March 29, 2019

Lujan Grisham signs bill invalidating counties’ right-to-work laws

Matthew Reichbach

Supporters of right-to-work legislation in New Mexico were dealt a big blow Wednesday when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a bill to prohibit counties from passing their own right-to-work laws.

Compulsory union fees in the public sector was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018, but private sector unions can still require workers to pay union fees. It’s against the law for all unions to require workers to pay dues, but they can collect fees to pay for the wage and benefit bargaining.

With the governor’s signature, House Bill 85—sponsored by Democratic Reps. Daymon Ely of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe—invalidates resolutions passed, over a span of about 14 months in 10 New Mexico counties and one village, that barred union membership as a condition of employment.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki bluntly said state law takes precedence over local government.

“New Mexico is not a so-called ‘right-to-work’ state,” Stelnicki said. “That’s the reality in every county.”

The bill was a direct answer to a push by right-leaning organizations, led by Americans for Prosperity, to localize efforts that failed to pass the Legislature in 2015. That year, with a majority in the House, Republicans passed a bill that would have made it illegal for employers or labor unions to require workers to join a union as part of the job. That bill never made it past the Democratically controlled Senate.

A couple of years after that bill failed, Americans for Prosperity, a politically right-leaning group, began working with county commissions across the state to slowly pass their own right-to-work measures. Sandoval County was the first in the state to pass the law, but was quickly answered by a federal lawsuit from a labor union. The local labor union in that case argued the county did not have the authority to pass such a law and used an advisory letter from New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to back up its claim.

Supporters of right-to-work often argue individual workers should not have to rely on unions to advocate for pay raises and safe working conditions.

Americans for Prosperity-New Mexico State Director Burly Cain said Thursday that Lujan Grisham ignored New Mexicans who wanted a right-to-work law.

“We’re disappointed that the governor sought to limit worker freedom, despite the clear enthusiasm you’re seeing at these local county levels,” Cain said.

Even with HB 85 signed into law, there will likely be a legal challenge.

Cain said there are “ongoing legal discussions going on” about whether the New Mexico Constitution allows for the state to retroactively repeal local county laws and whether the National Labor Relations Act allows counties to pass such legislation.

State law allows for a process to repeal a law through a referendum process, but it requires a very high bar to even make it onto a ballot. House Republicans tried to repeal a gun law recently signed by Lujan Grisham using that process, but failed because laws providing for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety are exempt. The Secretary of State said the law to require background checks on most gun purchases was under this exemption.