On March 5, New MexÂiÂco GovÂerÂnor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed H.B. 364, a major overÂhaul of New Mexicoâs sysÂtem of pubÂlic secÂtor labor relaÂtions. Hailed by the TeamÂsters as a necÂesÂsary modÂernÂizaÂtion and the AmerÂiÂcan FedÂerÂaÂtion of TeachÂers (AFT) as a ?âbig stepâ in the fight for pubÂlic employÂees, many of the billâs marÂquee reforms proÂvide proÂceÂdurÂal overÂhauls for New Mexicoâs sysÂtem of over 50 local labor boards, includÂing a potenÂtial greater cenÂtralÂizaÂtion of labor relaÂtions into the New MexÂiÂco PubÂlic EmployÂee Labor RelaÂtions Board.
One stunÂning aspect of H.B. 364 went mostÂly unmenÂtioned in the pubÂlic debate over its pasÂsage: SecÂtion 7c of the bill made New MexÂiÂco one of the few states to proÂvide pubÂlic employÂees the right to form a union through card check. That proÂviÂsion has already paid off: OrgaÂnizÂers with UniÂverÂsiÂty of New MexÂiÂco gradÂuÂate assisÂtants say they filed for union recogÂniÂtion under the new law on DecemÂber 9.
Card check, someÂtimes called majorÂiÂty sign-up, requires that employÂees subÂmit cards signed by a majorÂiÂty of the proÂposed barÂgainÂing unit; after itâs conÂfirmed they have a majorÂiÂty, they have a recÂogÂnized union. Nine states?â?CalÂiÂforÂnia, New York, New JerÂsey, IlliÂnois, MassÂaÂchuÂsetts, OreÂgon, WashÂingÂton, Maine and New MexÂiÂco?â?have strong mechÂaÂnisms for mandaÂtoÂry recogÂniÂtion using card check. A numÂber of addiÂtionÂal states?â?such as Kansas, North DakoÂta and MaryÂland?â?have card check proÂviÂsions that apply to smallÂer groups of pubÂlic employÂees, and which may have weakÂer proÂviÂsions. Two othÂers, OklaÂhoma and New HampÂshire, passed card check laws in 2004 and 2007, only to repeal them in 2011.
Card check was the major reform proÂposed by the failed EmployÂee Free Choice Act, which died in the SenÂate durÂing Barack Obamaâs first term. WorkÂer advoÂcates argue it makes it easÂiÂer to form a union by elimÂiÂnatÂing the periÂod between workÂers showÂing interÂest in a union, and the actuÂal elecÂtion. DurÂing that waitÂing periÂod, employÂers often wage highÂly effecÂtive and expenÂsive camÂpaigns to disÂsuade workÂers from unionÂizÂing using outÂside proÂfesÂsionÂal ?âunion avoidÂanceâ conÂsulÂtants?â?someÂthing recentÂly citÂed by the EcoÂnomÂic PolÂiÂcy Institute as a major facÂtor in the decline of unions.
Although card check isnât part of the ProÂtectÂing the Right to OrgaÂnize Act, the packÂage of union-backed labor reforms passed by the House of RepÂreÂsenÂtaÂtives in FebÂruÂary, itâs still a part of the labor reform disÂcusÂsion. EviÂdence is mixed. StaÂtisÂtics on pubÂlic secÂtor union denÂsiÂty shows that states that passed it didnât see major expanÂsions of pubÂlic secÂtor unions. That may be due, in part, to the fact that almost all of them had high pubÂlic secÂtor union denÂsiÂty when card check laws were passed (with the excepÂtion of New York, which includÂed card check in the TayÂlor Law passed in 1967).
