Arizona groups that represent public employees say there's no reason for state lawmakers to be attacking collective bargaining in a state where it's voluntary and what negotiations do take place are nonbinding in a court of law.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit the state, or any subdivision of the state, from entering into any bargaining or discussions with public employees or groups that represent them on topics such as wages, benefits or terms of employment.
A Republican-led Senate committee passed the bill, SB 1485, Wednesday along party lines after extensive testimony from the Goldwater Institute, which crafted the language.
Steve Slivinski, lobbying for approval of the bill, told lawmakers that just eliminating collective bargaining alone could save Arizona taxpayers $550 million a year within seven years.
An official for a union representing hundreds of firefighters in the East Valley said the proposed bill flabbergasts public safety workers because of the heavy-handed way it infringes on the rights of employees to associate with one another.
Public employees such as police officers and firefighters have used the meet-and-confer method to discuss issues such as pay, staffing and grievances, for decades, said Bryan Jeffries, president of the Mesa Fire Fighters Association and the executive vice president of the Professional Firefighters Association of Arizona.
"We have a different arrangement than in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio or New York," Jeffries said. "This is big government infringing on our freedom of association. We need to have a method of negotiating matters in the workplace. Police officers and firefighters are willing to lay their life on the line. We don't think it should be the bureaucrats to tell us what kind of hose we should be taking into someone's house or what kind of EKGs we should use when someone is experiencing chest pains. We want to have a voice, and government wants to muzzle us completely.
"These politicians wanted to have their pictures taken with us after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and now, they want to muzzle our voices. Lately, there have been some extremists at the state Legislature who are acting beyond what is truthful and rational," Jeffries said.
Last year, lawmakers in Wisconsin stripped collective bargaining rights for most public employees. The action led to protests and outcry from teachers and other groups, as well as efforts to oust Gov. Scott Walker. Ohio did the same thing last spring, only to have voters repeal the law in November.
Arizona differs from Ohio and Wisconsin because it is a right-to-work state, where public workers cannot be forced to join a union or groups that represent them. Arizona public workers also cannot strike.
What this bill would do, said Dawn Koberstein, Chandler teacher and president of the Chandler Education Association, is hinder the relationships that have been built between teachers and district leaders.
"The sad part is our district really values having our input on decision making. After all, when you have happy teachers or happy employees, you're going to have happy parents, you're going to have happy students. And ultimately positive results," Koberstein said.
School districts - and other public groups - use different formats to sit down with leaders and talk about job responsibilities, benefits, salaries and working conditions.
But it boils down to each group bringing ideas and concerns to the table so there is a mutual understanding of what's at stake.
"Our voice is valued in this district. When you take the collect bargaining away, where does that stop? Do we no longer have a voice in the evaluation instrument and the tool that will be used? Why are we trying to create a type of environment where teachers feel threatened?" Koberstein said.
Steve Slivinski, an economist who lobbied for the bill this week, said much of it comes down to money.
He said public employees earn more than those in the private sector. Slivinski said once governments are precluded from bargaining with employee groups, future wage hikes will be minimized.
As proof, he said that in Virginia, which abolished collective bargaining years ago, public employees now make less than those in private industry.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said all that is a smoke screen.
"At the end of the day, this bill is about union busting," he said.
Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, which represents 9,000 federal, state and local law enforcement officers, raised concern over officers losing their right to have a voice in the way they are protected and the way they protect the public since they are the ones working the streets.
"Obviously, we are concerned, but we believe that because of our good working relationship with the state Legislature and governor's office that they will come up with a resolution that is fair and just.
"We do have a different dynamic that's involved, and that is everything we do is scrutinized by federal, state and local government," Livingston added. "We are the only profession where our members can go to jail based on physical and environmental elements. I would maintain that it is critical to keep the rights of protecting its members."
Gov. Jan Brewer told state lawmakers she wants them to first tackle the personnel reform she's trying to get into place for state employees.
• Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.
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