City workers won the right to settle disputes with the administration via an independent party—but their victory will probably last only until Mayor Martin Chavez wields his veto pen.
By law, public employees in New Mexico cannot go on strike. Josh Anderson, a member of a public employee union, said there is an underlying belief that the administration has no incentive to negotiate. City employees represented by unions were working without a contract for a brief period because they could not come to an agreement with the city.
A bill sponsored by Councilors Debbie O’Malley and Rey Garduño amends the city labor ordinance to allow the administration or city unions to call for binding arbitration if negotiations and mediation fail. This would not apply to wages but only to certain non-economic issues. An amendment to the measure exempted violations of the city’s alcohol and substance-abuse regulations, along with wage issues.
The bill passed 5-3 at the Council meeting on Aug. 18, and the vote was split along party lines. It was supported by Councilors O’Malley, Garduño, Michael Cadigan, Ken Sanchez and Isaac Benton. Councilor Sally Mayer was absent but previously voted with bill opponents Councilors Brad Winter, Trudy Jones and Don Harris. Upholding a mayoral veto requires four votes from the Council.
Andrew Padilla, local president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said typical non-economic issues were health and safety, uniforms and shift schedules. He said the workers didn’t want arbitration but a fair and equitable contract.
Garduño said the bill “leveled the playing field.” He said he didn’t think it was true that the bill would allow “labor to hold the administration hostage."
Because employees cannot strike, Cadigan said the city needed some way to handle labor impasses. Benton said arbitration was an established process. Sanchez brought up the 3.5 percent wage increase the Council budgeted that the city administration did not offer the workers.
Jones wondered if the bill had to do with the process or with the current administration. Jones said she was against arbitration as well as “legislation aimed at particular persons.”
Chief Administrative Officer Ed Adams said the bill would allow unions to arbitrate every contract and that labor negotiations were the city’s responsibility. He also warned that the bill would effect “substantial changes,” therefore invalidating the city’s labor law. The city’s labor law was “grandfathered in” and does not follow state law. Making substantial changes could invalidate the city law in favor of state law. Adams also said the bill would put labor decisions “at the whim” of an arbitrator, who hadn't been elected.
Cadigan said the City Charter requires an unelected official to make such decisions. O’Malley said arbitration would be handled by a professional, not “Bob down the street.”
According to the bill, if mediation fails and the two parties cannot agree on an acceptable arbitrator, the parties request a list of five names from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. A coin flip determines which party gets to cross out the first name, after which the two parties alternate in eliminating names until only one is left. The arbitrator’s decision can be reviewed in District Court if it does not follow a long list of guidelines.