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Anti-union bills expose lack of worker solidarity

Union activists rallied outside the state Captiol March 1 to protest bills they say are designed to weaken organized labor, but not all employee groups participated. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Captiol Times.)

While the slew of measures targeting public unions appeared to have re-energized organized labor in Arizona, it also exposed their inability to fully unite amid a sustained attack from foes.

The discord over tactics was palpable on March 1, when hundreds of union members and their supporters protested at the state Capitol, but many public unions stayed away.

The rally was organized by the AFL-CIO.

Passage late last month of one of the anti-union bills in the Senate also revealed the same fault line between public safety unions — the police, in particular — and other unions.

The measure, SB1486, bans state agencies and local governments from entering into agreements with unions to compensate workers while they’re doing union activities.

But senators amended it to carve out an exemption for police officers in certain situations.

As approved, the bill now allows police officers to still get paid while they’re doing union activities like representing officers in disciplinary cases — but not when they’re recruiting others to join or participating in union-sponsored conventions.

The exemption doesn’t extend to other professions, such as firefighters or teachers.

Those who are familiar with organized labor in Arizona said some public safety unions, which have cultivated closer ties to lawmakers, don’t traditionally associate with other unions.

“I just think there’s a lot of internal and external pressures and it always makes it difficult to work on an issue in a collective manner,” said Rebekah Friend, executive director of the Arizona AFL-CIO, which is actively trying to combat the anti-union measures.

Friend wasn’t critical of police efforts for getting an exemption.

She said they always expected there might be an exemption for some unions because lawmakers prefer them.

But during the March 1 rally, some called out public safety unions that didn’t participate, urging public shows of force against the bills instead of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that police, fire and other public safety unions are hoping will kill the bills.

One speaker saved some criticism for public-safety unions that did not take part in the rally, though some of their members were in the crowd.

Manny Armenta of the United Steelworkers District 12 said some of the unions that would be most affected by the bills think there’s “other ways of handling it,” but he disagrees.

“We do it here and we do it at the ballot boxes,” Armenta said. “The only side deals that we’re going to cut is to vote their ass out.”

But Jimmy Chavez, president of the Arizona Highway Patrol Association, said his union doesn’t need to participate in such events and prefers a lower-key approach of working with lawmakers. He said his union has worked with Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, on an amendment to his bill that in its present form would clamp down on automatic paycheck deductions for union dues.

“I’m certainly not saying that all these other groups are using this tactic — but the tactic of going in and basically pounding on doors and pounding on desks doesn’t necessarily get the job done,” Chavez told the Arizona Capitol Times. “As long as the members of the Legislature are willing to sit down and have a conversation about it, we can all come to some kind of compromise. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

It’s unclear whether the carve-out for police unions helped to secure the votes for the bill, which finally passed with a relatively comfortable margin, 18-11, after it was pulled out of the debate calendar twice.

Sen. Rick Murphy, the bill’s sponsor, said he can’t quantify what effect his amendment exempting police unions had.

“Because I did not ask the question of members, I do not know whether it would have gotten out anyway,” he said.

Put another way, it’s difficult to gauge whether a united front could have prevented the bill’s passage.

A lobbyist for police unions told the Arizona Capitol Times that supporters had the votes to pass Murphy’s proposal — the one outlawing pay for union activities — even without the amendment. Consequently, he had to find a way to protect his clients, which is why police pursued a carve-out.

“When we found out from the majority leader and from a number of the members that the bill was going to the floor either way, and that they had enough votes to support it, we felt like we had to go in and we were invited by Mr. Murphy to talk to him about what our concerns were and that’s what we did,” said Mike Williams, who lobbies for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association and the Arizona Police Association.

Williams said the amendment they sought would have made exemptions for all public safety unions and not just the police. He added he’s still hoping the bill would ultimately reflect that broader exemption.

Williams also said they were never a part of the larger coalition that is working to defeat rather than improve the measures.

“We were never included in that group of unity,” he said.

Some public safety unions, however, have decided to continue fighting.

Mike Colletto, who lobbies for the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, said he heard about the amendment to exempt public safety unions a few days before it was offered.

“We’re not going there. We just think the bill ought to die,” he said.

But others said it’s tough to resist an offer that benefits your own organization.

“It’s difficult to resist the opportunity to stand up for your little carved-out community as opposed to standing with the entire community,” said Sen. Paula Aboud, a Democrat from Tucson.

Besides the union pay bill, the Senate also approved a proposal to prohibit paycheck deductions for union dues unless employees expressly authorize them each year. Both bills are pending action in the House, where they were assigned to the House Employment and Regulatory Affairs Committee.

Two other proposals, which would eliminate public unions’ ability to collectively bargain and would completely prohibit paycheck deductions for union dues, have stalled in the Senate.

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