Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A U.S. Supreme Court ruling early Wednesday that struck down the practice of public sector labor unions collecting mandatory fees from non-union workers in work sites covered by collective bargaining agreements reverberated across New Mexico.
The ruling could affect thousands of non-union workers in the state who have been paying union fees, potentially weaken several prominent unions and embolden pro-business advocates who have pushed “right-to-work” laws in recent years.
Carter Bundy, the political and legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which has about 10,000 members in New Mexico, described the Supreme Court’s ruling as an “activist” decision that overturned more than 40 years of established law.
“This isn’t going to just hurt unions – it hurts everyone that makes less than $500,000 a year,” Bundy told the Journal. “But we will band together and we’ll fight back harder than ever.”
However, Burly Cain, the New Mexico state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group linked to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, lauded the Supreme Court’s ruling, calling it a “win” for workers.
“Forcing public workers to fund political activity to keep a job and support their family is not just unfair but also a violation of the bedrock principles enshrined in the Constitution,” Cain said in a statement.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision not only will free non-union members in nearly two dozen states from any financial ties to unions but also could encourage members to stop paying dues for services the court said Wednesday they can get for free, The Associated Press reported.
In New Mexico, of the roughly 769,000 state residents who were employed in 2017, about 63,000 of them – or 8.3 percent – were represented by labor unions, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of that number, about 52,000 – or 6.7 percent – were union members. More than half of the state’s union members belong to public sector unions, Bundy said.
The national union membership rate was 10.7 percent.
New Mexico’s Democratic-controlled Legislature has in recent years has rejected bills seeking to change state law so that nonunion employees – in both the private and public sectors – would not have to pay union fees as a condition of employment.
Critics of such right-to-work laws have said all workers in unionized workplaces should be charged the fees because unions protect and negotiate wages for all employees. And they contend such laws would lead to lower wages for New Mexico workers and could exacerbate income inequality issues statewide. They also accused backers of “union busting,” a charge they denied.
Supporters say right-to-work laws help states attract large employers and their jobs, and they insist the current law is unconstitutional.
Though union membership cannot be required under federal law, union fees – until now – could be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.
The amount of such fees vary but are typically about 75 percent of union membership dues. The fees are usually deducted directly from workers’ paychecks, but cannot be used to cover the cost of any political purposes.
The New Mexico State Personnel Office was working quickly to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Tamara Kay, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, said the Supreme Court’s ruling could hurt the Democratic Party, which traditionally is backed by labor unions.
But she also cautioned the decision could set a new legal precedent for groups such as homeowners associations, which also collect mandatory fees.
“There could be all kinds of unintended consequences as to how this is used as a weapon,” she said in a Wednesday interview.
While unsuccessful on a state level, proponents of right-to-work legislation have been able to get such ordinances passed in several New Mexico counties in recent years. At least four of New Mexico’s 33 counties have adopted such ordinances: Sandoval, Chaves, Lincoln and Otero.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will likely mean a drop in fee payments for local labor unions, but Bundy and other local union leaders said they don’t expect a significant drop in membership.
The Supreme Court decision is not expected to have an immediate impact on local teachers unions. Still, union leaders said they fundamentally disagree with Wednesday’s decision.
American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico President Stephanie Ly said in a statement that the union’s membership is “nearly 100 percent voluntary,” meaning the dues-paying members aren’t affected by the ruling that targets mandatory fees.
“The ruling is, however, yet another attack on bedrock principles of our country, namely the rights of workers to organize, advocate for fairer working conditions, and collectively use our voice to advocate for respect for our professions,” Ly said in a statement.
Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein took a similar stance, saying that the ruling wouldn’t affect her organization immediately, but that the decision was still harmful to all unions.
“It’s a sad day for all of us that believe in organized labor,” she said. “But I believe organized people and unions are going to fight back and rise up.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., also issued a statement, calling the right to organize “fundamental” to American democracy. He added that New Mexicans would not be deterred by the judicial ruling benefiting special interests.
But others said the ruling could increase individual liberty and boost the state’s economy.
“This is a great day for worker freedom in New Mexico,” said Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing, another supporter of right-to-work legislation. “For too long, working for local or state government in the Land of Enchantment has meant financially supporting a variety of union causes, including higher taxes, job-killing regulations, single-payer health care, and environmental extremism.”
And a spokeswoman for Gov. Susana Martinez said the Supreme Court ruling affirmed that “forced union dues violate workers’ rights.”
Journal staff writer Shelby Perea contributed to this report.