By Charlie Parke
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org
In the early 20th century, workplace conditions were poor. Sweatshops and child labor were common practices. Many workers received no sick time, no paid vacation and no paid healthcare. Workers organized and fought for change. New standards to protect workers like minimum wage, the 8-hour work day and 40-hour work week are often credited to the struggle of labor unions who made these changes through collective bargaining and strikes. In the early 21st century, many workers are part-time with no benefits and many businesses require signing contracts with no strike clauses. The power of unions seems to be declining in recent decades and with it, many feel, basic employee rights.
During the great depression unions engaged in massive organizing drives, successful strikes, and political campaigns that changed labor law for future generations. The 1940s saw an insurgence of right-to-work laws, perhaps due to the need to fill jobs while many workers were fighting WWII in Europe or due to an economic response during a period of massive financial growth. Another cause of right-to-work laws is that some large employers “threatened not to go into any state that did not have a right-to-work law” and fears that unions were forcing equality for non-white workers as shown in a pro-right-to-work law pamphlet stating, “If they come in, you will share the same restroom with negroes and work side-by-side with them.”
Arizona amended their constitution to include right-to-work provisions in 1946. Right-to-Work is sometimes misunderstood to give employers power to fire people without cause but it simply means you cannot be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment. A number of Arizona state laws have limited the ability of unions to strike. An example of this is the unlawful picketing law, which makes it illegal to picket an establishment where less than a majority of the employees are engaged in a labor dispute. The law has created legal battles for picketers, such as a case where workers picketed at a construction project in Douglas. The workers felt that they were being offered low wages and poor working conditions.
Union power seems to have declined in recent decades nationally. Arizona, as a Right-to-Work state, has seen a further decline with only about 6% of Arizonans being a union member in 2011, about half the national average. The percentage of union workers has fallen from 8.8% in 2008, possibly do to the Wall Street economic crisis with many states cutting government employment and contracts and several employers moving jobs offshore. Debate over decreasing the power of unions to collectively bargain for employee benefits has grown as a way to cut cost, while unions argue they need to be able to protect jobs. Unions often point to a loss of worker protections and lower wages in right-to-work states, while those backing decreased union power point to greater ability to attract employers and investors creating more jobs.
The Arizona legislature has seen controversy in recent years with several bills to end collective bargaining and paycheck deductions for union dues. The 2013 legislative session has several bills related to unions, often aimed at government employees. Three bills seem to place barriers to paycheck deductions for union dues, HB2438, SB1142 and SB1182 (which failed with a vote of 12-17 on February 21st). HB2343 would bar government employees from being compensated for union activities considered to have no direct benefit to the public employer or the general public. SB1350 would outlaw a strike or work stoppage by anyone who provides labor or personal services on a contract basis to this state or a political subdivision of this state. HB2330 seeks to make changes to public bargaining by setting new requirements, such as all meetings will be required to have audiovisual recording, possibly increasing expenses for the unions. Debate exists over whether these measures would harm unions or employees. Paycheck deductions for union dues are sometimes viewed as a “waste of taxpayer dollars to have union dues deducted from paychecks, arguing that the unions should conduct their own collection process”, however putting the burden on unions would decrease their resources to bargain for their employees to have better wages, benefits and conditions.
Perhaps more damaging to unions are some attempts to have voters set terms rather than using employer-to-employee union negotiation. The City of Phoenix put such measures on their ballot for an election on March 12th. Proposition 201, called the sensible pension reform, will have voters decide the future of government employee pensions – instead of collective bargaining. Some are outraged by the fact that this skips the step of union collective bargaining, saying that by sending this issue to the voters, employees lose the chance to have a dialogue with their employer. Others suggest that since taxpayers ultimately pay for the city employees’ pensions, this measure gives voters a voice. Government budgets have been tight since the 2008 Wall Street crisis and the plan, which is estimated to save $600 million over 23 years, would help the city’s struggling finances.
The AFL-CIO and other labor groups are expected to rally at the Arizona State Capitol on Monday, March 11th. The group has stated that they want the government to work on creating jobs rather than limiting worker’s rights.