representative, firefighter and Iraq war veteran who told his colleagues at the statehouse in Concord that unions had been instrumental in helping his fellow soldiers find well-paying work after returning home from war.
"Do we really want lower wages for our constituents?" asked the firefighter, Representative Sean Morrison. "Let us really work on what really brings jobs to our state."
Advocates of the idea had argued that it was necessary to help the state retain and attract large employers.
"The arguments used against passage of 'right to work' all have been heard before in other states," said Representative Laurie Sanborn, a Republican. "Nothing in this bill prevents or discourages anyone from joining a union if they wish. It just gives people a choice."
Labor unions say the laws undercut them by allowing people to avoid paying dues while still gaining the benefits and pay negotiated by the union.
Sununu, whose father, John Sununu, served as New Hampshire governor and later in the first Bush administration, signaled he would be moving on after the defeat.
"'Right to work,' though important, is just one piece of a broader effort to promote economic development," he said.
Union membership in New Hampshire is below the national average, with organized labor representing 9.4 percent of working people in the state compared with 10.7 percent nationwide, according to federal government data.
"Nationwide this is a hallmark Republican issue, but here it New Hampshire it's not so much of a litmus test," said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
The vote came a day after the U.S. labor movement notched a major loss in South Carolina, the least unionized state, when workers at a Boeing Co plant voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers. (Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown)