A Sandoval County Commission meeting attracted a boisterous crowd Thursday night, as passions ran high over a proposed right-to-work ordinance.
The capacity crowd remained mostly respectful, at least until after public comment and once the commissioners began speaking. One commissioner compared unions to the mafia and then singled out a teacher who commented earlier and blamed teachers unions for poor education of students.
Right-to-work laws, which are in place in more than half the states in the country, bar unions from imposing mandatory fees on workers. The proposed ordinance would not apply to current companies and unions in the county.
The biggest outbursts came after Commissioner James F. Holden-Rhodes spoke in the final minutes of the public portion of the meeting.
“I’m probably the only member of the commission who was in a union. Don’t get excited. When I came off active duty the first time to go to graduate school, I needed a night job so I loaded trailers with Yellow Freight and I was forced to join a union. I felt like I was back in Massachusetts with the goombadis I grew up with in the mafia,” he said to grumbles in the crowd. “It was beyond me how Yellow Freight could make a profit with the nonsense the Teamsters were up to.”
A minute later, he called out a specific union member.
“To the young lady that stood up, is she here? She’s from the teacher’s union?”
“Yeah, right here,” she said, raising her hand.
“You and your ilk are responsible in large measure for the absolute disaster of our American schools today. And nowhere else is that more important than in Sandoval County—” he said before being cut off by the crowd. Opponents of right-to-work yelled that Holden-Rhodes was making personal attacks, and Commission Chairman Don Chapman threatened to clear the room.
About a quarter of the room left anyway, some yelling out that the commissioners were hypocrites.
This was a far cry from the previous tone during two public comment periods.
Before Holden-Rhodes’ comments, the Sandoval County Commission heard hours of public comment on the proposed right-to-work ordinance before formally introducing it. Commissioner Jay Block introduced the final language for the commission to vote on later this month at its next meeting.
Union members came out in force to oppose the proposal. They spoke about how unions helped their lives, providing good pay and benefits. They said that right-to-work would harm unions by forcing them to negotiate for workers who don’t pay dues—essentially for free.
A handful of outnumbered proponents, most wearing red shirts provided by the conservative, Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity, said right-to-work would bring more businesses to the county and help workers by providing higher wages.
Several union members, including New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO President Jon Hendry, said the battle would end in an expensive legal battle for the county.
“I’m sure there are better things you can do with your money,” Hendry said.
The commission went into a closed session afterward to discuss the promised legal challenge. A federal court ruled in 1990 that the City of Clovis could not impose right-to-work because that could only be done at a state or federal level.
However, a federal court in 2016 ruled that counties in Kentucky could do so. The Kentucky case could head to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When proponents, including AFP state director Burly Cain and Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing, spoke, union members murmured but largely kept quiet.
Cain said the county needs to pass an ordinance because the New Mexico State Legislature failed to pass a statewide bill.
“If the politicians in Santa Fe won’t do it, we must,” he said.
Jose Valenzuela, who said he worked for 41 years, said the wages he received as a union member helped him send his two children to college.
“It gave me a pension,” he said. “It gave me a life that I could live very comfortably.”
Union members cheered Valenzuela and each person who spoke in opposition of the right-to-work ordinance.
Committee members speak
There weren’t many cheers once public comment ended and commissioners began to speak.
Jay Block, one of the sponsors of the proposal, said he faced personal attacks from Hendry, alleging Hendry attacked his patriotism.
Block said that his wife had to take photos down from his county Facebook page because of the comments he received on them.
“If this is the type of leadership you are supporting with Mr. Hendry it may be time to look for another leader who does not attack veterans or families for personal gain who disagree with them. There is no place for this behavior or other tactics that unions have employed.”
Block said he isn’t necessarily anti-union.
“I am a union supporter and believe that unions serve a purpose,” Block said to shouts and groans from union members.
Block said the proposal was not about busting unions, but growing the economy in the county.
Another sponsor, David Heil, also said it was about jobs and that he supported unions.
“What I’m interested in is growing jobs in New Mexico and Sandoval County,” he said.
Another committee member said he didn’t believe that the county was the right location for the debate.
“It’s a legislative issue and not a country issue,” Commissioner F. Kenneth Eichwald said, prompting applause.
Still, he said, “Sometimes you have to open a door here and a door there,”
The next Sandoval County Commission hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Correction: NM Political Report misidentified Commissioner Holden-Rhodes as Commissioner Eichwald in one reference. This has been fixed and we regret the error.