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County workers eye union

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By David Giuliani

Some San Miguel County government employees are considering forming a union, so the county has hired a firm to negotiate with them.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been talking with county workers about organizing. So far, jailers and sheriff’s deputies are expressing interest, officials say.

Without discussion, the County Commission this week voted to hire Management Associates Inc., an Albuquerque consulting firm, to help the county with issues involving the union. The firm will make $125 an hour for management services and $150 an hour for legal services, County Manager Les Montoya said.

This is the first time in recent memory that county employees have expressed an interest in forming a union.

The city of Las Vegas, on the other hand, has had long experience with unions. Its blue-collar workers, police officers and firefighters are organized.

During municipal elections, candidates often seek union endorsements. A few years ago, unionized employees picketed before a council meeting, taking aim at then-City Manager John Avila. The city kept him.

A few months ago, the County Commission delayed payments for health care for the poor to Alta Vista Regional Hospital until its management showed up to explain why the hospital refused to negotiate with the union. Its CEO, Richard Grogan, showed up the next month.

Some question whether the county should hire an outside firm to deal with the union.

“I don’t know why we hire people to oppose our own taxpayers. Employees are taxpayers, too. We’re using their money to negotiate against them. That doesn’t make sense,” said Morris Madrid, a former Las Vegas city manager and councilman.

When Madrid was on the council, he convinced his colleagues to eliminate $50,000 from the city’s annual budget allocated to Management Associates.

In 2009, Madrid’s last year on the council, the city hired back Management Associates. Madrid said he tolerated that because the city manager was new, the manager had a lot on his plate and the city gave the firm strict marching orders.

Madrid said he also liked that Management Associates sent Dina Holcomb rather than her father, John Martinez, the firm’s founder, to talk with the unions. Martinez created an “environment of antagonism,” Madrid said.

“I’ve always felt that government management should be able to negotiate with union management directly,” he said. “If you bring reasonable minds and good faith to the table, you can work anything out.”

City Manager Timothy Dodge said Management Associates has been working well for the city. He said he heard that there were concerns previously about the firm, particularly with Martinez’s not getting along with the unions. But others in the firm handle the city’s negotiations these days, Dodge said.

County Commissioner Nicolas Leger said union negotiations are a “fairly technical field.”

“I think what we would like to do is have some expertise with the process. It’s not that we’re opposing the union,” he said. “If the process goes through and the employees vote to be represented, we’ll respect that.”

Over time, he said, the county likely would need Management Associates less and less.

Montoya said the county hired Management Associates to make sure it abides by all laws.

“We want all parties represented fairly,” he said.

On Monday, the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board will hear a dispute between the county and the union on which employees should be included in the union. The positions at issue are sergeants at the jail — the union argues they should be included, the county disagrees.

If the positions are determined to be supervisory, then they wouldn’t be covered by the union.