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Proposal for union representation of state employees draws fire

 

A draft of an executive order by Gov. Janet Napolitano would allow union representatives for thousands of state employees to meet with state agency officials and offer their opinions on such things as salaries and job cuts, but it would not be a collective-bargaining agreement and would not give labor representatives the right to negotiate for wages, according to the Governor's Office.

Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer on Dec. 16 said the executive order, which has not been finalized, would permit meet-and-confer agreements, under which union representatives could meet with state agency officials to discuss a variety of issues.

"It's not in final form, so it could change, but basically this would create a more formal process for executive agencies to sit down and meet-and-confer with employees. There is no wage component to it at all. They certainly can opine upon wages, but this is not a collective bargaining agreement," L'Ecuyer said.

L'Ecuyer said the current draft of the order would create a meet-and-confer agreement similar to one enacted earlier this year for state Department of Corrections employees, who are represented by the Communications Workers of America. State employees already have the right to join SEIU Arizona, she said, but the agreement would give them a representative who could meet with agency officials on their behalf.

"What this allows is for an organization to come into an agency and represent that agency. So if employees within a given department wanted to have a representative, they would choose as a group a representative rather than as individuals," L'Ecuyer said. "Two key things to understand: It is a draft only, it has not been finalized. And number two, it is not collective bargaining."

Arizona is a right-to-work state, meaning employees cannot be required to join a union.

Scott Washburn, director of the Service Employees International Union in Arizona, said the purpose of meet-and-confer is to allow employees to have a direct line to agency heads and a forum for ideas to increase efficiency and morale.

And at a time when the state is facing massive budget shortfalls – an estimated $1.2 billion in the current fiscal year and as much as $3 billion in the upcoming year – Washburn said employees' input on efficiency could help the state trim costs, while at the same time avoiding massive layoffs.

"The most important thing is people are worrying if they're going to keep their jobs," he said.

The meet-and-confer order for the Arizona Department of Corrections employees stipulates that union representatives can discuss issues such as hours and conditions, employee safety, disciplinary policies, employee morale and budgeting strategy and requests. It does not limit ADOC's right to direct the work of its employees or discipline employees, and does not affect its ability to hire, promote, demote, transfer, assign or retrain employees.

ADOC director Dora Schriro said the arrangement formalized practices the agency had already been using to collaborate with employees on ways to make the agency more efficient.

"It's really intended to promote collegial and collaborative relationships, to partner and to problem solve issues of mutual concern. And these are fundamentally good business practices." Schriro said. "Negotiation is not a word that I would use at all. It is an opportunity for both parties to develop an agenda of issues of interest to either or both of us, and to the extent possible attempt to resolve those issues. But negotiation is not provided for in the meet-and-confer."

For example, Schriro said, agency officials and employee representatives discussed a change in staff scheduling that allowed the department to curtail spending. ADOC also used the process to avert several employee resignations. Because of the amount of training agency employees require, Schriro said, each averted resignation saves more than $26,000.

"If we did not have a strong working relationship with employees of the department, it would have been exceptionally difficult to make those (scheduling) changes," she said. "So even if you have the authority to make the change, the extent to which everyone understands the motivation with which you're making those changes, and that you're taking these steps so as to insulate staff from greater harm, is accomplished because you've developed this history of trust and mutual respect with the workforce."

Three unions – SEIU, CWA and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – have been working behind the scenes with Napolitano's office to improve government efficiency. The labor organizations have held town hall meetings with employees of the Department of Economic Security and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, to gather ideas on how to streamline operations and save money.

Those meetings were the first step at expanding the ability to meet-and-confer beyond the Department of Corrections.

"It's a great start. We'd like to do it on a much bigger scale," said Washburn.

Napolitano, a Democrat, has said she will accept a nomination to serve as secretary of Homeland Security in President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet, and her departure will elevate Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer to the governor's office.

Doug Cole, a member of Brewer's transition team, said the team had not seen the draft of the executive order and was attempting to obtain a copy. He declined to clarify Brewer's position on the issue.

"We're trying to get a copy of it. We're talking about it amongst ourselves and with Mrs. Brewer, and seeking a copy of the executive order if it's available," Cole said. "We're in the investigative stage right now."

The timing of the executive order, coming about two months before Napolitano is expected to resign, has ruffled some feathers. Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he will ask Brewer to countermand the executive order if Napolitano signs it.

Kavanagh, the incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, objected to Napolitano's tactics.

"A policy like this needs to be openly discussed. It should be the Legislature and public debate and transparency, not a midnight oil signing session," he said. "I think it's an insult to Gov. Brewer to leave her with this kind of last-minute rulemaking that may be a burden to the new governor."

Incoming House Speaker Kirk Adams was troubled by the timing of the order as well, and questions why Napolitano did not implement such an order earlier in her six years as governor. Adams said he objects to both the timing and the substance of the order.

"Here you have a governor who is issuing an executive order changing substantive policy, and she won't have to deal with the consequences of that order because she's leaving. You have to ask yourself, what would be the purpose of this? And really the only purpose that I can think of is to make life more difficult for the incoming governor," he said. "The policy itself holds potential to really put us in a bind, or make it more difficult, at a minimum, in resolving and doing some of the things that we might have to do to resolve this budget crisis."

Adams said he would not presume to tell Brewer what to do when she becomes governor, but said he would take a serious look at legislation to overturn the order.

"This is just not the way policy is supposed to be made. It's not supposed to be made by executive fiat like that, particularly from a governor who is already engaged in another enterprise," he said. "I'm just befuddled by why she would find it necessary to issue an executive o
rder of this type at this stage in the game."

Kavanagh said that even without providing unions the ability to negotiate for wages, he objects to the mechanism by which Napolitano would implement the meet-and-confer agreement. For others, a wage component would be an important factor in whether they supported the agreement. Rep. Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, said he supports measures that allow employees and management to meet on a more open level, but would question any provision that reduced the Legislature's ability to make decisions about the state budget.

"If there was something in the provision that said there must be a good faith effort to talk about wages and salaries, I wouldn't have a problem with that. If, on the other hand, there was a provision in there that said that employees as a group would negotiate with the state and we would have to live with whatever the results of that negotiation would be, I would question that. So it depends on what it says," Lopes said.

L'Ecuyer emphasized that the executive order, which has not been officially released, is not in its final draft form. She would not say what details need to be worked out in the final draft, nor when, or if, the governor would sign it.

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