Sunday, October 2, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: Did State Layoffs Target Union Leaders?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 2, 2011

Note: As announced last week, my political column has moved to Sundays. Below is my fiorst Sunday column.

Are labor union leaders being targeted in recent state government layoffs?

The governor's office says no. But two high-ranking union leaders who have lost their state jobs in recent weeks believe their union activity is the cause.

First there was Michelle Lewis, one of 33 Public Education Department employees who were RIFed (that's bureacratspeak for "Reduction in Force") in June. She is president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7076, which represents some state employees and includes workers in both the public and private sectors.

Then, last Monday, Maxine Velasquez learned she was one of 16 workers laid off at Expo New Mexico, the agency that operates the state fair.

Velasquez also is secretary-treasurer of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which makes her the highest-ranking state employee in that organization. She's on the executive board of her American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local. She was labor liaison for Democrat Diane Denish's unsuccessful campaign for governor last year.

Early this year, the administration said no layoffs would be necessary. Beginning in June, however, the State Personnel Board, responding to requests from various Cabinet secretaries, eliminated 47 jobs.

Besides the Public Education Department and Expo New Mexico, departments hit include Tourism (where New Mexico Magazine lost seven of 17 employees), Economic Development, and Regulation and Licensing.

In each case, budget problems were cited for the layoffs.

Lewis, a former teacher, told me last week that she helped the union organize the Public Education Department in 2003, when the state resumed allowing collective bargaining. She also said that earlier this year as union president she publicly opposed all the bills that Education Secretary Hanna Skandera was pushing during the regular legislative session.

Lewis was an education technology coordinator in the Public Education Department. About two weeks after her last paycheck from that job, Lewis was offered a new position. She accepted, even though she now makes about $1,200 less a month. She now scans and indexes documents in the department's Professional Licensure Bureau.

More than half of the state workers laid off in June have been rehired, state personnel officials say. But union officials say that nearly all of those rehired go to lower-paying jobs.

The State Personnel Board approved the layoffs at Expo New Mexico nearly two weeks ago. But nobody was told who was getting the boot until Monday.

Solidarity with Wisconsin
Labor demonstration at Roundhouse in February
Velasquez, who has worked at Expo for six years, was classified as a "business operations specialist." She was in charge of the State Fair Queen contest as well as the McDonald's Farm exhibit at the fair.

She told me she's been active in unions for 40 years. One reason she thinks she was targeted is that a less-experienced worker with the same job and comparable pay was spared in the RIF.

Shortly after the Public Education Department layoffs in June, the Associated Press quoted Scott Darnell, spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez, as saying the decision to can Lewis had nothing to do with her union position.

"The few departments involved in this restructuring simply looked at increasing the efficiency of their bureaucracy and cutting spending that had grown too quickly," he said.

Darnell said the same thing on Thursday. "... there is certainly no targeting," he said in an email. Union employees make up about 65 percent of the Public Education Department, he said, but collective-bargaining workers made up fewer than 55 percent of the employees who were laid off.

Department spokesman Larry Behrens said Lewis wasn't singled out. He said she worked in a division that lost its funding entirely.