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Martinez takes labor fight to U.S. Supreme Court

SANTA FE – Just months after a legislative attempt to overhaul New Mexico’s labor laws was derailed, Gov. Susana Martinez is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a previous ruling that allows public sector unions in roughly 20 states – including New Mexico – to collect “fair-share” fees from employees who decide not to become union members.

In an 18-page brief filed last month with the Supreme Court, Martinez argued the mandatory representation fees violate employees’ constitutional free-speech rights.

“The right not to be compelled to exercise speech that a person opposes is a fundamental freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Martinez wrote in the brief, which was submitted by Governor’s Office and contract attorneys.

The Supreme Court case involves several California public school teachers, backed by a conservative group, who object to having to pay fees to a state teachers union. Arguments in the case are expected to be heard this fall, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Martinez, a second-term Republican, has repeatedly clashed with labor unions since first being elected governor in 2010. She supported legislation this year that sought to bar unions from being able to collect fair-share fees from nonunion employees in both the private and public sectors, but the so-called right-to-work bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled Senate after being approved in the House of Representatives.

Labor union leaders have argued that fair-share fees – which are generally less than union dues – are fair because nonunion employees benefit from union-negotiated contracts and unions are required to represent all workers equally in disciplinary matters. Although union membership cannot be required under federal law, fees can be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.

Although proponents of right-to-work laws say they make states more attractive to businesses, opponents say they are more about weakening unions than job creation.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association-New Mexico, said Monday that he thinks the governor’s Supreme Court brief is politically motivated.

“I think this governor probably has it in for school employee unions because we’ve sued (the Martinez administration) a few times,” Bowyer told the Journal .

One of those lawsuits, which is still pending, seeks to strike down a revamped teacher evaluation system the Martinez administration enacted administratively in 2012.

A key argument in Martinez’s Supreme Court brief is that past union contracts have negatively affected the state’s education system. Specifically, the brief claims that allowing experienced teachers to transfer among schools hurt graduation rates for lower-performing schools with high proportions of minority students.

Bowyer, however, said the brief wrongly implies teachers can unilaterally transfer to other schools, saying, “I don’t know of any contract in New Mexico in which that’s the case.”

New Mexico’s overall unionized workforce is smaller, in terms of percentage, than the national average, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But nearly 57 percent of the state government’s workforce is covered by three labor unions, Martinez said in her Supreme Court brief. Of the roughly 10,000 union-covered positions, about 1,600 employees are not union members and pay fair-share fees.

In 2014, those nonunion workers paid $650,000 in fees to the three unions via payroll deductions, the governor’s brief also claims. Unions are not allowed to use fair share fees to fund any political activities.