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Right-to-work bill defeated once again

SANTA FE – A Republican-backed attempt to make New Mexico the nation’s 29th state with a right-to-work law fizzled Saturday in a House panel and appears dead for this year’s 60-day legislative session.

The House Labor and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 along party lines – with Democrats voting in the affirmative – to table the measure, which was aimed at allowing New Mexico workers to avoid paying fees at union workplaces.

Dozens of union members from around the state testified against the legislation Saturday, with some accusing backers of “union-busting,” a charge they denied.

“All this bill is trying to do is tear down what the unions have built up,” said Ronald Moore of Melrose, who identified himself as a Republican.

Recent attempts to pass right-to-work legislation have stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate, though the House passed a right-to-work bill in 2015.

But with Democrats winning back control of the House in last November’s general election, even backers of the legislation acknowledged long odds during this year’s session.

Rep. James G. Townsend

Rep. James G. Townsend

Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, one of the bill’s sponsors, indicated after Saturday’s vote the eventual passage of a right-to-work law could hinge on the outcome of future elections.

“It’s pretty simple – two years from now you better be prepared to make changes if you want change,” said Townsend, referring to the 2018 election cycle, in which all 70 House seats will be up for election. “We’ll be back.”

He and other backers insisted the bill would bolster New Mexico’s struggling economy, while also giving workers more choice about whether to support unions.

“This bill is the cure for what ails New Mexico,” Townsend said.

Critics of the right-to-work legislation, House Bill 432, however, described it as a politically driven measure that would lead to lower wages for New Mexico workers.

Several Democratic lawmakers said the bill would exacerbate New Mexico income inequality issues, and questioned whether its passage would lead to any companies relocating in the state.

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton

“Our workers are better off in New Mexico with better wages,” said House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque.

Formally titled the “Employee Preference Act,” 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.

The bill tabled Saturday would also require state and local prosecutors to look into violations of the act, which could impose an additional burden on already cash-strapped agencies, a legislative analysis noted.

Gov. Susana Martinez has previously indicated she supports right-to-work legislation and would likely sign it into law if it made it to her desk.

New Mexico union membership has risen in recent years, though the state is still less unionized than the national average.

There were about 49,000 union members in 2016, or about 6.3 percent of the state’s total workforce, both in private and public sectors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, a total of roughly 63,000 workers were represented by unions – or about 8.2 percent of the state’s workforce.

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