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February 18, 2003

Senate Passes Collective Bargaining Bill

By Deborah Baker
The Associated Press
SANTA FE   —   The Senate on Tuesday voted to revive a state law requiring public employers to bargain with their unionized workers.
    The legislation sponsored by President Pro Tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, passed the Senate 25-14 over the protests of Republicans.
    "It's a disaster for the taxpayer," said Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell.
    The measure goes to the House, where an identical bill sponsored by Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, is headed for a vote by the full House.
    A 1992 law requiring the state, counties, cities and school districts to negotiate contracts with their unionized workers expired four years ago.
    The Legislature passed bills to restore the law, but Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, who left office in December, vetoed them.
    The new governor, Democrat Bill Richardson, is in favor of the legislation.
    "I know he'll sign this bill because his heart's in the right place," said Majority Leader Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque.
    Some big employers   —   including the city of Albuquerque and Albuquerque Public Schools   —   continued to bargain after the law expired.
    But other public employers, including some school districts, did not.
    The National Education Association of New Mexico says there are districts where teachers want to negotiate if the law is revived. Among them: Lovington, Hobbs, Alamogordo, Deming and Belen.
    About 10,000 state agency employees once covered by contracts no longer have them, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
    AFSCME is expected to organize state agencies again and negotiate contracts.
    The legislation was a compromise between unions and employers, and had the support of associations representing cities, counties, school administrators and school boards.
    "We've done it in the past. We can do it again. It's good and healthy for New Mexico," said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa.
    Opponents said public workers have sufficient benefits and protections, and that public employee unions are unnecessary.
    "We don't need this law. What we need is some good managers," said Sen. Steve Komadina, a Corrales Republican.
    Adair said the legislation would impact schools, taking the focus off children and shifting it to the rights of teachers.
    "Kids are the lowest priority in a system run like this," the lawmaker said.
    He also discounted the legislation's no-strike mandate.
    "Our country has been riddled with illegal strikes," Adair said.
    But Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said there were no strikes during the six-year period when the law was in force earlier. Most of the 1992 law took effect in 1993.
    "Our employees will not go out on strike," McSorley said.
    Under the legislation, an impasse between an employer and the union on non-economic issues during negotiations would be resolved by binding arbitration. Arbitrators could not order a governing body   —   a school board, for example   —   to spend more money than it had appropriated.