Public Employee Unions Fight to Stay Alive

READ THE BILLS 

 

Legislators kicked public employee unions to the curb last week through a sweeping set of bills approved along partisan lines but taking away local control could hurt small towns where public employees are smaller in number but hold vital roles in community.

“The smaller the town you look at, a school district in a small town school district is going to be your No. 1 employer,” said Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona Education Association.

“You try to work with your employees as much as you can to where they want to live there, they want to be a part of the community,” Thomas said. “The idea of sitting down at a table and talking through a budget with the people that are going to be impacted by it, at the squad car level, at the classroom level, or at the waterworks level, that would be very much in line with small-town values.”

The bills include a number of prohibitions: forbidding local governments or school districts from employee bargaining with any union; barring unions from being able to extract dues from public employee paychecks; outlawing compensation for union activity while on the job.

One measure even allows individual taxpayers to sue their local government for bargaining with a union.

Currently, local governments can enter into discussions with local public employee unions, but the process is optional. Many city councils and school boards across the state have chosen to opt-in to this process, and even created city council ordinances that require the city manager to “meet and confer” with union leaders come budget time.

Proponents at the Goldwater Institute, the conservative organization pushing the sweeping changes through the Statehouse, said eliminating this process could save the state $550 million over the next seven years because they could cut the salaries and benefits of state employees.

The debate boiled down to a fundamental belief that public employee unions, which he referred to as “labor cartels” at one point, shouldn’t exist because they’re paid with taxpayer dollars, said Nick Dranias, spokesman with the Goldwater Institute.

But public employee union leaders balked at such a statement.

Union leaders question the validity of the $550 million claim, citing contradictory numbers from the city of Phoenix showing public sector employees in their city make 19 percent less on average than private sector. Average wage is one of the key numbers used in the Goldwater study to calculate the savings.

Furthermore, union members argue simply lowering wages to meet an average undervalues public sector workers.

“It is a farce to say you’re trying to save money, it is a farce to say we get paid too much,” said Frank Piccioli, a local union leader with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. “This is a political agenda, it’s an attack on our rights, and it’s an attack on collective bargaining. You want to get rid of collective bargiaining because it’s competition to your political agenda.”

Critics called the bills unnecessary, home-cooked legislation straight out of Phoenix’s own conservative think tank, The Goldwater Institute, and does not reflect the sentiments of Arizona’s local governments.

Rather, the bills are gutting public employee unions in a right-to-work state, and effectively silencing public workers, they say.

“At what point is it my money? At what point have I earned it? I’m a public servant, not a public slave,” said Piccioli.

Primary sponsor Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, said the bills would “strike a better balance” between public employees and the taxpayers.

“I think that there is a problem when we have folks that choose to take on the mantle of public servant, who then group up together and use leverage on the people that they claim to serve,” Murphy said.

State Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, believes the bills reflect a problem that the Republican legislature is imagining.  “Who is asking for this bill? You do not have employees of organized labor coming and asking for this,” Gallardo said.

In Arizona’s smaller towns, union and government interaction varies.

But taking away local control could hurt small towns, where public employees are smaller in number but still have vital roles in the community.

In Sierra Vista, Ariz., teachers have their say at meet and confer agreements with the school board.

For Gary Burden, high school math teacher and president of the Sierra Vista Classroom Teachers Association, these meetings simply provide a voice to teachers in his community—but government officials can take their input or leave it, he said.

“It gives you a voice to say, here’s what we’d appreciate, if you can do it,” Burden said. “We usually don’t fare very well—we take whatever we can get. We’ve had our budget cut, and so now you see frozen pay, and you understand that you can’t have it the way it once was.”

Burden, who was grading papers in his classroom hours after the school bell let out, when he sat down for this interview, said he predicts lower pay and fewer people going into education in Arizona if these laws pass.

“It’s just a matter of disrespect for teachers,” Burden said. “I’ve never seen a place that’s come up with so many ways to be hostile to public employees.”

Burden added that unions didn’t materialize out of nothing.

“If you want to get rid of unions, then take care of your people and be respectful. Show that your employees are valuable and you value their opinions and contributions,” Burden said.

Elsewhere in Sierra Vista, public employee unions don’t have “meet and confer.” But the city’s local officials said they just didn’t see a citywide ordinance as necessary.

“Here in Sierra Vista we have an outstanding workforce. And we value them greatly. We have a longstanding tradition of listening to our employees and addressing issues that come up without unions. In my opinion, that’s why we have the strength that we do in our organization,” said Assistant City Manager Mary Jacobs.

But for some public employees, like Michael Caltabiano of the United Yuma Firefighters Association in Yuma, having a citywide ordinance permitting “meet and confer” has been a 7-year-long struggle.

The process, he said, would allow employees “some ownership in the process” when local officials need to distribute cuts.

“It would give us nothing more than an opinion,” Caltabiano said.

But Caltabiano said he thinks that having a conversation between city officials and labor organizations ” can create a better working environment at no cost. In situations it gives the employees to offer concessions in an organized manner,” he said, instead of the city cutting departments without consulting with the workers.

Caltabiano acknowledged that even without meet and confer, the city of Yuma hasn’t left workers in the dust. They have still kept a process where workers can give input. But such an agreement approved by city council would give them a guaranteed spot at a negotiating table.

Overall, the bills will continue to stir controversy, union officials said.

“This bill and the following bills are going to create a firestorm in our organization,” said Michael Colletto, a spokesman for the Professional Firefighters of Arizona.

The bills await a hearing before the full Senate, which will likely occur this week.

 

Mejdrich is a senior at the University of Arizona and is the Bolles Fellow this semester covering the Legislature. The fellowship was named to honor former Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles who was assassinated in the line of duty.

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