The Sandoval County Commission adopted a “right-to-work” ordinance early Friday to loud applause, despite the threat of a lawsuit from an opponent and an opinion from the state’s attorney general that the measure is illegal.
The ordinance, approved 3-1 with one abstention, prevents employees from being compelled to join a union or paying union fees. Supporters say right-to-work legislation promotes economic development; opponents say it undermines unions and lead to worse conditions for workers.
Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, said his organization will sue the county as a result of its decision.
“The attorney general just said this was illegal, and the county approves it the next day?” he said. “I’m a little shocked by all this, to be honest. It’s dodgy at best.”
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, in a letter released this week, wrote that the measure exceeds the authority of the county, will create confusion among businesses, is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act and likely would be overturned if challenged in court.
The letter was written to State Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., a Democrat who represents parts of Sandoval County and asked Balderas for his opinion.
Over 40 people signed up to comment on the right-to-work issue at the commission’s meeting. One of them was Roger Rael, who said his father had been ousted from a union because of health issues.
“I have had the worst experiences with unions,” he said, shouting and pounding his fists on the podium. “My father worked in the coal mines for 30 years . . . and was diagnosed with black lung. What did the union do? They pushed him aside after he paid his dues for all those years and left him with nothing.”
Before the commission voted, Chairman Dave Heil told the crowd that two lawyers had agreed to take on any lawsuits stemming from a passage of the right-to-work ordinance on a pro-bono basis.
Vice Chairman Kenneth Eichwald said he was surprised his fellow commissioners supported an ordinance they knew was illegal.
“Yes, Sandoval County does not have to pay for the attorney fees,” Eichwald said. “But if Sandoval County is not to prevail in this lawsuit . . . the county is still responsible for legal fees, which could be up to four times the amount of legal fees to the opposing party.”
Commissioner Don Chapman asked his fellow commissioners to wait until they could put together a measure that would keep them out of any legal entanglements.
“I don’t know any judge that will uphold this ordinance because it violates state statute as written,” Chapman said. “I suggest we pull back and reword a few things because the way it is now, it will die before it gets traction.”
In the end, Commissioners James Holden-Rhodes, Jay Block and Heil voted yes, with a no vote from Eichwald and an abstention from Chapman.
Journal staff writer Marie C. Baca contributed to this report.