Unions are still necessary to safeguard worker rights

Labor unions aren’t that important any more, my friend said, because all the issues that unions used to fight for are now established in law, and we have government agencies to enforce them.

This conversation happened before the 2016 election. Today, even the most basic labor protections are no more guaranteed than, say, the continued protected status of national monuments.

Laws can be changed. For every human right that was earned through political struggle, somebody has to be the watchdog to prevent that right from being taken away and to alert the public when it’s threatened.

For fair labor standards and workplace safety, that watchdog is organized labor.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June overturned the “fair share” requirement as applied to public-sector unions. Shortly thereafter, the State of New Mexico stopped taking fair share payroll deductions for state workers.

Fair share is based on the principle that labor unions negotiate wages and working conditions on behalf of all workers in eligible categories, including those who have not joined the union. Unions are required to negotiate on behalf of all eligible employees, not just union members.

Therefore, until this court decision, nonmembers were required to pay, through payroll deductions, their share of the cost of those services — not full union dues.

New Mexico public-sector unions are now receiving less revenue. The loss is not enough to damage their effectiveness, according to Josh Anderson of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). However, both the Supreme Court decision and the state’s action represent steps in rolling back the rights and protections of workers.

At the same time, private-sector unions are being challenged from a different direction: right-to-work ordinances at the county level. Right-to-work means that workers cannot be required to join the union as a condition of employment.

I wrote last year about the divisive tactics used to attempt a poorly drafted sick leave ordinance in the City of Albuquerque and a right-to-work ordinance in Sandoval County (see triplespacedagain.com, November 2017) . The sick leave ordinance didn’t pass. The right-to-work ordinance did.

Right-to-work ordinances have now been passed by county commissions in Otero, Lincoln, Chavez, Eddy, Roosevelt and Lea counties. That covers about a quarter of the population of the state. They have failed in Curry, McKinley, and Sierra counties. At the time of this writing one is under consideration in Torrance.

The practice of picking off local governments one at a time, dividing neighbors on a local level, is a relatively new tactic used for issues that cannot win at the state level, often because the substance is something citizens don’t want. I said this about the progressives on the sick leave issue just as I’m saying it about this. It is bad governance. It pits communities against each other and makes the whole state look weak, which, I believe, is not the image New Mexico wants in attracting business.

Right-to-work is not what its name suggests. It weakens unions and therefore worker protections. Organized labor represents not just its own members but also the standards and principles of fair worker treatment that America has been developing for decades. Damage labor, and there’s no one to defend those principles.

Right-to-work has been argued in New Mexico for decades. Adherents claim it is essential to economic development and New Mexico will not move forward without it. Others, including me, are concerned that when unions are too weak, labor laws will not be enforced and workers may be subject to exploitation.

Among the counties where these ordinances have passed are the southeastern counties in the Permian Basin which, we hear, are undergoing the biggest oil boom in the century and companies are grabbing up every available worker. Those companies don’t need lax labor laws as an incentive. They have oil.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2018

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