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After failure in Legislature, right-to-work drive shifts to counties

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Right-to-work proponents, after failed attempts at the state Legislature, are now turning their attention to Sandoval County.

County Commissioners Jay Block and David Heil are sponsoring the proposal, which, if approved, would make Sandoval County the first county in New Mexico to have a right-to-work law.

Under right-to-work legislation, employees in unionized workplaces cannot be forced to join a union or pay union dues, while receiving the same benefits as union members who do contribute.

A similar move is planned in Bernalillo County. Commissioner Wayne Johnson said he will also propose right-to-work legislation, although he doesn’t have a draft yet and doesn’t have a timetable for introducing it.

Block and Heil say the legislation would help Sandoval County lure more businesses to the area and improve the local economy. Block said they based the measure on a similar ordinance approved by Hardin County, Ky.

Block, pointing to Sandoval County’s unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, said the measure is needed in an area that has seen the loss of thousands of jobs at the Rio Rancho Intel plant.

However, Jon Hendry, with the New Mexico Federation of Labor, says less union representation would mean lower-paying jobs.

His union promises to take the county to court if the commission approves the measure barring unions from imposing mandatory fees on workers.

The proposed ordinance is set to be introduced Thursday, Block said. It exempts public employee unions and existing private-sector union contracts.

An initial draft was discussed earlier this month at a raucous commission meeting that drew a capacity crowd.

Through the years, right to work has been a hotly contested issue in the state Legislature. Just this year, a Republican-backed effort to make New Mexico the nation’s 29th state with a right-to-work law failed.

A similar measure won House approval in 2015 but stalled in the Senate.

Pushing right-to-work legislation in Sandoval County is the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based group that is promoting similar legislation around the country.

The national group was founded by and has received funding from billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. State director Burly Cain said chapter members are native New Mexicans and the effort is boosted by local donors.

Heil said he hopes the proposal would put Sandoval County on a more equal footing with nearby states that have right-to-work laws.

“We here in New Mexico are kind of an island of poverty, high unemployment and low pay,” Heil said.

Nationally, 28 states have passed some version of right-to-work laws. Among neighboring states, Arizona, Texas, Utah and Oklahoma have right-to-work laws. Colorado does not have a right-to-work law, but employees at most workplaces are not required to join a union or pay dues, even though they enjoy the same compensation and benefits as union members, according to Non-union workers there are not covered by other union protections, such as legal representation in employment disputes. And workers there can override right-to-work provisions by becoming an “all-union” shop.

Block said Sandoval County relies on the Sandoval Economic Alliance development group to attract jobs but is hobbled by lack of a right-to-work law. Not having such a law is a disincentive for companies to locate in Rio Rancho and the surrounding area, he said.

Hendry argued that unions are key to negotiating higher wages.

“We don’t need more cheap jobs,” he said. “We need more better-quality jobs that pay taxes and put money into the system.”

Opponents point to a federal court ruling in 1990 that blocked the city of Clovis from imposing a right-to-work measure, saying it could only be done at the state or federal level.

Hendry said the current move is a “waste of money for Sandoval County” because it will take years to litigate, costing taxpayers money in legal fees.

In the meantime, he said, other cases working their way through the court system likely will be decided sooner by the state Supreme Court.

Despite the expense of litigation, Block said he saw the move as “an investment” toward a better job picture in Sandoval County.

“It’s worth the fight,” Heil said. “We want more jobs in New Mexico.”