SANTA FE – A bruising political battle over whether to add New Mexico to the list of states with right-to-work laws is moving on to the Senate after the House voted 37-30 late Wednesday to approve the change in state labor laws.
House Republicans unanimously backed the right-to-work measure, along with an attached minimum wage increase of 50 cents per hour, while Democrats were nearly unified – just one Democrat voted in favor – in opposing it.
“I believe this is ill-timed, ill-advised and nothing more than a distraction from the problems that are facing our state,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, described the measure as one that would hopefully improve New Mexico’s economy, but said its fundamental aim was to give more freedom to workers, saying, “We, as Americans, love choice.”
“It’s seeking to ensure that any worker, whether in the private or public sector, does not have to contribute to a union or another organization as a condition of employment,” Roch said.
The proposed law would mean nonunion employees – in both the private and public sectors – would not have to pay union fees or risk losing their jobs. Though union membership cannot be required under federal law, such fees can be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.
Labor union leaders and most Democratic lawmakers have opposed the right-to-work measure, arguing it would stifle worker pay and weaken unions. Rep. Dona Irwin, D-Deming, was the lone Democrat who voted for the bill.
But representatives from multiple business groups have contended it would improve New Mexico’s economic climate and could lead to more corporations moving to the state.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said during Wednesday’s debate that a right-to-work law could help wean the state off a historic dependence on the oil and gas industry, and government spending.
The House vote on the right-to-work bill was delayed last week after some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers balked at its inclusion of a minimum wage increase, from $7.50 to $8 per hour, with a six-month training period.
However, all GOP legislators present for Wednesday’s vote – one was absent – ended up backing the legislation.
The final vote came after a GOP-backed amendment was adopted over the objections of Democrats. The amendment calls for the minimum wage increase to be struck down should a judge invalidate the right-to-work portion of the bill.
House Democrats criticized the inclusion of the minimum wage hike, saying it would not be a meaningful increase, taking issue with Republican claims that it represented an attempt to find common ground.
“There was no effort in striking a deal,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. “There’s no compromise.”
While public testimony was not allowed Wednesday, per usual legislative procedure for floor votes, roughly 50 union leaders and members were present for the final vote.
Vincent Bovenzi, an International Brotherhood of Electric Workers union member who works at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the Journal the fight over right-to-work legislation isn’t over.
“Absolutely, I’m disappointed, but hopefully we’ll shoot it down in the Senate,” he said.
Four states have adopted right-to-work laws since 1993 and similar legislation has been debated this year in at least three other states – Wisconsin, Kentucky and Missouri.
In New Mexico, there were about 43,000 union members in 2014, or about 5.7 percent of the state’s total workforce, private and public service, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. That union membership rate was down from 2013 and below the national average of 11.1 percent.
Despite Wednesday’s vote, the right-to-work bill could face tougher odds in the Senate as top-ranking Senate Democrats have vowed to kill the measure in their chamber. Democrats hold a 25-17 majority in the Senate, while Republicans have a 37-33 advantage in the House.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who just began her second term in office, has indicated support for both the right-to-work legislation and the proposed minimum wage hike.