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County right-to-work ordinance negated

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Governor signs bill giving state sole authority on union membership

In an action that effectively nullified a Chaves County resolution, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Union Security Agreements Act, which gives the state the sole authority to determine whether private-sector employees in New Mexico can be required to participate in unions.

The governor’s signature on Wednesday affects resolutions enacted by 10 counties and the Village of Ruidoso since September 2017. The Chaves County Board of Commissioners in May unanimously passed its resolution prohibiting unions at privately owned companies from requiring union membership or dues payment.

“House Bill 85 makes the Chaves County ordinance unenforceable,” said Chaves County Manager Stanton Riggs. “I am not sure what, if anything, we will do with our ordinance. I can tell you that we were trying to promote business and attract new businesses to our county.”

Rep. Greg Nibert, a Republican from Roswell representing District 59, spoke against the bill on the House floor, and several other area legislators sponsored a countermeasure. The Employee Preference Act, House Bill 378, did not advance out of a House Committee this year.

The grassroots effort to pass right-to-work laws at the county and municipal level began after several years of unsuccessful attempts to pass a statewide measure in the New Mexico Legislature. The New Mexico arm of Americans for Prosperity, a national political action group funded in large part by Charles and David Koch, helped galvanize support for local ordinances.

New Mexico State Director of Americans for Prosperity Burly Cain said the organization thinks possible legal avenues or statewide ballot measures are still available to ensure right-to-work provisions for state workers.

“It is interesting to see the governor taking away local protections without actually providing any new ones to replace them to help one partisan group over another,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but we will keep fighting through it and we do have every confidence that we will succeed in protecting those workers in the long run.”

He said he considers required union participation to violate workers’ rights of freedom of association and speech, given that unions often fund or support specific political positions. He also said he disagrees with lawmakers who called county ordinances illegal. He added that conversations are occurring now about various legal issues concerning the new law, including its impact on a pending state lawsuit and whether the state has the right to override local ordinances.  

The pending lawsuit involves the Sandoval County ordinance passed in January 2018. The New Mexico Federation of Labor quickly filed suit when it was enacted. The drafters of the Union Security Agreements Act specifically denied that the bill was attempting to circumvent that case, saying that it instead was attempting to avoid the state becoming a “checker board” of conflicting rules. The Democratic-controlled chambers passed the bill with a 43-23 vote in the House on Feb. 22 and a 23-19 vote in the Senate on March 10.

One of the law’s co-sponsors, Democratic Rep. Damon Ely, a lawyer from Corrales representing District 23, said during House debate that the question surrounding House Bill 85 was not whether required union participation or right-to-work policies are better, but whether the state alone should have the right to determine policy regarding union participation, as he said is dictated by the National Labor Relations Act and the bulk of court precedence.

Nevertheless he and his co-sponsor, Rep. Andrea Romero (D-District 46), clearly supported union participation, calling county right-to-work legislation “union busting” measures. Ely said it would be comparable to laws requiring phone companies to provide free phones to all customers.

Some of the arguments by those who opposed the bill included that unions aren’t required by law to represent non-members and that right-to-work provisions compel unions to be more responsive to employees to ensure participation.

The question about whether right-to-work states perform better economically was debated often, with both sides offering statistics and information to support their views.

The state law does not affect government or public-sector employees, who are covered by federal employment law. But union membership in that arena is also frequently debated and litigated. A June 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ruled that forced union participation violated the free-speech rights of a state of Illinois employee.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics about 8.2 percent of the state’s workers, or about 67,000 people, were represented by unions in 2018, with about 6.8 percent of the workforce, or about 56,000 people, belonging to the unions. In that same year, Texas had 4.3 percent of its employees as union members, Colorado had 11 percent, Arizona had 5.3 percent and Oklahoma had 5.7 percent. 

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.