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‘Right-to-work’ supporters eye other counties; Political groups, think tank confirm efforts in area

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“I am actively working with every county in the state of New Mexico, and cities,” says Burly Cain, state director of Americans for Progress, a political group pushing for what are known as “right-to-work” ordinances. He is shown at the May 21 meeting of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners, which unanimously approved such a measure. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Efforts to pass so-called right-to-work legislation in this region are by no means over now that Chaves County commissioners voted for an ordinance.

According to leaders with two groups that support such legislation, they are engaging in discussions with commissioners and city councilors in the region to get more laws in southeast New Mexico that apply to private-sector employees.

“Conversations are being had with all of those people,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. “Until a county commissioner or elected city councilor actually says we are going to introduce something and formally puts it out there, I don’t have a clear explanation of who is going to do it and when it will happen.”

He added that he and other right-to-work supporters are talking with elected officials throughout the state, including commissioners with Lea, Eddy, Roosevelt and Curry counties.

Burly Cain, state director of the political group Americans for Prosperity, also confirmed talking with southeast New Mexico elected officials.

“I will let them disclose their conversations about it as they want to,” said Cain. “I am actively working with every county in the state of New Mexico, and cities, and urging them to protect their workers.”

The county-by-county, city-by-city effort follows years of unsuccessful attempts by some state legislators, including several from southeastern New Mexico, to pass a statewide right-to-work law.

So far, Lincoln, Otero, Sandoval and Chaves counties have passed ordinances and McKinley and Torrance counties have considered them. Sandoval County’s enactment resulted in a lawsuit, and, prior to its passage, a New Mexico Attorney General’s opinion that the ordinance exceeded the county’s authority.

Right-to-work legislation can take various forms. The Chaves County ordinance approved unanimously May 21 permits unions, but bars those in private-sector businesses within the county jurisdiction from requiring employees to pay dues or belong to the union as a requirement of the job.

Public-sector employees in the county are not affected because state law has different rules governing them, yet Gessing pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court case as possibly changing the landscape for public employees.

A decision is expected any day in Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 31. Justices heard arguments in February, and some legal pundits have written that enough conservative justices belong to the court now to bring back a judgment for the plaintiff, Mark Janus.

Janus works for the state of Illinois and became a party to a lawsuit against the union because he chose not to be a member and yet was required to pay a “fair-share” contribution for the collective bargaining that the union did on behalf of all employees in his unit.

Twenty-two states, including New Mexico, have laws that allow unions representing public employees to require “fair share” payments. According to a news site, about 5 million public-sector employees are in those 22 states.

Nationwide in 2017, there were 14.8 million union workers, which is 10.7 percent of the U.S. wage and salary workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In New Mexico in 2017, 63,000 employees were represented by unions and 52,000 belonged to them. The number belonging to unions represented about 6.7 percent of people employed in the state.

Gessing called the current political effort regarding the private sector in New Mexico a “timely effort” given the Supreme Court case.

“If they give right-to-work to all government employees across the land, that might shake things up in regard to the private sector right-to-work,” said Gessing. “In New Mexico, it really is the government unions that have all the power, the political influence.”

Supporters of right-to-work laws have a long list of reasons for their views, including that such laws promote job and business growth, improve wages and protect workers’ freedoms, without prohibiting union activities.

“It doesn’t change whether the unions exist or not,” said Cain. “It just makes them value-driven like every other company and nonprofit and organization on earth, or the United States at least.”

Those who oppose right-to-work, including Connie Derr, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the AFSCME, have said that such legislation “harms communities and workers,” because it leads to lower wages and benefits and sometimes to unfair or unsafe working conditions.

They also said that even workers required to pay “fair share” payments for collective bargaining have choices. They can work elsewhere or, if joined by enough coworkers, vote the union out.

Derr said that her organization is “pushing back” whenever other groups try to have right-to-work laws introduced. She said that involves talking with elected officials and with union members about legislative efforts.

She added that New Mexico business and government leaders have wrongly characterized the issue as critically important to businesses when they choose locations. She said instead that leaders should concentrate on addressing issues of higher priority to site selectors — crime rates, workforce characteristics, developed land sites and good infrastructure.

“That is what those site selectors are looking at,” said Derr. “They are not looking at this right-to-work. A random few people, maybe, but at the end of the day, it does not weigh into their decision.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.