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Published in Print: March 19, 2003, as Collective Bargaining Gets New Life in New Mexico

Collective Bargaining Gets New Life in New Mexico

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Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, fulfilling a campaign promise, signed a bill this month that restores collective bargaining rights to teachers and other public employees.

The law gives back the right to public employees, including about 30,000 school workers, to negotiate labor agreements with management. It also prohibits employee strikes or management lockouts.

"This law will benefit all of New Mexico's children by giving a greater voice to the people who work with them closely every day," said Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association. "It provides a great framework for public schools and education employees to reach agreements that will raise student achievement across the state."

The law reinstates a state labor-relations board for public employees and the binding arbitration in the event of an impasse.

Gov. Bill Richardson

New Mexico lawmakers voted mostly on party lines, with the House version passing on a 40-24 vote, and the Senate voting 23-12 for the House bill. Democrats control both chambers.

The last time any state passed a collective bargaining law for public employees was also in New Mexico. The state's previous law guaranteeing collective bargaining rights was passed in 1992 and expired in 1999 under a "sunset" provision. Then-Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, vetoed several efforts to extend the law.

Even after the previous law had expired, several New Mexico school districts continued to engage voluntarily in collective bargaining with their employees.

A Campaign Promise

The new law takes effect July 1. It is a major victory for Gov. Richardson, a Democrat and a prominent former member of the Clinton administration, who promised during last fall's campaign to restore collective bargaining for public employees.

"As we saw during 9/11, public employees courageously put their lives on the line for all of us," Gov. Richardson said when he signed the bill on March 7, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks. "Yet, even in New Mexico, we took our public employees for granted. Those days are gone."

Mr. Richardson has also vowed to improve the salaries for New Mexico teachers by 6 percent next fiscal year. New Mexico ranked 44th in the nation in teacher pay in 2001-02, with an average salary of $36,440, according to a report by the NEA.

"We have thousands of educators who have tremendous responsibilities to teach our children," the governor said. "All of those valued employees deserve a fair shake when it comes to negotiating salaries, working conditions, and other. aspects of the jobs they perform."

In states without collective bargaining, teachers may face a greater chance for low morale and lower salaries, argues Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the NEA's national headquarters in Washington. He said 34 states and the District of Columbia have collective bargaining rights for teachers.

"The bill goes a long way to improving the education environment in New Mexico," said Charles Boyer, the government-relations director for the New Mexico branch of the NEA.

But opponents of the law say it will cost taxpayers. "You simply bargain against the taxpayers' pockets and against the taxpayers' wallet," state Sen. Rod Adair, a Republican, told the Albuquerque Journal.

An official with a national charter school research and advocacy group said such laws do not provide incentives for teacher quality. The New Mexico law covers charter school teachers, too.

"Bad teachers can be protected; good teachers can be lost," said Mary Kayne Heinze, a spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform, based in Washington. "For good teachers, there's no incentive for them to excel to become the best they can be," she argued. "What teachers really need is merit pay, and to be evaluated on their individual contributions."

Vol. 22, Issue 27, Page 15

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