Unions Scramble As Arizona GOP Moves Quickly On Labor Bills

February 1, 2012 6:54 p.m.

Union members were searching for a way out of the wilderness on Wednesday in Arizona as the Republican-controlled Senate moved ahead quickly on several bills that could devastate organized labor in the state.

The measures caught many union leaders by surprise, being introduced on Monday night and passed in committee less than 48 hours later.At issue is a sweeping series of restrictions that would, among other things, ban unions that represent workers in state, county or city governments from engaging in any type of negotiations that affect the terms of their employment. That includes teachers, prison workers and the state’s powerful police and firefighters unions. The move would take away much of the power those unions have and turn them into something more akin to trade groups.

In interviews with TPM throughout the day, union leaders seemed to still be catching their collective breath. With their Democratic allies outnumbered 21-9 in the Senate, the unions appeared to have no clear or coordinated strategy about how they were going to fight the measures, which will need to pass at least one more committee before going to a full vote of the Senate and then moving on to the House.

“The whole thing is a surprise,” said Pete Gorraiz, president of the United Phoenix Fire Fighters Association. “It steamrolled right through.”

Groups like the AFL-CIO were already talking about coordinating some sort of large-scale protest to fight the measures, but the organization’s executive director for Arizona said something like that would possibly take weeks to plan.

“We have a scheduled day of action for March 1, but we may be looking at moving that closer,” Rebekah Friend, the union’s state director, told TPM. “It takes time. You can’t mobilize in a day. You just can’t.”

Friend was optimistic that Arizonans would come out in force against what she sees as extremist legislation. She pointed to recent Democratic victories in the state, including elections of mayors in Phoenix and Tucson, as proof that Arizona is more moderate than it gets credit for.

But she was also exploring several backup plans in case the measures end up becoming law. Lawsuits against the legislation and campaigns against lawmakers who help pass the bill are on the table. She said the AFL-CIO’s national organization was ready to help if needed.

Meanwhile, Brian Livingston, the head of the Arizona Police Association, said he hoped there still might be a way to convince Republicans in the Senate to vote against the package. He said his group, which is the largest police union in the state, was already talking to a number of senators from both sides of the aisle to figure out if a compromise could be reached.

“There are a lot of discussions going on right now,” Livingston said. “We are hoping now because the bills were passed by committee that we can get that dialogue to take place.”

Livingston said he thought the senators had been fed “misinformation” by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix that helped write the bills.

A member of the institute told TPM on Tuesday that his organization believes the state could eventually save $550 million a year by stripping away collective bargaining and other union practices. He also said what happened last year in Wisconsin was “moderate” compared to Arizona’s bills.

But Livingston said the lawmakers needed to be reminded of the facts on the ground, like the dangers of police work and the reality that unions in Arizona aren’t as powerful as many of their critics make them out to be.

Still, Livingston didn’t know what exactly his organization would do if the bills become law.

“It would cause utter chaos,” he said. “You will see a devastating effect to employee moral. You will see, I believe, a hampering of the good services that our services provide to the public as we know it.”

Gorraiz of the Phoenix firefighters said he wasn’t sure massive protests would do the trick. After all, the large scale protests that took place after the passage of the state’s harsh immigration law didn’t stop Gov. Jan Brewer (R) from signing it.

“I think this legislature has demonstrated their indifference to public outcries in past,” he said.

Tim Hill, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, agreed that it was best to appeal directly to the lawmakers who will be voting on the bills in the future.

“I don’t think I want to publicly discuss strategy,” Hill said. “But the only thing you can do is appeal to their sense of fairness and justice and the American way.”

Yet despite passionate appeals by union representatives at a committee hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, the measures all passed along 4-2 party line vote.

Republican Sen. Lori Klein, who sits on the Government Reform Committee, told the union members that the legislation wasn’t designed to hurt them.

“This is not an attack on them,” she said. “But it is a way to give them new freedom.”

But Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo said the true motive was for conservatives to try to hurt groups they see as political foes.

“We are pinning up organized labor against the wall,” he said. “We don’t like what they’re saying. We don’t like who they support. And we are going to muzzle them.”

The governor’s office declined to comment, saying Brewer was waiting to see whether the legislation would pass.

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