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State Contract Talks Slow Going

SANTA FE – With a new round of talks approaching, Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration and union negotiators are far apart on a new collective bargaining agreement for more than 12,000 rank-and-file state workers.

Individuals on both sides of the talks are bracing for the negotiations to drag into the summer, if not longer, as more than a dozen issues remain unresolved.

“It’s going to be a long haul, because we disagree on almost every point,” said Robin Gould, a lead negotiator for Communications Workers of America-New Mexico, one of three labor unions involved in the talks.

One of the main sticking points is whether rank-and-file state workers who are subject to the contract should have to pay labor fees, which are a calculated percentage of union dues, even if they are not union members.

Unions are allowed to collect such fees – called “fair share” payments – under the terms of the most recent multiyear contract, which expired at the end of 2011.

That agreement negotiated with the administration of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson is still in effect due to an “evergreen” clause – meaning it stays in force until a new agreement is reached. The unions can ask that workers who do not pay be fired, although labor negotiators said that action has not been pursued.

State Personnel Director Gene Moser acknowledged the Martinez administration would like to see the policy changed.

“We’re wanting employees to make a choice,” Moser said in an interview. “I just don’t think (the current setup) makes a lot of sense.”

However, labor negotiators say unions are legally required to represent workers who are covered by the collective bargaining agreement in disciplinary and contractual proceedings, regardless of whether the employees are union members.

“We have the same obligation regardless of their union status, and we need to have a revenue structure in place that reflects that obligation,” said Shane Youtz, lead negotiator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18.

Unions represent workers in the contract talks by negotiating for wages and benefits. They also represent covered workers in disciplinary and other personnel matters. While New Mexico unions cans require the “fair share” payments, they cannot force state employees to join as members, Youtz said.

In addition, public employee labor unions are prohibited from going on strike under state law.

The current labor contract lays out work schedules, sick leave, benefits, paid holidays and more for classified state employees who fall under the collective bargaining agreement. Political appointees, who often earn more money, are not covered by the contract.

Friction with governor

Although New Mexico has not had the type of labor unrest that has recently occurred in other states, the Martinez administration has made some decisions that have rankled union leaders. In at least one case, unions filed a court challenge against Martinez.

That came last year after the Republican governor dismissed all three members of the state’s Public Employee Labor Relations Board. While the state Supreme Court initially sided with the unions, a state judge recently upheld Martinez’s appointment of a Clovis police chief for the designated labor spot on the board.

Martinez also drew the ire of labor leaders by directing state agencies to look into whether employees should work traditional workdays instead of alternative “flex” schedules.

However, those issues fall short of the battles in states like Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker moved to curtail collective bargaining rights in the name of budget belt-tightening. Walker faces a recall vote this spring.

‘Different ideology’

On the subject of New Mexico contract talks, labor negotiators said their initial bargaining position was one of keeping the status quo.

“What we got back from management was that they wanted to change the entire contract,” Gould said. “I think the contract negotiations show we’re dealing with a whole different ideology on organized labor.”

Both state and labor negotiators declined to discuss other specific sticking points. In addition to CWA and AFSCME, the Fraternal Order of Police is the other union involved in the negotiations.

Moser said the talks are set to resume later this month and could heat up next month after being largely put on hold during this year’s legislative session.

“It’s difficult because there’s a lot of stuff on the table,” Moser said. “What we’re trying to find is some middle ground.”

If no agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, the two sides could declare themselves to be at an impasse. They would then both submit contract proposals and an arbitrator would decide.