Public unions are avoiding a forceful confrontation with conservative lawmakers who are pushing for a slew of anti-union proposals – for now.
Instead of declaring an open war by organizing massive protests at the state Capitol — a tactic adopted by labor unions in Wisconsin who faced a similar threat last year — unions here have had a more tempered response. They also held a press conference to denounce the proposals, but while the speakers were passionate, the protest was small.
That could change. Union leaders said the Feb. 9 gathering is only a preview of what could be in store for lawmakers if they continue to push the legislation.
Protests, of course, are a double-edged sword: They can give policymakers a reason to pause or embolden them, and unions are well aware of the risks.
“Most of our folks are a little confused, and when they think about it, they get a little upset,” said Mike Colletto, who represents the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona. “And we’re trying to restrain them so we can deal with this in a constructive way within the process at the Legislature.”
Colletto and other union representatives have been reaching out to senators.
The gist of their message is that the ability of public unions to negotiate with local governments is a valuable management tool.
Unions also argue that, under the meetand- confer process that many unions utilize, elected officials have the final say.
Another local union leader described the strategy as a moderated response to a threat that’s not fully realized yet.
“At this point, we’re not up against the state Senate. We’re not up against the Republican Party. We’re not up against the leadership,” said Roman Ulman, leader of a retiree chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “You have one lone senator who has dropped bills on behalf of the Goldwater Institute and ALEC.”
Ulman, like many union supporters, said the anti-union measures were derived from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
And while Ulman is correct in noting that the full Senate has yet to pass the measures, a panel of lawmakers already gave them the green light and they’re advancing quickly.
The “lone” senator Ulman is referring to is Sen. Rick Murphy, a Republican from Peoria, who sponsored three of the four anti-union bills, including the prohibition against collective bargaining.
Another lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, authored the less stringent legislation to deal with paycheck deductions. Murphy’s version bans outright automatic salary deductions for union dues.
On the day before he was scheduled to meet with union leaders, Murphy said he was willing to listen — though he’s making no promises to tweak his proposals.
“If people have specific concerns and they have constructive suggestions for specific concerns that they would like to make, then I’m open to listening to those,”
Murphy said. “It’s not intended to be a gripe session. I don’t want people to just come and complain.”
But the unions don’t necessarily think there’s a way to improve the proposals.
“Ultimately, the statements (during the Feb. 9 meeting) were, ‘Look, this is a lot more complicated than you think, and you’re taking the wrong approach, and you’re going to do more harm than good,”
said Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill.
Jason Stokes of the Administrative Supervisory Professional & Technical Employees Association was more direct.
“The only way to improve these bills is to kill them,” he said.
Murphy said he had a “good discussion”
with the union representatives and specific concerns were raised. Some amendments might be offered on the floor, although the changes may not completely satisfy the unions, he said.
“Did the meeting give me a reason to drop the bills completely? No,” he said.
That same day, a small group of public union members and leaders held a press conference to denounce the bills and emphasize that the legislation would make it harder for middle-class workers to provide for their families.
Many of them said they’re Republicans and they’re not happy with the bills.
Their loudest chant was as clear as the summer sky in Arizona: “Kill the bills.”
Frank Piccioli, a local AFSCME leader, said their strategy is still to persuade lawmakers that the measures go too far.
But the Feb. 9 mini protest is a preview.
Depending on whether the bills advance, there could be bigger demonstrations ahead, he said.
Supporters of the proposals, which would fundamentally weaken public unions, say they would save the state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars and eliminate unions’ unfair advantage over regular citizens in influencing policy.
They argue that unions have accumulated great powers that allow them to pressure public officials to enact policies that favor them.
But critics say the proposals are politically driven and have noted how their backers have speculated about unions’ tendency to favor Democratic candidates or espouse a set of values that are typically associated with the minority party in Arizona.
They said the measures would also take away a tool that local governments have successfully used to secure a good relationship with public workers.