Arizona's Dissolving Case Against Unions

In a state that's already prevented unions from having any clout in the private sector, this was supposed to be the month Arizona put public employee unions on the chopping block. In early February, conservative website The Daily Caller included an opinion piece called "The coming Arizona public employee union apocalypse." It was hardly the only ominous article about the future for labor in the state. "Republicans in Arizona hoped to make Wisconsin's battle against public unions last year look like a lightweight sparring match," wrote Talking Points Memo's Nick Martin. At the heart of the matter were four anti-union bills that together would end collective bargaining rights and cut off sources of money for unions. Unlike Wisconsin, the proposals would impact all public employee unions, including firefighters and police.

So far, though, nothing is going as planned.

Thursday evening, the Arizona state Senate gave first round approval to a bill that requires yearly authorization in order for unions (and most other outside groups) to automatically make deductions from the paychecks of public workers. Effectively, it makes union dues harder to collect. Assuming the Senate formally approves the measure, it will get sent to the state House. However that bill is by far the least stringent of the package that was supposed to end union power. The three other measures that were supposed to spell the end don't seem to have a clear future. The Senate canceled action on another bill, prohibiting public employees from getting paid for union-related work like negotiating contracts or handing grievances, which was supposed to come up Thursday as well. Two other bills, including the key measure that would end collective bargaining rights, are stalled, and two key Senate leaders have said they currently don't have enough support to pass.

No one seems to be certain exactly why three of the four key anti-union pieces have stalled, but ironically, it looks like the answer may partially be thanks to infighting among Republicans. As TPM reported earlier, GOP Governor Jan Brewer (she of presidential finger pointing and anti-immigrant fame) wanted her measure to weaken public employee protections to get passed first. Brewer's proposal would offer state workers a 5 percent pay increase for one year in exchange for giving up various protections. In particular, those who agreed could get fired more easily.Only two weeks ago, a judge ruled that the law requiring state employees to pay more into their retirement funds was unconstitutional. The Legislature passed the bill last year requiring state workers to pay 53 percent of the contributions into the pension fund; it was supposed to save $60 million, according to the Arizona Republic.

But still, it's hard to say Arizona unions are winning here. Unlike Wisconsin, Arizona is a right to work state with little history of a strong labor movement. Public employees can easily be cast as getting an unfair advantage over workers in the private sector, because they get more worker protections. The fate of the bills are currently uncertain, but it's hard to think this will be the last time the public employee unions come under attack. In the meantime, the groups have protested at the Arizona state capitol and organized various ways, including an online petition with over 10,000 signatures. The unions have planned a day of action for March 1. It's a few weeks away but odds are, they won't be out of the woods any time soon.