Leaders of the effort to organize New Mexico’s academics, artists, sheet-metal workers and other laborers are calling for three votes and a rule change.
Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, labor legislation that would limit employers’ tools to resist organizing and enable more and broader strikes, is stuck in the Senate, where three Democrats — Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema and Virginia’s Mark Warner — are holding out.
Nationally, labor unions have called for abolishing the filibuster to pass the PRO Act, and President Joe Biden voiced support for the legislation in his speech to Congress last week.
The legislation includes provisions to protect workers from discrimination based on immigration status and would have an immediate impact here, said Vince Alvarado, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
“There are contractors out there that illegally hire an immigrant knowing they don’t have papers, and when they get tired of them, they just call immigration and deport them. That’s wage theft, and right now those people have no right to help them fight contractors,” Alvarado said in a telephone interview.
“Across the country, women are paid less on the dollar than men. We have women in the building trade and the woman standing right next [to] you makes the same as the man, and that’s because we’re a union with a written contract,” he said.
New Mexico is not a right-to-work state, but more than two dozen states allow workers to opt out of union dues while still receiving the benefits of a union contract.
The PRO Act would eliminate right-to-work laws, weaken employers’ ability to interfere in union elections by eliminating company-sponsored meetings against unionizing and allow elections to take place off-site.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 53,000 New Mexico workers, or around 7.1 percent of the state’s workforce, belong to a union. In Santa Fe, faculty at the community college and artists at Meow Wolf have unionized in recent years.
“The discrepancy in ease of communication between employees organizing and their employers is currently the norm. The PRO Act recognizes this disparity and the inherent disadvantage it presents,” Emily Markwiese, an artist and organizer with the Meow Wolf Workers Collective, said Saturday at a virtual town hall organized by the local chapters of the Communications Workers of America and Democratic Socialists.
In Albuquerque, University of New Mexico faculty unionized in 2019.
Currently, graduate workers are in hearings with the state Public Employees Labor Relations Board over recognition from university leadership.
Organizers say they filed for unionization under a new card-check provision signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2020, which allows public employees to forgo a union election if they can prove they have majority support.
New Mexico labor historian Diane Pinkey, a former professor at Santa Fe Community College who has been compiling a history of organized labor in the state called the Working People’s History of New Mexico project, said the union effort among UNM graduate students is at least 30 years old.
“I think New Mexico is following national trends. There has been more development in public sector unions than private sector,” Pinkey said. “Finally, UNM organizing and also Santa Fe Community College. Those are two efforts years and years in the making.”
In March, the PRO Act passed the House 225-206 with the support of five Republicans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Retail Federation have lobbied against it, and New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell voted no.
“I voted against the PRO Act because Congress should be protecting the freedom of workers, not tipping the scales in favor of union bosses,” the Alamogordo Republican said in an email. “The PRO Act violates states’ rights by eliminating state-passed right-to-work laws.”
In Washington, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., says the filibuster, which effectively blocks legislation without 60 votes in the Senate, has to be removed for the PRO Act and plenty of other bills to pass.
“The filibuster should be abolished or, at the very least, reformed to force senators who have objections to physically hold the floor to extend debate and tell the American people why they are standing in the way of the Senate’s consideration of a bill,” Heinrich said in an email.
“Too often in our nation’s history, the filibuster has been used to block our country’s continued march toward equality.”
When asked if he supported abolishing the filibuster to pass the PRO Act, Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said he supports reform.
“Senator Luján has been open about his support for filibuster reform to advance legislation that will benefit New Mexicans,” his press secretary, Adán Serna, said in an email.