State: Lawmakers eye ban on public union bargaining
PHOENIX - An Arizona Senate committee on Wednesday voted along party lines for a Republican bill to ban collective bargaining with public employee unions and to impose other restrictions on labor groups for government employees.
Arizona's state government does not engage in collective bargaining with its employees, so the impact of the proposed ban would fall on political subdivisions such as school districts and municipalities that use the negotiating methods. They include both formal contracts and informal advisory negotiations.
The legislation was proposed in the wake of similar efforts by Republican lawmakers and governors in states including Wisconsin, where political tumult arising from a near-elimination of collective bargaining for public employees prompted a recall drive against Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The collective bargaining ban proposed for Arizona was among four union-related bills approved by the Government Reform Committee.
Other bills approved by the committee would bar withholding money from a public employee's pay for union dues, prohibit a public employer from paying an employee for union activities and prohibit deductions from public employees' paychecks for outside groups without annual authorizations.
During the committee hearing, Republican legislators and representatives of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative advocacy group, said the bills would save taxpayer dollars while protecting the rights of individual public workers.
"This is about power and control of the public purse," Goldwater Institute attorney Nick Dranias said of the collective bargaining ban. "This is not about attacking workers. This is not even about attacking unions."
But Democratic legislators and union representatives said the bills were politically motivated attacks on public employee unions.
"At the end of the day," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, "this bill is about union-busting."
The opponents also said the bills would stifle the collective voice of firefighters, teachers and other workers.
"You and I know this is a political agenda. This is politics. You're not trying to save taxpayer money," said Frank Piccioli, head of a union representing 911 operators and other Phoenix city employees. "You don't like who unions support."
The sponsor of the proposed collective bargaining ban, Sen. Rick Murphy, said taxpayers' costs from public employee contracts negotiated by unions for pay and benefits are a burden on taxpayers.
Government workers who band together to extract more money from the public aren't entitled to have the public support that process through payroll deductions, Murphy said. "You have the right to freedom of speech. You do not have a right to free speech."
The panel's approval of the bills on 4-2 votes sends them to the full Senate for consideration next week under a normal timetable, but Murphy said he was willing to first speak with opponents to hear more of their concerns. The legislation would move to the House if passed by the Senate.
Goldwater Institute economists say that 2010 statistics indicate that about 93,400 state or local government workers in Arizona, or about one of every four such workers, were represented in collective bargaining.
Rebecca Friend, Arizona AFL-CIO president, said at least 30,000 public employees belong to unions. She said that number may be low.
The legislation is being proposed in what appears to be a favorable political climate for Republicans, with Democrats who traditionally support unions lacking the votes to stop GOP-backed measures. Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers, and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in the past shut down a fledgling meet-and-confer process authorized by her predecessor, Democrat Janet Napolitano.
Separately, Brewer wants lawmakers to loosen the state government's civil service system to make it easier to fire workers. She has proposed a 5 percent pay raise but said current workers should generally get it if they're not covered by civil-service protections or if they voluntarily surrender that status.
The Wisconsin law that aimed a national spotlight on union powers does not allow negotiating with public employees' unions over anything except pay increases no greater than the rate of inflation.
Arizona is among at least a dozen states with pending 2012 legislation to ban or restrict collective bargaining by public employees, according to a legislative database of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In New Hampshire lawmakers are considering similar anti-union measures, including a ban on collective bargaining and on deducting dues from public employees' paychecks.
In Ohio, voters last November overturned a law backed by Republican Gov. John Kasich to strip most public employee unions of collective bargaining rights.