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Gov signs order allowing workers to unionize

Gov. Janet Napolitano has signed an executive order allowing state workers to unionize and meet with state agency directors quarterly to discuss a variety of labor issues, a move that is being praised by labor organizations and disparaged by Republican lawmakers.

“This is truly a historic day in Arizona,” said Chuck Foy, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America. “With this executive order being issued, it brings together state leadership and state workers to work together on state budget problems and move Arizona forward.”

Many Republican legislators, meanwhile, see the order as a last-minute gift to the labor unions that have funded the Arizona Democratic Party since she took office in 2003. Napolitano is set to resign her elected post early next year to become director of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

“This is simply outrageous, and it’s a payback for the unions, and that’s very clear that’s what it is,” said Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican. “If she was serious about this and thought that was a good idea…why wouldn’t she have done this six years ago? She does it while she’s got a bus ticket out of town?”

The order allows state employees in cabinet-level agencies – like the departments of Environmental Quality, Health Services or Transportation – to call for an election to choose an employee representative.

Under the order, a secret-ballot election could be called if any one union can demonstrate at least 30 percent of an agency’s employees desire to be unionized. The representation, known as meet-and-confer, would be approved only if a majority of all agency workers voting in the election agree.

Meet-and-confer has already been statutorily approved for the Department of Corrections, a process Napolitano’s order called “successful.”

The order specifies that the objective of meet-and-confer is to provide agency heads with “information on employment and personnel issues and to aid in informed governmental decision making.” The agency directors and union representatives would be permitted to discuss ways to improved employee efficiency, cost-saving measures, employee morale, discipline, work schedules and safety issues.

Wages and compensation are not specifically included in the list of topics that can be discussed. The order also states that its intent is not to “diminish the Governor’s or usurp the legislature’s powers and authority, including with regard to setting budgets, total employee compensation and other employment related policies.”

Despite that, Surprise Republican Sen. Jack Harper said the move is an obvious first step toward allowing unions to negotiate workers’ salaries.

“I believe that is a step toward collective bargaining,” he said. “The meet-and-confer issue is something that’s been at the Legislature continuously, and only a few of us Republicans really stand out as not pandering to the labor unions in Arizona.”

It is unclear how Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer, who will take over for Napolitano when she leaves office next year, will handle the executive order. A spokesman for her transition team said she had not yet seen the order.

Pearce, though, said Brewer should act quickly to rescind the ability of workers to meet-and-confer.

“I expect Jan Brewer to do that immediately,” he said.

However, Foy said he believes Brewer will set aside the partisan rhetoric and see that this helps improve the efficiency of state government. He cited her support of county employees when she served on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

“I don’t see her not supporting this,” he said.

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