By James Monteleone

Gov. Susana Martinez's administration wants to stop allowing union dues to be withdrawn automatically from state employee paychecks, money that she says is turned around for political attacks.

One union leader called that a "declaration of war" against unions and said changing the longstanding practice is simply not going to happen.

Martinez said the effort to stop the union fee collection has created an impasse in collective bargaining negotiations between the state and two unions -- the New Mexico affiliates of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and the Communication Workers of America union. AFSCME and CWA represent about 11,000 state workers in New Mexico.

"The state collects them (dues) for the unions, and then we cut a check to the unions who then use that money against reform," Martinez told business leaders attending a commercial real estate development luncheon in Albuquerque on Monday.

"That was in the negotiated union contracts years ago. ... We're at an impasse with the current (contract negotiations) because I don't want to take the checks out of the payroll and do their job so they can attack us," she said.

The governor raised the issue of union dues collection while criticizing teachers unions for their organized opposition to her proposed education initiatives. But Martinez has no control over the collection of teachers union dues because those contracts are negotiated on the local level. AFSCME and CWA, however, negotiate collective bargaining agreements directly with the state.

At issue is the practice of withdrawing dues of about $13 per paycheck from workers who do not participate in the union but are represented by the union in contract negotiations, said Nivia Thames, deputy director of the State Personnel Office.

That payment of about $13 per paycheck, known as "fair share" contributions to the union, are withdrawn with the employees' consent.

"The state is opposed to this practice and has not included 'fair share' in its last, best offers to AFSCME and CWA," Thames said in a statement. "We made this decision because of the unfair effect 'fair share' has on non-union employees (who) have complained that they do not want to pay money to the unions when they are not members and they are not receiving any benefit."

However, state law requires all employees to pay union dues if their job is represented by a union. What is at issue here is whether the dues are automatically deducted from state paychecks.

AFSCME spokesman Miles Conway called the maneuver to eliminate the payroll deductions a "declaration of war." He said public employees will actively fight that cut through the arbitration process.

"There's no question she's coming to cut the unions off at the knees, but we didn't know she was going for the head," he said. Forcing public employees unions to independently collect all of their dues would undermine the unions' efforts to fairly represent state workers, he said.

"To shut that off and say you now have to go out and knock on 11,000 doors every two weeks to collect dues, that would be a supreme departure from the norm," Conway said.

Contrary to Martinez's assertion that the dues are being used for political attacks, Conway said the fair-share payments are prohibited from political use. Instead, they go exclusively toward operating expenses, he said.

However, the union also is allowed to have employees make additional payments for political work, which are deducted from state paychecks. Those paycheck deductions are protected by the state Public Employee Bargaining Act, Conway said.

The current contracts expired in 2011, but provisions allowed the contracts to roll over until new ones were negotiated.

Republican leaders in the state House during this year's legislative session attempted to amend unrelated legislation to include a statutory ban on paycheck withdrawals of union fees, but that effort was defeated by a Democratic majority in the chamber. Martinez, who is seeking re-election in November, said in her public remarks that the unions "are going to bring that money into this state to make sure I'm not here telling you the truth. That's what they want to do, and I tell 'em, 'Bring it on.' "

American Federation of Teachers New Mexico union President Stephanie Ly said Martinez's targeting of unions is an effort to shift the blame to public employees.

"She wants to attack the professionals who have been standing up for the students and for the employees and for the communities in New Mexico in saying we need to do something other than what this governor has pushed forward," Ly said. "Attacking the payroll deduction rights has nothing to do with the real struggle at hand."

Martinez has sought education initiatives, including basing more of teachers' evaluations on student test scores and no longer allowing the "social promotion" of third-graders who cannot read at grade level. She has faced strong opposition from Democratic legislators and teacher unions.

(c)2014 the Albuquerque Journal