March 10, 2019

Senate sends gov. bill striking down local ‘right-to-work’ measures

Matthew Reichbach

A large turnout for a Sandoval County Commission hearing about right-to-work legislation.

New Mexico is not what is known as a “right-to-work” state, and the Legislature drove home that point Sunday night.

The Senate voted 23-19 to approve House Bill 85, which permits employers and labor organizations in New Mexico to enter into agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment.

Now the measure goes to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who’s well aware that 10 of the state’s 33 counties have adopted so-called right-to-work laws that say employees cannot be compelled to pay fees to a labor union that represents them on the job.

The Senate struck back by approving the bill that strikes down these local measures.

In some ways, the bill is as symbolic as the the city and county ordinances it seeks to void, merely reaffirming New Mexico’s labor laws.

But Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the Legislature’s role in approving the bill tells city and county governments they do not have the power to authorize right-to-work laws any more than they could cut the tax rate for corporations. The power in both cases rests with the state government, Cervantes said.

More important, Cervantes said, the Legislature is helping cities and counties avoid being being sued because they have created laws that exceed the scope of their authority.

Still, the debate on the Senate floor opened some fissures between Democrats and between urban and rural lawmakers.

All 16 Republicans and three Democrats backed the efforts of a political organization called Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has pressed for the local laws in select parts of the state.

Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, said House Bill 85 tells those communities that their views don’t matter and would amount to Santa Fe wielding a heavy hand over the rest of the state.

Republicans and industry groups have usually backed such ordinances, arguing that loosening laws on labor unions would help draw business to the state.

Moreover, Republicans argued these laws would only be fair, as they would give workers a broader choice on whether to align with a union.

Even some Democrats suggested the Legislature should leave debates about union fees to local governments.

“We need to let those governments do their job,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, one of the Democrats who voted against the bill.

The others were Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces.

And Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said early in debate over the bill that he had not heard a principled explanation of why the Legislature should override the will of local governments.

Cervantes had a fast reply. He said the 10 counties that approved right-to-work laws will squander taxpayers’ money on the lawsuits they have invited. He pointed to an attorney general’s opinion and a federal court decision as evidence that the local governments cannot win in court.

Candelaria was persuaded. He voted for the bill.

Other Democrats said so-called right-to-work laws are not about boosting economies but undercutting workers’ wages.

Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, argued the state’s lagging economy has to do with many problems other than labor laws, from crime to poverty.

It’s a myth that right-to-work laws make a state’s economy better, Tallman said.

“I wish it were that simple,” he said, adding that the laws weaken unions and depress wages.

Today, about 8 percent of New Mexico workers are represented by labor unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s on the low end when compared to other states but higher than New Mexico’s immediate neighbors, except for Colorado, where 12 percent of workers are represented by unions.