State lawmakers launched a broad attack Wednesday against public unions, including an absolute ban on state and local governments and school districts from bargaining with organizations that represent public workers.
The party line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate Committee on Government Reform came after extensive testimony from the Goldwater Institute, which crafted the language. Steve Slivinski, lobbying for approval of SB 1485, told lawmakers that just eliminating collective bargaining alone could save Arizona taxpayers $550 million a year within seven years.
During the four hours of sometimes heated testimony, Mike Colletto representing the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona told lawmakers their vote to ban collective bargaining -- and similar ones Wednesday on three others targeting unions -- will provoke a "firestorm'' among members who will find other ways to affect policy. Options include ballot initiatives, like the 2006 measure that gave Arizona its first-ever minimum wage law, as well as working to elect more friendly legislators.
Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute, which has championed other anti-union measures in Arizona, said that just proves his organization's point that unions wield too much power. He said that Colletto was making "implied threats ... that if you don't vote the way they tell you to vote, they're going to exact revenge.''
The legislation is close to what Wisconsin lawmakers approved last year, a move that led to a recall against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. It also is similar to what was approved by the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature, only to have it overturned in November by voters.
Hanging in the balance in Arizona is the future of unions that represent tens of thousands of workers at all levels of government and whether they are good or bad for the state.
Slivinski, an economist, 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.
The 4-2 vote for SB 1485 vote came despite testimony from several union officials who pointed out that, technically speaking, Arizona has no collective bargaining. And public employee strikes are illegal.
Instead, various levels of government have "meet and confer'' agreements, which include not only issues of salary and benefits but working conditions.
Jennifer Loredo of the Arizona Education Association told lawmakers that, for teachers, these talks include preparation time, class size and supplies. All of that, she said, helps create better schools.
There was similar testimony from Colletto.
But Dranias said if this all really benefits the public in the long run, there is no need for the private negotiations that now take place.
"It is obvious they're not engaging in these negotiations so that they can achieve cost savings or have whistle blowers address problems in government,'' he said. "This is a secret negotiation conducted by a labor cartel protected by laws that compel the government employer to bargain with them until they're happy.''
Three other anti-union measures passed by the same 4-2 margin, including:
- Barring cities and counties from paying release time to workers who are actually doing union business.
- Requiring annual authorization for payroll deductions, a move designed to affect union dues.
- A more far-reaching version to ban payroll deductions entirely.
The votes came after some often-heated rhetoric about the whole issue of the role of unions and their strength.
Dranias said the legislation barring collective bargaining will make a "fundamental change'' that will make government more responsive to citizens by eliminating the "unfair advantage'' unions now have.
"Collective bargaining laws are government power used by unions to coerce government employers to pay them as much as they can possibly extract from the taxpayer,'' he said. "This is about power and control of the public purse.''
Colletto said all that ignores the fact that any agreements have to be ratified by elected local officials or school board members. He said their prime interest is in doing what keeps their constituents happy.
He said that played out last year in Phoenix where anti-union candidates for mayor and council were defeated. Colletto said that shows residents apparently like the services provided by public employees and agree with the decisions of city officials to work with them.
Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, said the results may be more reflective of the fact the city's elections are in odd-numbered years, meaning lower turnout, as well as the effects of union money in the campaigns.
"We are putting money in the process,'' Colletto responded. "But other people are putting money in the process.''
Colletto also said he assumes that Murphy is not advocating that public employees give up their free speech rights to participate in the political process.
There are no current figures of the number of unionized public sector workers in Arizona. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2010, the most recent figures available, there were 161,000 union members in Arizona for both public and private employers.
The direct effect of any change in bargaining laws on state workers is likely to be minimal, as Arizona officials, unlike some local governments, do not negotiate with unions. But it comes as Gov. Jan Brewer is attempting to strip employees within the state's merit system of their protections under the personnel rules including the right to hearings in cases of discipline and firing.
Brewer, however, is using an incentive: Workers who agree to give up their merit protections would get a 5 percent raise; those who want to maintain the coverage would not.
That move is opposed by Local 3111 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees which says it represents about 9,000 state workers.