New Mexico unions are smaller, but they still have a voice

Members of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees hold a news conference in 2014 when they were picketing during contract negotiations. Union membership declined across the state after the 2008 financial crisis but has risen in recent years. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican file photo

This Labor Day, New Mexico’s workforce counts among the least unionized in the country.

Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show 8.3 percent of workers in New Mexico were represented by a labor union in 2017. That reflects a steady increase from recent years but is a smaller share than in most other states.

The thinner ranks of New Mexico’s unions when compared to the era before the recession reflect a state still struggling generally to create jobs amid a recovery that has been sluggish for many. And the trend has coincided with a winnowing of the labor movement nationally.

The ranks may continue to thin in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year that effectively ended the right of a union to collect fees from public sector workers it represents but does not count as members. And the continued shift of work from heavily organized industries, such as mining, as well as the rise of a gig economy portend a very different era ahead for unions.

But unions also are poised to play a big role in the coming election and legislative session as well as the ensuing debates over how to spend — or save — a budget surplus that could reach $1.2 billion. And recent teacher strikes in neighboring states as well as voters’ rejection of a so-called right-to-work law in Missouri have revealed what could be a renewed interest in the labor movement in parts of the country long hostile to it.

“It’s not like there’s a big jump. But there are a bunch of signs of a different feeling,” said Heidi Shierholz at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

In New Mexico, the number of union members rose from 49,000 in 2016 to 52,000 last year. However, the number of people represented by a union fell from 64,000 to 63,000 in that same time.

A major part of the state’s workforce, the public sector, has shed jobs in recent years. Meanwhile, industries that are doing the most hiring in New Mexico, such as health care and hospitality, are less organized.

Compared to other states, New Mexico ranked 33rd for the share of its workforce represented by a union, right between Iowa and Alabama.

And the share of workers represented by unions is still several percentage points lower than before the recession. In 2008, before the financial downturn really hit New Mexico hardest, as much as 11.6 percent of workers in the state were represented by unions.

About one-quarter of workers in New York are represented by unions and about 21.3 percent in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, about 3.9 percent are represented by unions in South Carolina, the smallest share of any state in the country.

Unions have argued that the decline in membership is reflected in wages that have been stagnant for many, including in New Mexico, where the state also has among the highest rates of people who are employed but living in poverty.

Critics, however, argue that stronger unions would hamper economic growth in a state where the number of jobs is only beginning to reach prerecession levels.

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has been promoting right-to-work ordinances in counties around the state. But New Mexico is not a right-to-work state and is unlikely to become one as long as Democrats hold on to even one chamber of the state Legislature.

In turn, unions have a lot on the line in the coming election, with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez leaving office and the state expecting a budget surplus after several rounds of financial belt-tightening.

“The last seven and a half years, the Martinez administration has gutted every department,” said Carter Bundy of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18.

For his union’s members, a new administration and a change in financial fortune for the state amid an oil boom could mean the state will fill vacant positions it has left empty and perhaps even shore up pensions.

For other unions, the future is very directly tied up with reviving New Mexico’s economy.

Unions representing construction workers, for example, have witnessed an exodus of skilled hands to states where building is a booming business.

Meanwhile, a new administration may also be able to make peace with teachers unions that have been fighting Martinez in court over all manner of education policies.

Perhaps more concretely for members, however, are hopes of raises for educators as well as more counselors and other staff.

Similarly, a union representing nurses and health care workers hopes the coming election will be a chance to keep facilities open as rural hospitals struggle.

The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees District 1199 is proposing lawmakers take 10 percent of a projected $1.2 billion surplus and dedicate it to health care, arguing the money could improve staffing at hospitals and prevent cuts to services, particularly in far-flung parts of the state.

Many legislators may be hesitant to spend so big on the back of an oil boom they expect will eventually go bust.

But Sharon Argenbright, a nurse and the union’s district president, argues next year will be the time for the state to act on an issue she sees as tied to the quality of life in rural areas.

“Sitting and waiting for a rainy day, we could lose rural hospitals,” she said.

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