Laura Laemmle, one of the student leaders from the Student Senate and the graduate student union, speaking to the crowd of rally attendees. (Photo by Santana Ochoa for Source NM)
New Mexico State University’s local labor board dissolved after two of its three members resigned in October.
The dissolution means an effort by the school’s graduate students to form a union will instead be considered by the statewide labor board in Santa Fe. Graduate students there see it as a step toward reaching the bargaining table with their school’s administration.
Attorneys for the student workers and for the NMSU administration will present to the statewide Public Employee Labor Relations Board on Friday, Dec. 3, in a hearing meant to set the calendar for the case.
Matt Varakian, an organizer with the union, said the main thing members are looking for is a firm timeline showing when they can expect to see some movement in the case.
“We feel like we’ve been in a holding pattern for a little while, so we’re hoping for swifter action than what it seems like was going to happen with the local labor board,” Varakian said.
Why the board fell apart
At a meeting on Oct. 17, NMSU labor board members Larry Martinez and Fermin Rubio were hoping to grant the third member, Nancy Oretskin, temporary leave while she finished her teaching semester.
At that point, it had been more than five months since the NMSU grad workers submitted 532 signed cards showing support for unionizing. Out of the 936 graduate students in the proposed bargaining unit, the cards represented a 57% majority.
Rubio wanted to hold off on a decision until a meeting when all three members could be present, likely after the semester concluded in December.
The union and NMSU had agreed to wait for a hearing until the statewide board determined the public employee status of graduate students, said Stephen Curtice, an attorney for the union. That had been decided: Grad students counted, the board said.
Curtice reminded Rubio about the board’s own rules requiring a hearing in a timely manner.
“Further delay I don’t think serves anybody’s interest,” he said.
All of that went out the window when Oretskin left the board three days later regardless, writing in her resignation letter that the teaching work made her ineligible to serve.
“I accepted a part time temporary teaching assignment, which I have learned conflicts with the qualification provisions of service (e.g. no public employment),” she wrote in the letter.
Martinez said at an Oct. 25 meeting Oretskin’s resignation made him “uncomfortable,” so he also quit. He then quickly ended the meeting, which lasted fewer than two minutes.
NMSU will not fill the two empty positions on the board and is taking steps to officially dissolve it, spokesperson Justin Bannister said Monday.
Some local boards had ‘gone dark’
As part of a series of labor reforms in 2020, lawmakers restructured the state’s 52 local labor boards. These reforms are why the NMSU board ceased to exist when Oretskin’s seat remained vacant for too long.
Shane Youtz is a labor attorney and a partner in the firm that represents the NMSU grad workers.
He told a legislative panel in 2020 that the local boards often weren’t serving the purpose of handling disputes between management and unions. He said the law would fix that by dissolving dormant local boards and handing their responsibilities to the state board, which has more resources and dedicated staff.
Four days later in debate on the House floor, Minority Whip Rod Montoya, a Republican from Farmington, opposed the bill on the grounds that it would force unions to petition the state rather than local boards and diminish “local control.”
Rep. Damon Ely, a Democrat from Albuquerque, was one of the bill’s co-sponsors. He said the law was introduced because some of the local boards stopped doing their job for workers.
Some had “gone dark,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat. They ceased to operate and were not protecting workers who needed them, she said.
The new law also requires local boards to allow workers to sign union authorization cards, called a “card check,” rather than having to go through a traditional union election. This is exactly what NMSU grad students were asking from the local labor board. If allowed, the students’ union will become part of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).
“We’ve already waited many, many months since we filed this petition,” UE member Mark Meister told the NMSU labor board on Oct 17.
“The employees at issue here and the university have a right to a decision that’s as timely as possible here,” Meister said. “To just sort of shut everything down for two months, it’s just going to add more unnecessary delay.”
Who counts and who can unionize?
State lawmakers expanded the definition of public-sector workers to include those whose work is funded by grants. The state labor board ruled in August 2021 that grad students are included in that pool of workers.
However, Dina Holcomb, an attorney for NMSU management, told Martinez and Rubio at that October meeting that they didn’t have to follow the state’s ruling.
“I want to remind this board that the state labor board’s decisions are not binding precedent upon this local labor board,” she said. “You have equivalent standing as the state labor board.”
Varakian said he and his fellow grad workers felt frustrated by Holcomb’s suggestion that the state labor board’s ruling does not apply to NMSU graduate students.
“Which is kind of a ridiculous statement, in our eyes, you know, somehow trying to argue that the state’s ruling would apply to UNM graduate workers but not NMSU graduate workers,” Varakian said.
Still, avoiding local delays and getting in front of the state labor board puts the union in a slightly better position, he said, and the grad workers hope NMSU will meet them at the bargaining table in good faith.
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