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Union Leaders Hail N.M. Collective-Bargaining Bill

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Stymied for nearly a decade in their attempts to mandate collective bargaining in every state, the nation's teachers' unions have made a breakthrough in New Mexico with the passage of a law that allows teachers and other public-sector employees to negotiate as a unit.

The law, signed this month by Gov. Bruce King, marks the first time since 1983 that a state has enacted a collective-bargaining law covering public-school teachers.

"We believe the passage of SB 99 is the most significant accomplishment for N.E.A.-[New Mexico] and New Mexico school employees in modern history,'' the National Education Association state affiliate wrote in a memorandum to ranking union officials nationwide.

New Mexico becomes the 34th state to allow school employees to bargain collectively.

Passage of the New Mexico law was also a victory for Keith B. Geiger, the president of the N.E.A., who has made enactment of collective bargaining in all states a top priority of his tenure.

Mr. Geiger said the achievement was particularly noteworthy in light of the anti-union political climate that, he said, has prevailed nationally since the early 1980's.

"We have been living in an era since I became president ... where collective bargaining is hardly something that is spoken of in the halls of the White House with much enthusiasm,'' he observed.

Still, New Mexico backers of collective bargaining were forced to make some significant concessions in order to get their bill into law. The legislation makes strikes illegal and contains no provision for binding arbitration. Moreover, it does not provide for agency fees, which all employees are required to pay to the union for negotiating on their behalf even if they choose not to be members.

The law also has a sunset clause scheduled to take effect in 1999.

"If we have to have a law, this is probably as good as we could hope for,'' said Wesley H. Lane, the executive director of the New Mexico School Boards Association, one of the leading foes of collective bargaining.

On the other hand, the unions were able to block attempts to incorporate a local-option clause, which would have allowed school boards to decide if they would recognize collective bargaining.

Under terms of the legislation, an election to consider unionization must be held if at least 30 percent of a potential bargaining unit's members request one.

The law also calls for a public-employment-relations board, which is considered one of the hallmarks of a strong collective-bargaining law.

Won at the Polls

Labor leaders--who paraded in the streets of Santa Fe in Mardi Gras fashion on the day Mr. King signed the measure--credited victory to their earlier political efforts.

"We really got this legislation passed at the polls in 1988 and 1990 by electing the right legislators and Governor,'' said Jay Miller, the chief lobbyist for the N.E.A.-New Mexico.

The new Democratic Governor had promised during his 1990 campaign to endorse some form of public-sector collective bargaining, and Democrats, who tend to be more receptive to union proposals, picked up some seats in the legislature.

After a collective-bargaining bill was defeated in the Senate by a 22-to-20 vote last year, Governor King appointed a task force to hammer out a law he could support.

Even with the task force's recommendations, however, the legislation survived only because of some last-minute lobbying and a parliamentary maneuver that backfired.

After passing easily in the House, 40 to 30, the bill was once again defeated in the Senate on a 22-to-20 vote. Hoping to to kill the bill once and for all this session, the leaders of the Republican minority in the Senate then called for a reconsideration vote. To their surprise, it passed.

That gave collective-bargaining proponents two days to woo at least one of the six Democrats who had sided with the G.O.P. to switch sides and vote for the bill. They enlisted the help of the state's top Democrats, including Governor King, U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, and U.S. Representative Bill Richardson.

What ultimately made the difference was the support of Peterson Zah, the president of the Navajo Nation. He wrote to one of the wavering Democrats, Senator Gloria Howes, asking her to vote for passage.

"That shifted the weight on the teeter-totter immensely,'' said Senator Howes.

Once Ms. Howes had switched her vote, the tally on the bill was 21 to 21. That enabled Lieut. Gov. Casey E. Luna to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the bill, thus passing it.

A 'Bolshevik Plot'?

Although some states enacted collective-bargaining laws that covered teachers as early as 1959, the heyday was the period from 1969 to 1971, according to John Dunlop, the director of collective bargaining for the N.E.A.

Illinois and Ohio, which already had a significant number of local bargaining agreements, were the last to pass such measures, in 1983.

As it did in New Mexico, it generally takes repeated efforts to get a bargaining law passed.

"Most legislators in states without [collective bargaining] see it as some sort of Bolshevik plot to undo good government,'' said Mr. Dunlop. "As they get into drafting the mechanics of the law and become educated on its parameters, then they see it in a much more positive light.''

Raymond Hilgert, a professor of management and industrial relations at Washington University in St. Louis, said passage of the New Mexico law is part of an evolutionary process that is likely to continue.

"Inevitably, more and more states are going to grant bargaining rights to their public-sector people,'' Mr. Hilgert predicted.

Public-sector employees other than teachers currently have bargaining rights in 27 states.

Little Success Elsewhere

Collective-bargaining campaigns in other states have not fared as well this legislative session, however.

A bill in the West Virginia legislature, for example, got bogged down in the House Judiciary Committee this year, continuing the frustrations of union leaders who have tried for 21 consecutive years to get a bargaining law passed.

One of the factors that dashed the measure's chances was the concern that West Virginia teachers would follow the example of those in neighboring Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania perennially leads the nation in the number of teachers' strikes, spurring widespread public dissatisfaction and legislative efforts to curb strike rights.

Elsewhere, teachers' unions in states that already have collective bargaining have been trying, without much success, to strengthen the laws. In Maine, union leaders were pushing a bill to allow teachers to negotiate such issues as the length of the school day and year. Lawmakers so watered down the bill, however, that the union leaders asked that it be withdrawn.

Similarly, South Dakota teachers asked that a bill providing for binding arbitration of contract disputes be pulled after the legislation was significantly altered.

The next major test of the collective-bargaining campaign may come in Louisiana, where Gov. Edwin W. Edwards has promised to sign such a bill.

Even before the Louisiana legislature begins its session later this month, however, the state school-boards association is pulling together a broad-based coalition to ward off collective-bargaining bills.

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