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The Stunning Workers’ Victory in New Mexico That You Haven’t Heard About

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On March 5, New Mex­i­co Gov­er­nor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed H.B. 364, a major over­haul of New Mexico’s sys­tem of pub­lic sec­tor labor rela­tions. Hailed by the Team­sters as a nec­es­sary mod­ern­iza­tion and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) as a ?“big step” in the fight for pub­lic employ­ees, many of the bill’s mar­quee reforms pro­vide pro­ce­dur­al over­hauls for New Mexico’s sys­tem of over 50 local labor boards, includ­ing a poten­tial greater cen­tral­iza­tion of labor rela­tions into the New Mex­i­co Pub­lic Employ­ee Labor Rela­tions Board. 

One stun­ning aspect of H.B. 364 went most­ly unmen­tioned in the pub­lic debate over its pas­sage: Sec­tion 7c of the bill made New Mex­i­co one of the few states to pro­vide pub­lic employ­ees the right to form a union through card check. That pro­vi­sion has already paid off: Orga­niz­ers with Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co grad­u­ate assis­tants say they filed for union recog­ni­tion under the new law on Decem­ber 9.

Card check, some­times called major­i­ty sign-up, requires that employ­ees sub­mit cards signed by a major­i­ty of the pro­posed bar­gain­ing unit; after it’s con­firmed they have a major­i­ty, they have a rec­og­nized union. Nine states?—?Cal­i­for­nia, New York, New Jer­sey, Illi­nois, Mass­a­chu­setts, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Maine and New Mex­i­co?—?have strong mech­a­nisms for manda­to­ry recog­ni­tion using card check. A num­ber of addi­tion­al states?—?such as Kansas, North Dako­ta and Mary­land?—?have card check pro­vi­sions that apply to small­er groups of pub­lic employ­ees, and which may have weak­er pro­vi­sions. Two oth­ers, Okla­homa and New Hamp­shire, passed card check laws in 2004 and 2007, only to repeal them in 2011.

Card check was the major reform pro­posed by the failed Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which died in the Sen­ate dur­ing Barack Obama’s first term. Work­er advo­cates argue it makes it eas­i­er to form a union by elim­i­nat­ing the peri­od between work­ers show­ing inter­est in a union, and the actu­al elec­tion. Dur­ing that wait­ing peri­od, employ­ers often wage high­ly effec­tive and expen­sive cam­paigns to dis­suade work­ers from union­iz­ing using out­side pro­fes­sion­al ?“union avoid­ance” con­sul­tants?—?some­thing recent­ly cit­ed by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Institute as a major fac­tor in the decline of unions.

Although card check isn’t part of the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act, the pack­age of union-backed labor reforms passed by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Feb­ru­ary, it’s still a part of the labor reform dis­cus­sion. Evi­dence is mixed. Sta­tis­tics on pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty shows that states that passed it didn’t see major expan­sions of pub­lic sec­tor unions. That may be due, in part, to the fact that almost all of them had high pub­lic sec­tor union den­si­ty when card check laws were passed (with the excep­tion of New York, which includ­ed card check in the Tay­lor Law passed in 1967). 

But New Mex­i­co is dif­fer­ent: In 2019, only 22.8% of its pub­lic sec­tor work­erswere cov­ered by a union con­tract, plac­ing New Mex­i­co 36th in the nation. This puts New Mex­i­co well behind most oth­er states with wide-rang­ing card check laws, which tend to have high­er union den­si­ty. This means there’s unprece­dent­ed room for growth?—?room that will pro­vide insight into whether or not card check expands union pow­er like work­er advo­cates claim.

There are already signs that it does. The grad­u­ate assis­tants recent­ly filed for recog­ni­tion announced their orga­niz­ing dri­ve in Octo­ber, choos­ing to affil­i­ate with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. The cam­paign gained new urgency because of the pas­sage of card check and the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. Accord­ing to Saman­tha Cooney, a grad­u­ate assis­tant in the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, grad­u­ates decid­ed they need­ed to ?“get down to it and get a super­ma­jor­i­ty by Decem­ber, and we end­ed up doing that.” Grad­u­ates had already begun orga­niz­ing pri­or to the law’s pas­sage, and they were ?“extreme­ly hap­py when [the bill was signed] because it made our jour­ney toward union­iza­tion that much eas­i­er,” says Cooney. 

With major employ­ee groups at the state’s largest employ­er orga­nized and the path cleared for union expan­sion, New Mex­i­co will be a test of whether labor law reform can help orga­nized labor claw back decades of lost ground. The signs look pos­i­tive?—?with grad­u­ate assis­tants lead­ing the way?—?that New Mex­i­co may expe­ri­ence a strong expan­sion of pub­lic sec­tor unions. If it does, it shows a road for­ward for labor else­where: Vir­ginia, Neva­da, Col­orado, Delaware, Con­necti­cut and Rhode Island all have Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty tri­fec­tas, with no card check process for pub­lic sec­tor workers. 

Orga­niz­ing may have helped deliv­er reforms, too. H.B. 364 was intro­duced four months after the con­clu­sion of major orga­niz­ing dri­ves for tenure-track and adjunct fac­ul­ty in the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co sys­tem, and new fac­ul­ty union lead­ers lob­bied along­side oth­er pub­lic sec­tor unions for the leg­is­la­tion. Their win was trail­blaz­ing in both the changes to New Mex­i­co law that fol­lowed, and in that they proved orga­niz­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co could suc­ceed. Accord­ing to Cooney, the suc­cess of the fac­ul­ty dri­ve encour­aged grad­u­ate assis­tants to move for­ward, and the fac­ul­ty union and indi­vid­ual fac­ul­ty offered sup­port for grad­u­ate work­ers seek­ing to form their union.

The suc­cess of card check in New Mex­i­co may prove impor­tant for work­ers else­where. But for grad­u­ate assis­tants at Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co, the changed process and what it helped deliv­er?—?a union?—?means some­thing more imme­di­ate and per­son­al: pow­er. That’s impor­tant for Cooney. ?“We feel strength­ened by the num­bers around us,” she says, adding, ?“for myself, this process has not only made me opti­mistic about what my raise will be.” She con­tin­ues, ?“But I know I have oth­er grad­u­ate assis­tants that under­stand my cir­cum­stances, and have my back.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an edi­tor of Strike­wave and a union activist in Penn­syl­va­nia. 


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