Back in 2004 the University of New Mexico Hospital went through an expansion of its west wing. The $223 million construction project that began that summer ended up adding 70 additional beds, bigger patient rooms, larger emergency rooms and new high tech equipment to the aging Hospital. Before the construction began the Board of Regents passed a Project Labor Agreement, which brought the wrath of business interests in the state.
The Regents voted 4-2 back in March 8, 2004 to implement the project labor agreement, which would unionize the construction of the Hospital west wing. This agreement for the first time demanded union-style wage guarantees and benefits for a UNM construction project. UNM wanted to gain more control of the construction project better, having previously had delays and cost overruns of the Student Union Building previously.
This action met with opposition from local construction companies, fearing it would set a precedent. Michael Rich of Michael Rich Contracting called the agreement unfair because it required companies to hire out of union halls on a project sponsored by taxpayers. He said he would have no part of the construction process at UNMH. Yvonne Chicoine, president of New Mexico’s Associated Builders and Contractors, put her organization on record opposing unionization and considered taking legal action against the regents for approving the PLA.
A couple weeks later on March 20, 2004, Johnny Suarez, executive secretary-treasurer of the Mountain West Regional Council of Carpenters, wrote an editorial in the Albuquerque Journal in favor of the PLA. He said the partnership of the UNM Board of Regents and the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council is one that would ensure a successful project. The pact with 14 unions bars contractors from hiring more than five workers without using a union referral system. The PLA would ensure quality jobs, that workers were properly trained, and there would be a stable workforce through the hiring halls to prevent cost overruns and costly delays. It would also make companies provide health insurance to its workers. It would also have fixed wages throughout the project, stabilizing costs. It also guaranteed apprenticeship and journeyman upgrade training and retirement. The labor and management process would help avoid disruptions to the project.
Despite these benefits that would stabilize costs and prevent delays, business ideologues went into a frenzy. Sherman McCorkle, president of Technology Ventures Corp. and former chairman of the Public Employee Labor Relations Council under former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, wrote an editorial in the Journal on March 31, 2004 saying the regents are pandering to unions. He noted that the regents need to forge partnerships with all citizens of the state for the success of the university. He noted, “this is a time when the university and its programs desperately need to attract new private-sector dollars – whether it’s support for the Lobo Club, a newly endowed chair at the School of Architecture, scholarships or ticket sales at Popejoy Hall. New funding sources are needed.” He is hinting here that these private sources of funding should be a target.
McCorkle further states that the regents adopted an “ideological litmus test” for contractors and workers, thinking they endorsed the ideology of unions themselves. He then states that since UNM mandated union workers, that it is a “blow to diversity” itself, saying it was going back to days when certain Americans lacked civil liberties. The hyperbole is rich in his editorial. This is probably the first time this businessman has been concerned with civil liberties. He ends his editorial stating, “I call upon all members of the business community to urge the Board of Regents abandon their misguided decision to impose a union-only requirement on contractors and construction workers building UNM Hospital’s new West Wing.”
This call was taken up by many business interests, and it got personal for one regent at UNM. One building contractor threatened to pull $80,000 of insurance from a firm ran by regent Jamie Koch unless he reversed his vote on the PLA. Robyn Hendrixson and Don Bossard of Mechanical Concepts Ltd. Co. on April 2, 2004 sent a letter to Daniels Insurance of Santa Fe, which Koch is president of, demanding he work to repeal the agreement. Koch called it a bribe and blackmail, and refused to work to repeal it, also noting that he cannot take action that would benefit him financially. Around that time many businesses stopped contributing to the Lobo Club. Hendrixson was also a board member of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Rio Grande Chapter, which decided after the agreement was passed to take action against UNM. They ended a scholarship program for UNM engineering students, of $1,000 a year for two or three students, and redirected the funds to New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech. 20 other members of ABC halted contributions to the Lobo Club, although they said publicly they have not urged boycotts of businesses owned by regents who voted for the agreement.
The controversy forced Gov. Bill Richardson to weigh in on it, writing an editorial in the Journal on April 11, 2004. He supported the PLA for the hospital for three objectives. One, the costs would be predictable and stable, saving taxpayers money; two, it would create quality jobs, ones with health insurance; and three, would prevent costly delays. He saw the PLA as protection against delays while providing all contractors a fair shot at bidding for the project, whether they hired union or non-union workers. He also commended the regents for standing up against the tactics of “irresponsible contractors” using threats and scare tactics. In the same issue a letter to the editor was signed by Patricia Salopek Kinney of Integrated Technologies Corporation. She ranted about her immigrant father, bemoaned the supposed “pay to work” of the PLA, and ignoring the 92 percent of workers not belonging to a union. Like business really cares about workers.
The Project Labor Agreement controversy is one other example of how business interests are involved in the university. In this case they didn’t get their way, but not for lack of trying. And for bemoaning about ideological litmus test, it is clear that the right wing business community is the one with ideological interests.
Floersheim, Ryan. “Union Wages Approved.” Daily Lobo. March 9, 2004. Pg. 1, 2.
Suarez, Johnny. “UNMH Labor Pact Progressive on Several Fronts.” Albuquerque Journal. March 20, 2004. Pg. A13.
McCorkle, Sherman. “UNM Regents Pandering to Unions.” Albuquerque Journal. March 31, 2004. Pg. A13.
Uyttebrouck, Olivier. “UNM Union Fight Gets Personal for Regent.” Albuquerque Journal. April 6, 2004. Pg. A1, A3.
Richardson, Bill. “Project Labor Agreement Is Most Prudent Course.” Albuquerque Journal. April 11, 2004. Pg. B3.
Kinney, Patricia Salopek. “Governor’s Plan for UNMH Is An Insult to Most New Mexicans. (Letter to Editor).” Albuquerque Journal. April 11, 2004. Pg. B3.