But New MexÂiÂco is difÂferÂent: In 2019, only 22.8% of its pubÂlic secÂtor workÂerswere covÂered by a union conÂtract, placÂing New MexÂiÂco 36th in the nation. This puts New MexÂiÂco well behind most othÂer states with wide-rangÂing card check laws, which tend to have highÂer union denÂsiÂty. This means thereâs unpreceÂdentÂed room for growth?â?room that will proÂvide insight into whether or not card check expands union powÂer like workÂer advoÂcates claim.
There are already signs that it does. The gradÂuÂate assisÂtants recentÂly filed for recogÂniÂtion announced their orgaÂnizÂing driÂve in OctoÂber, choosÂing to affilÂiÂate with the UnitÂed ElecÂtriÂcal, Radio and Machine WorkÂers of AmerÂiÂca. The camÂpaign gained new urgency because of the pasÂsage of card check and the Covid-19 panÂdemÂic. AccordÂing to SamanÂtha Cooney, a gradÂuÂate assisÂtant in the DepartÂment of PolitÂiÂcal SciÂence and a memÂber of the UnitÂed GradÂuÂate WorkÂers of UniÂverÂsiÂty of New MexÂiÂco orgaÂnizÂing comÂmitÂtee, gradÂuÂates decidÂed they needÂed to ?âget down to it and get a superÂmaÂjorÂiÂty by DecemÂber, and we endÂed up doing that.â GradÂuÂates had already begun orgaÂnizÂing priÂor to the lawâs pasÂsage, and they were ?âextremeÂly hapÂpy when [the bill was signed] because it made our jourÂney toward unionÂizaÂtion that much easÂiÂer,â says Cooney.
With major employÂee groups at the stateâs largest employÂer orgaÂnized and the path cleared for union expanÂsion, New MexÂiÂco will be a test of whether labor law reform can help orgaÂnized labor claw back decades of lost ground. The signs look posÂiÂtive?â?with gradÂuÂate assisÂtants leadÂing the way?â?that New MexÂiÂco may expeÂriÂence a strong expanÂsion of pubÂlic secÂtor unions. If it does, it shows a road forÂward for labor elseÂwhere: VirÂginia, NevaÂda, ColÂorado, Delaware, ConÂnectiÂcut and Rhode Island all have DemoÂcÂraÂtÂic ParÂty triÂfecÂtas, with no card check process for pubÂlic secÂtor workers.
OrgaÂnizÂing may have helped delivÂer reforms, too. H.B. 364 was introÂduced four months after the conÂcluÂsion of major orgaÂnizÂing driÂves for tenure-track and adjunct facÂulÂty in the UniÂverÂsiÂty of New MexÂiÂco sysÂtem, and new facÂulÂty union leadÂers lobÂbied alongÂside othÂer pubÂlic secÂtor unions for the legÂisÂlaÂtion. Their win was trailÂblazÂing in both the changes to New MexÂiÂco law that folÂlowed, and in that they proved orgaÂnizÂing at UniÂverÂsiÂty of New MexÂiÂco could sucÂceed. AccordÂing to Cooney, the sucÂcess of the facÂulÂty driÂve encourÂaged gradÂuÂate assisÂtants to move forÂward, and the facÂulÂty union and indiÂvidÂual facÂulÂty offered supÂport for gradÂuÂate workÂers seekÂing to form their union.
The sucÂcess of card check in New MexÂiÂco may prove imporÂtant for workÂers elseÂwhere. But for gradÂuÂate assisÂtants at UniÂverÂsiÂty of New MexÂiÂco, the changed process and what it helped delivÂer?â?a union?â?means someÂthing more immeÂdiÂate and perÂsonÂal: powÂer. Thatâs imporÂtant for Cooney. ?âWe feel strengthÂened by the numÂbers around us,â she says, adding, ?âfor myself, this process has not only made me optiÂmistic about what my raise will be.â She conÂtinÂues, ?âBut I know I have othÂer gradÂuÂate assisÂtants that underÂstand my cirÂcumÂstances, and have my back.â
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an ediÂtor of StrikeÂwave and a union activist in PennÂsylÂvaÂnia.