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Editorial: If NM ignored union-dues ruling, workers need refunds

Government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be required to finance union activity.

That was the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. And while there remains plenty of debate on the issue, often called right-to-work, the ruling seems pretty clear. It was for that reason New Mexico’s state government said it halted payroll deductions from more than 1,800 nonunion workers in July and told union members how they can go about severing their union ties.

Or did it?

A federal class-action lawsuit filed by David McCutcheon maintains the high court’s ruling is being ignored. McCutcheon says that while he didn’t have to pay union fees when he was assigned to the Governor’s Office, that changed when he went back to the Department of Information Technology. He was informed he would have to either pay full union dues or “nonmember forced fees” as a condition of employment.

So someone in IT is either woefully misinformed, or he/she is purposely flouting the law. McCutcheon’s lawsuit – which alleges New Mexico and a labor union violated his constitutional rights by deducting union fees from his paycheck over his objection, even after the landmark decision – should get to the bottom of it. It names two union groups, both affiliated with Communications Workers of America, and state Personnel Director Justin Najaka as defendants.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, is providing free legal help to McCutcheon. He and his lawyers say hundreds of employees could be covered by the lawsuit and entitled to refunds.

For years, union leaders have argued that right-to-work legislation weakens unions and allows those who do not pay dues to benefit from union representation paid for by the dues of others. That’s why union payments are often called fair-share dues, as in every employee is paying his or her fair share of collective bargaining costs. But the Journal has long argued that so-called right-to-work legislation is necessary to make New Mexico more competitive with its neighbors when vying for desperately needed jobs, and many companies won’t even consider setting up shop here without a right-to-work law. Twenty-eight states, including Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma, have one on their books. Meanwhile, many non-union members, including the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the California Teachers Association, have voiced concerns the fees they’ve been forced to fork over aren’t just being used to cover basic costs, but to fund political activities, violating their First Amendment rights.

Considering the huge political contributions the unions make every primary and general election, from governor down to school board races, that concern is not one to be summarily dismissed. Nor is public opinion; a 2015 Journal Poll found 60 percent of New Mexico voters surveyed believed workers should not be required, as a condition of employment, to pay union dues or fees.

And considering the Supreme Court ruling, it doesn’t matter in this case that New Mexico lawmakers haven’t had the gumption to step up in support of right to work, employee rights and a free marketplace of ideas. Because in public workplaces, the federal law trumps their inaction.

It will be truly unfortunate if someone in state government has ignored federal law. And it is beyond unfortunate if it takes filing a federal lawsuit to get state government employees to simply follow the law. The administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham should add this to its to-do list – making sure McCutcheon and other public employees are not being forced to pay union fees or dues as a condition of employment.

If this is going on, it needs to stop, and the state employees and unions responsible for the illegal deductions should work with payroll officials to get that money back to employees.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.