SANTA FE – A bill that would make New Mexico the nation’s 25th state with a right-to-work law cleared its first House hurdle Thursday, despite opposition from labor union leaders and members who vowed to keep fighting the high-profile measure.
After nearly five hours of debate, members of the House Business and Employment Committee voted 8-5 in favor of the proposed change in labor laws, which would bar nonunion workers from having to pay union fees as a condition of their employment.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, told reporters after Thursday’s vote that a right-to-work law could bolster the state’s economic development efforts, though he acknowledged it would not be a cure-all.
“This is one component of a multifaceted business climate improvement in New Mexico, to get job creators here and get New Mexicans back to work,” Roch said.
However, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, told the Journal after Thursday’s House committee vote that he views the right-to-work legislation as “hurtful.”
“It’s anti-worker, anti-family – that’s what it is,” Sanchez said. “I don’t believe it’s going to get through the Senate.”
Long stymied in New Mexico, right-to-work legislation has emerged as a hot-button issue in the 60-day session that began last week, prompted by a GOP takeover of the House for the first time in 60 years. Democrats still have a 25-17 majority in the Senate, which would also have to approve any right-to-work bill for it to advance to Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk.
Currently, there are 24 right-to-work states, with Indiana and Michigan being the latest to enact such laws. Before those two states, just one other state – Oklahoma – had approved a right-to-work law since 1993.
Although several right-to-work bills have been introduced at the Legislature this year, the bill debated Thursday would apply to employees in both the private and public sectors in workplaces covered by collective bargaining agreements.
Opponents of the proposal, House Bill 75, said it could hurt workers by undermining labor unions, and possibly driving down pay and benefit levels.
“Right-to-work might be good for businesses, but it’s not good for workers,” said Alicia Woody, a Hobbs teacher and union member who was one of dozens to speak against the measure.
A smaller number of supporters, many of them affiliated with business groups, also testified Thursday. Some of them described the right-to-work bill as a fairness issue, since nonunion workers would be able to choose whether to pay union fees.
Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, in a rare appearance before a legislative committee, was among those who spoke in favor of the measure, saying it could reverse New Mexico’s recent population loss by helping to create new jobs.
“It will strengthen unions by making them more accountable to their members,” said Sanchez, who ran an Albuquerque roofing company before being elected lieutenant governor.
Studies on whether right-to-work bills actually lead to job growth and what – if any – impact they have on wage levels could play a key role in this year’s debate.
Republican Party of New Mexico Chairwoman Debbie Maestas said in a statement after Thursday’s vote that a majority of right-to-work states have higher per capita income levels than New Mexico.
But Sanchez cited a congressional report that found workers pocket about $7,000 less per year in right-to-work states, compared with workers in states that do not have such laws.
Brian Condit of the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council, who previously worked as chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, pointed out that Intel Corp. has made massive investments in the company’s Rio Rancho plant since the 1980s despite the state’s lack of a right-to-work law.
Right-to-work proposals have faltered in the Legislature in recent years, and approved legislation was vetoed in 1979 and 1981 – both times by the late Gov. Bruce King, a Democrat.
Of roughly 751,000 total workers, New Mexico had about 46,000 union members in the private and public sectors in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That 6.2 percent union membership rate was far lower than the national average of 11.3 percent.
Critics of right-to-work legislation claim it would weaken labor unions, which play an active role in New Mexico elections. Three large unions – two teachers unions and one public employees union – combined to spend roughly $1.8 million during the state’s 2014 election cycle, according to an analysis by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity.
Thursday’s vote in the House Business and Employment Committee largely broke down along party lines, with one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Dona Irwin of Deming, joining with the committee’s seven Republican members in support of the bill.
The legislation now advances to the House Judiciary Committee.