SANTA FE – The start date of the Legislature’s 60-day session for 2015 is still more than two months away, but debate is already building over the long-stymied idea of making New Mexico a “right-to-work” state.
After seizing control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years, Republican lawmakers have signaled the legislation will be on the table for the coming session.
“This time could be the time we get it through both houses,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, told the Journal.
Ingle said the absence of a right-to-work law puts New Mexico at an economic development disadvantage with neighboring states like Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma, which are right-to-work states.
“If we’re going to compete in New Mexico and draw businesses, we’re going to have to do something,” Ingle said.
Outgoing House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, although soon to be in the House minority, told the Journal he will staunchly oppose an attempt to pass right-to-work legislation.
“It’s one of those big misnomers,” Martinez said. “What it should actually be called is the right to work for less.”
Right-to-work laws prohibit labor unions from requiring workers to join a union or pay it dues for representing them.
Backers say workers should be free to decide whether to join or financially support a union, and argue right-to-work states are more attractive to businesses. Opponents say right-to-work laws are aimed at weakening unions and end up stifling worker pay.
Recent right-to-work bills have suffered a quick demise in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. On two distant occasions when a right-to-work bill was approved by lawmakers, the legislation was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bruce King – in 1979 and again in 1981. King, who served three terms, was strongly supported by organized labor.
Since 1981, 19 right-to-work bills have been introduced, but none has made it to the governor’s desk, according to Legislative Council Service records.
But with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez winning re-election last week and the historic GOP takeover of the House, things could be different in 2015.
Gov. Martinez supports right-to-work legislation, although she did not make the issue a key piece of her legislative agenda during her first term in office. It’s unclear whether she will make right-to-work legislation more of a priority in her second term given last week’s election results.
The latest impetus for right-to-work legislation is coming from the Republican takeover of the state House in combination with the conservative leanings of some state senators, despite a Democratic majority in that chamber.
Union leaders acknowledge they’re expecting a renewed effort to pass right-to-work legislation.
Carter Bundy, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in New Mexico, said he’s hopeful the debate during the coming session doesn’t break down along strict party lines.
“We hope to have some Republicans joining most Democrats in defeating it in both chambers,” Bundy said.
He also said unions are already required to represent all workers equally, whether they are union members or not. Allowing workers to benefit from union-negotiated contracts without paying dues, or “fair-share” payments, to the union would be unfair, he said.
Unions largely rely on collected dues to fund their operations, which include political activism, usually on behalf of Democratic candidates.
In all, 24 states currently have right-to-work laws on their books, though just three states have enacted such laws in the past 20 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The absence of a right-to-work law in New Mexico was cited by some economic analysts as a hindering factor in the state’s negotiations this year with Tesla Motors, which named New Mexico as one of four finalist states for a massive car battery factory the company plans to build.
Tesla announced in September it had selected a site in Nevada – a right-to-work state – for the $5 billion “gigafactory,” which is expected to create at least 6,500 jobs.
However, Bundy said he thinks geographic and logistical considerations were the ultimate reasons for Tesla’s decision, not the state’s right-to-work status.
“It is a total hoax to say right-to-work has anything to do with Tesla,” Bundy told the Journal .
Of roughly 751,000 total workers, New Mexico had about 46,000 union members in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That 6.2 percent union membership rate was lower than the national average of 11.3 percent.
Many of New Mexico’s union members are government employees, though private-sector industries like carpentry, plumbing and communications jobs are also frequently unionized.
About 55,000 workers in all were represented by unions in the state in 2013, according to the federal data.
At least 4 Dems needed
Looking ahead to the 2015 session, Ingle said he expects a right-to-work bill to originate in the House, where Republicans will have a 37-33 majority.
If approved by the House, the measure would then go to the Senate, where Democrats retain a 25-17 advantage over Republicans. That means at least four Democrats would have to join with Republicans – provided all Republicans vote in favor – for it to gain approval.
Newly elected House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, said Wednesday that House Republicans have not completed their core agenda for the coming session.
However, he said job-creation measures will be a top focus, adding that right-to-work legislation could fit within that definition.
The 2015 legislative session begins Jan. 21.