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On March 5, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed H.B. 364, a major overhaul of New Mexico’s system of public sector labor relations. Hailed by the Teamsters as a necessary modernization and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as a “big step” in the fight for public employees, many of the bill’s marquee reforms provide procedural overhauls for New Mexico’s system of over 50 local labor boards, including a potential greater centralization of labor relations into the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board.
One stunning aspect of H.B. 364 went mostly unmentioned in the public debate over its passage: Section 7c of the bill made New Mexico one of the few states to provide public employees the right to form a union through card check. That provision has already paid off: Organizers with University of New Mexico graduate assistants say they filed for union recognition under the new law on December 9.
Card check, sometimes called majority sign-up, requires that employees submit cards signed by a majority of the proposed bargaining unit; after it’s confirmed they have a majority, they have a recognized union. Nine states — California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Maine and New Mexico — have strong mechanisms for mandatory recognition using card check. A number of additional states — such as Kansas, North Dakota and Maryland — have card check provisions that apply to smaller groups of public employees, and which may have weaker provisions. Two others, Oklahoma and New Hampshire, passed card check laws in 2004 and 2007, only to repeal them in 2011.
Card check was the major reform proposed by the failed Employee Free Choice Act, which died in the Senate during Barack Obama’s first term. Worker advocates argue it makes it easier to form a union by eliminating the period between workers showing interest in a union, and the actual election. During that waiting period, employers often wage highly effective and expensive campaigns to dissuade workers from unionizing using outside professional “union avoidance” consultants — something recently cited by the Economic Policy Institute as a major factor in the decline of unions.
Although card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the package of union-backed labor reforms passed by the House of Representatives in February, it’s still a part of the labor reform discussion. Evidence is mixed. Statistics on public sector union density shows that states that passed it didn’t see major expansions of public sector unions. That may be due, in part, to the fact that almost all of them had high public sector union density when card check laws were passed (with the exception of New York, which included card check in the Taylor Law passed in 1967).
But New Mexico is different: In 2019, only 22.8% of its public sector workers were covered by a union contract, placing New Mexico 36th in the nation. This puts New Mexico well behind most other states with wide-ranging card check laws, which tend to have higher union density. This means there’s unprecedented room for growth — room that will provide insight into whether or not card check expands union power like worker advocates claim.
There are already signs that it does. The graduate assistants recently filed for recognition announced their organizing drive in October, choosing to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. The campaign gained new urgency because of the passage of card check and the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Samantha Cooney, a graduate assistant in the Department of Political Science and a member of the United Graduate Workers of University of New Mexico organizing committee, graduates decided they needed to “get down to it and get a supermajority by December, and we ended up doing that.” Graduates had already begun organizing prior to the law’s passage, and they were “extremely happy when [the bill was signed] because it made our journey toward unionization that much easier,” says Cooney.
With major employee groups at the state’s largest employer organized and the path cleared for union expansion, New Mexico will be a test of whether labor law reform can help organized labor claw back decades of lost ground. The signs look positive — with graduate assistants leading the way — that New Mexico may experience a strong expansion of public sector unions. If it does, it shows a road forward for labor elsewhere: Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island all have Democratic Party trifectas, with no card check process for public sector workers.
Organizing may have helped deliver reforms, too. H.B. 364 was introduced four months after the conclusion of major organizing drives for tenure-track and adjunct faculty in the University of New Mexico system, and new faculty union leaders lobbied alongside other public sector unions for the legislation. Their win was trailblazing in both the changes to New Mexico law that followed, and in that they proved organizing at University of New Mexico could succeed. According to Cooney, the success of the faculty drive encouraged graduate assistants to move forward, and the faculty union and individual faculty offered support for graduate workers seeking to form their union.
The success of card check in New Mexico may prove important for workers elsewhere. But for graduate assistants at University of New Mexico, the changed process and what it helped deliver — a union — means something more immediate and personal: power. That’s important for Cooney. “We feel strengthened by the numbers around us,” she says, adding, “for myself, this process has not only made me optimistic about what my raise will be.” She continues, “But I know I have other graduate assistants that understand my circumstances, and have my back.”
C.M. Lewis is an editor of Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter: @thehousered