February 25, 2017

Dems block ban on mandatory union fees after impassioned debate

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

New Mexico will not become the nation’s 29th “right-to-work” state, at least not this year.

After testimony Saturday from a long line of union members and nearly two hours of debate, Democrats on a committee of the state House of Representatives killed a Republican bill that would have prohibited unions from imposing mandatory fees on workers.

Republicans argue such policies take money from workers who do not wish to join a union. Republican lawmakers also say banning compulsory union fees would create a better business environment, drawing investors and boosting employment.

Opponents counter that such a law would push down wages and unfairly require labor unions to represent workers for free.

So, as when Republicans have proposed similar measures around the country, New Mexico House Bill 432 became a flashpoint in the battle over the power of organized labor.

Democrats said the bill is merely a means of undermining unions. And dozens of union members turned out for a hearing on the bill by the House Labor and Economic Development Committee.

Republicans often call measures to prohibit compulsory union fees a “right-to-work” law. “A lot of folks who oppose this bill call it right to work for less,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, a Democrat from Mesilla Park and the committee’s chairman.

McCamley pointed to a 2015 report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found lower wages in states with laws that ban compulsory union fees.

Union members testified that their organizations would be undercut if saddled with the obligation to represent workers that do not pay fees or dues.

“If you don’t want to pay the freight, then you shouldn’t be able to take the ride,” said Robert Ferguson of the International Association of Machinists Local 2515 in Alamogordo.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, maintained it would give workers a choice.

“No one deserves a cut of an employee’s pay without their permission,” Townsend said. “A union should have to show the benefits of membership, and employees should have the right to decide whether it makes sense for them and their families to join.”

Federal law already prohibits employers from forcing workers to join unions as a condition of employment. But federal law allows unions to collect fees from workers who are not union members but are covered by a union contract. Unions argue such fees are only fair. They also point out that federal law prohibits them from using the money for political purposes. And according to the State Personnel Office, such fees for state government employees are typically equal to or less than membership dues.

About 49,000 New Mexicans, or 6.3 percent of the state’s workforce, belonged to labor unions in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But unions represented many more workers, about 64,000, or 8.2 percent of the workforce.

Several business groups backed the bill, formally referred to as the Employee Preference Act, saying it would improve the state’s business climate.

In an analysis of the bill, the State Personnel Office cited research by the conservative-leaning Mackinac Center showing faster job growth in states that don’t allow mandatory union fees.

“Businesses are more likely to locate in states with right-to-work laws,” said Paul Gessing, executive director of the libertarian-leaning Rio Grande Foundation.

The large turnout and impassioned crowd occasionally applauded those criticizing Townsend’s bill. This prompted Republican Rep. David Gallegos at one point to ask that McCamley clear the gallery if there were another outburst. McCamley declined to entertain Gallegos’ suggestion.

The outcome of the hearing probably was never in doubt. Democrats hold a 6-5 majority on the committee, and they voted together to block the bill.

Republicans have pushed similar measures around the country in recent years after a wave of victories in legislatures and governors’ races. Earlier this month, Missouri became the latest state to enact a “right-to-work” law.

New Mexico has been a tougher battleground for proponents of the idea.

A bill to ban the compulsory fees reached the desk of then-Gov. Bruce King in 1979. He vetoed it, having campaigned on a pledge to oppose such a measure.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.