Sunday, February 11, 2018

Is "Right to Work" The Key To Economic Success in New Mexico? Not.

On February 11th, the Albuquerque Journal printed two editorials supporting Right to Work laws, which prohibit unions from imposing member dues on all employees in a unionized shop. The Rio Grande Foundation's Paul Gessing and Sandoval County's Jay Block opined that passing right to work laws will stimulate New Mexico's economy. I think both opinion pieces are oversold.

Do right to work laws guarantee economic success? Business Insider recently identified the 15 states "where young people are moving in, jobs are plentiful, and business is booming". 8 of those 15 and 3 of the top five (Colorado, California, and Massachusetts) are not, per se, right to work states. These three states have union representation rates of 10.8%, 17.5%, and 12.9%, respectively. New Mexico's union representation rate is a paltry 8.2%.  Are we somehow to believe that less than one in ten unionized employees are pulling down New Mexico's economic fortunes when states with twice the union representation rates are doing fine?

The notion that right to work laws are a silver bullet to cure New Mexico's lagging economy is a straw man. What else is going on here? First, employers in today's highly technical economy must hire people who can read directions and do math; that is more critical than whether or not an employee has a union card. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that close to half of New Mexico's high school grads place into remedial studies. When looking at math proficiency, this number is even worse. One cannot expect employers to rush to a state that does not promise a competent work force. Plus, a recent Albuquerque Journal article reported that a company threatened to leave town if Albuquerque's league-leading crime rate continued unabated.

Does union membership violates an employee's rights? One must consider that a union is formed after a certification vote of the employees. I moved to Los Alamos in 2001. Regardless of whether I agreed with the sitting county council, I had to pay my property taxes. Likewise, if someone doesn't like the way their union is functioning when joining a union shop, one can run for the union board or start a decertification drive. One should not have the right to ignore what the existing employees have arranged in a vote of the work force.

Unions exist for a reason: to ensure that employees are not powerless in the workplace; perhaps the Journal needs to write a history of labor organization in the U.S. to provide fairness to this discussion. Effective representation should not go out of style. That said, the bottom line is that we all (labor, management, educational systems, and individuals) have to put our backs to the job and pull in the same direction if we expect to coax New Mexico out of its economic malaise. Rather than seeing union and management arguing over the arrangement of deck chairs as the iceberg of foreign or out of state competition looms, I would prefer to see us all cooperate to ensure that both management and employees are working towards the same goals: a fair and just workplace that is also competitive and making a profit we can all be proud of and from which we all can benefit. We also must encourage K-12 students and the PED to focus on long term success beyond the school years in order to build a competitive work force.

As a union board member, I worked with both management and my colleagues to ensure we promoted fair work rules, a voice for everyone at the table, and that we were all putting in the effort to build a successful enterprise, in my case an excellent university. Is that asking too much?

Khal Spencer was a member of the board of directors of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the state university's faculty union. He represented faculty in the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology.

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