Fight not over for New Mexico minimum wage bill

As if it were a close basketball game, where one team is ahead by two or three points and is trying to run out the clock to keep the other team from scoring, New Mexico’s Republican state senators in cahoots with three southern Democratic state senators managed to stonewall a minimum wage bill as the Legislature’s session came to a halt exactly at 12 noon on Feb. 16.

However, Matt Henderson, ACORN executive director, expressed optimism for the campaign’s future. “Though surely disappointed by the loss, we are in excellent shape,” he said. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is being pressured to call a special session to take up the measure. If that happens, Henderson said, “We should be able to pass a good bill. If not, we are well poised for next year and we are moving ahead on local initiatives around New Mexico.”

The bill would have raised the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour beginning Jan.1, 2007, and allowed for an annual 3 percent cost of living indexing. In the face of vicious opposition from the state’s industry, a coalition of 22 labor, community and faith-based organizations campaigned on many levels over the last year to raise the pay of minimum wage workers.

Attempts to put the issue on the ballot in the city of Albuquerque fell short by only 1,500 signatures last year. However, in Santa Fe, a higher minimum wage of $8.50 per hour was passed by a progressive city council. The council had been elected through solid rank-and-file organizing work.

A team of lead lobbyists for the state bill, made up of representatives from AFSCME, AFT, the New Mexico AFL-CIO and Latino community organizations, worked diligently to convince the state legislators of the people’s needs. They were backed up with a barrage of telephone calls and e-mails to the legislators from their constituents. Activists gathered thousands of petitions in support of the legislation throughout the state.

Public pressure for an increase in the state’s minimum wage was so intense that Gov. Richardson, in his address to the opening session of the Legislature, called for a minimum wage increase parallel to the coalition’s effort for $7.50 an hour.

The bill passed the various committees of the the House by narrow margins, but got bottlenecked in the Senate. Republicans voted against it on a strict party line vote, with three Democratic senators from the south of the state supporting their actions. Differences with the governor’s proposal on the cost of living indexing and timing of the increase were exploited through parliamentary maneuvers by the reactionary opposition until time ran out.

“The Senate’s failure to raise the New Mexico minimum wage is proof how out of touch with the working poor our elected officials are,” stated Robby Rodriguez, executive director of SouthWest Organizing Project. “The U.S. Congress and even the New Mexico Legislature approve increases in their own benefits and compensation while leaving the hardest working New Mexicans behind.”

Despite the setback, said ACORN’s Henderson, “the community of faith, labor, grassroots organizations and activists will continue to fight to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage. We have the business organizations on the run. It’s not a question of if we will win this, but when.”