The Right-to-Work Fight You Aren't Hearing About

With Republicans controlling New Mexico's House of Representatives and Susana Martinez as governor, the state's debate on right to work is heating up.

Much of the focus on fights over right-to-work laws has been on Rust Belt states like Michigan, Indiana, and now Wisconsin, as its governor and likely presidential candidate Scott Walker signed a right-to-work bill Monday.

But there's also a high stakes showdown underway in New Mexico. Late last month, the state's House of Representatives passed a right-to-work bill, setting up a face-off with the Senate, which could raise the profile of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, positioning her as a Walker-esque rising star for the GOP who is unafraid of challenging big labor.

Right-to-work laws prevent unions and employers from requiring that employees join a union or pay dues for representation. On the surface, the debate in New Mexico seems peculiar. In 2014, only 5.7 percent of workers in the state were members of a union and only 7.4 percent were represented by one, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But for the first time in more than sixty years, Republicans took control of the state's House of Representatives last year, and they re-elected Martinez. In her state of the state address, Martinez sold the policy as a matter of fairness and as a way to save money.

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"The Governor supports allowing workers to decide for themselves whether to join a union or financially contribute to one, and doesn't believe anyone should be forced to join a union or contribute to one as a condition of employment," a spokesperson for Martinez said in an email.

On Tuesday, the state's Senate Public Affairs Committee is slated to debate and vote on the subject. But Majority Floor Leader Sen. Michael Sanchez said he does not think it has much likelihood of passing or even making it out of committee.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation—which has written policy papers in support of right-to-work—said he feels the bill is something that could start to bring much-needed economic development into the state.

"This was one idea that Republicans have that is politically popular, not costing taxpayers anything, and is right for workers," Gessing said. Gessing has testified before New Mexico's House Business and Employment Committee on how right-to-work laws have led employers to relocate to those states.

But the policy, and the supposed benefits its supporters are quick to highlight, are highly contested. Tamara Kay, a professor in the sociology department at the University of New Mexico, criticized right-to-work laws as "kindergarten math."

"I basically found that the best statistical studies suggest right-to-work will do nothing for economic growth," she told National Journal, adding that passing the law likely would lower employees' wages and reduce the likelihood of workers getting pensions or health benefits.

Gessing, meanwhile, pointed out that when electric carmaker Tesla Motors was looking for a state to place a factory, New Mexico was passed over in favor of Nevada, a right-to-work state.

"Certainly the experience with Tesla and the desire to make New Mexico competitive is another aspect," he said.

But Sanchez said New Mexico not being a right-to-work state wasn't what led to Tesla going elsewhere. Instead, he blamed Martinez for not working with the legislature to help attract the company.

"The administration never reached out to us on Tesla," he told National Journal.

Sanchez said he believed the attempt to pass a right-to-work bill is intended to divide the state politically, as well as increase the profile of the governor, who is being floated as a possible vice presidential nominee.

"There's no doubt it's to enhance her career nationally," Sanchez said.

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In addition to having a right-to-work provision, the bill before the Senate would also increase the state's minimum wage by 50 cents. Martinez' office told National Journal in an email she would support the wage increase as long as it keeps the state competitive and does not hurt small businesses.

But Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, said it is not sufficient.

"We are not even discussing the minimum wage part of that bill," he said, adding that the bill is meant to divide workers and progressives. "What right-to-work says is, it is cheaper for you to do business here because our wages are lower."

In late February, the state House passed its version of the bill 37-30. However, when Senate Republicans tried to pass the bill through a legislative process late last week, the Democratic majority beat it 25 to 17.

But whether the bill actually passes, the debate is indicative of a much larger political introspection about the state of New Mexico's economy.

New Mexico's economy is behind many other states in unemployment, ranking 34th according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it ranks 43rd in per capita income according to 2012 data. According a 2014 University of New Mexico study, the state has lagged in population growth, and while it is number four in Ph.D. recipients, it ranks in the bottom when it comes to the number of people who do not have a bachelor's degree.

For Sanchez, the best way to attract businesses is through the state's school system and job training, and he says Martinez's administration has not been effective.

"We don't have an administration leading us," he said. "There are no ideas."

Gessing admits that the right-to-work bill will probably not lead to immediate results, but would have to be part of a larger effort to promote economic growth.

"Nobody sees it as a silver bullet," he said. "This is a starting point for New Mexico getting serious about economic growth."