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Right-to-work takes spotlight at Legislature

SANTA FE – Debate over a New Mexico right-to-work bill took center stage at the Roundhouse on Sunday, with hundreds of opponents of the proposed change in state labor laws packing the Capitol for the first Senate hearing on the measure.

The Senate Public Affairs Committee did not vote Sunday on the right-to-work bill, but heard roughly three hours of testimony – from both backers and critics – on the House-approved measure and several similar pieces of legislation. A vote is expected to happen Tuesday.

The tone was at times sharp, with one union member warning committee members to “choose wisely” on how they vote with 2016 elections looming and a Republican state senator telling the crowd he is not a “stooge” for out-of-state backers of right-to-work laws.

Supporters of enacting a right-to-work law focused on two primary points – the current requirement that some nonunion workers have to pay union fees or risk losing their jobs and the state of New Mexico’s economy.

“Whether we like it or not, we have to be able to sell our economy here in New Mexico,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

But opponents described the proposal as outdated and ineffective.

“The real problem with the legislation … is it is a bad business strategy,” said Alan Webber, a Santa Fe entrepreneur who sought the 2014 Democratic nomination for governor.

The proposed law would mean nonunion employees – in both the private and public sectors – would not have to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Though union membership cannot be required under federal law, such fees can be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.

Currently, 24 states have right-to-work laws in place. Wisconsin could soon become the 25th state after legislators there endorsed similar legislation last week.

As in other states, New Mexico labor unions have fought against the proposed right-to-work legislation. Labor leaders organized buses to take hundreds of members and backers from Albuquerque and Las Cruces to Santa Fe for Sunday’s hearing.

The huge crowd filled Capitol hallways and many people had to sit in other committee rooms to listen to the testimony via a live audio feed.

“This ‘right-to-work’ bill has never been about helping New Mexico’s middle class,” said Mary Ann Montoya, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, who said the measure was more geared toward increasing corporate profits.

But leaders of several business and commercial real estate groups said passing the right-to-work bill could mean more job creation statewide.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, the sponsor of the right-to-work bill that was approved on a 37-30 vote in the House on Feb. 25, said his primary motivation in carrying the legislation is to provide protections for workers who do not want to join or pay fees to unions.

“This is an important issue for workers who feel they are being forced to contribute a portion of their paycheck against their will,” Roch said Sunday.

At least one state worker, Tom Gray, an employee with the state Environment Department, testified union leaders tried to intimidate him into opposing the legislation, though labor leaders rejected the charge.

The right-to-work measure pending in the Senate Affairs Committee also includes a minimum wage increase, from $7.50 to $8 per hour with a six-month training period.

The bill has been broadly supported by Republican legislators, but just one Democrat – Rep. Dona Irwin of Deming – voted for it in the House. Meanwhile, top-ranking Democratic senators have vowed to fight the measure and could have the votes necessary to derail it in the Senate Public Affairs Committee, which features five Democrats and three Republicans.

Gov. Susana Martinez has indicated she supports the legislation and would likely sign it into law if it makes it to her desk.

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.

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