Anti-public employee union bills as much about politics as policy

February 19, 2012

Public employee unions say they’re under attack by legislative proposals mostly written by a conservative think tank. The Goldwater Institute claims Arizona taxpayers could save half-a billion dollars by targeting collective bargaining, union dues, and government funded salaries of union leaders. But as KJZZ’s Paul Atkinson reports from Phoenix, the fight is as much about politics than as policy.

Shouting “kill the bills, kill the bills,” a crowd of about 50 people from various public employee unions gathered outside the state senate this month to speak out against 4 bills that target them.

A protest speaker stirs up the union members by calling for “no more of the attack on public employees, no more of the attack on the hard-working families”

Peoria city worker Ed Thomas attended a capitol rally against 4 public union bills. Peoria city worker Ed Thomas, left, attended a capitol rally against four public union bills. (Photo by Paul Atkinson - KJZZ)

Ed Thomas watches from the fringe. He maintains parks for the city of Peoria and says he could make more money in the private sector, but that “basically I stuck with the city for my family and their benefits. My wife has MS and she needs the benefits.”

The benefits and salaries of public union members are the target of one bill that would strip the ability of unions to negotiate labor contracts. Nick Dranias is the director of Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.

“No special interest is supposed to have a law that forces government to negotiate in a secret backroom for advantages that benefit only their private interests,” says Dranias, who testified in support of the bill.

Dranias says Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Goldwater Institute show that public unions help drive up the cost of salaries and benefits.

“Government employees on average on an hourly basis make 44-percent more in compensation than the average private sector worker,” claims Dranias.

The Goldwater Institute's Nick Dranias testified about the union bills before the Senate Government Reform Committee February 1, 2012. The Goldwater Institute's Nick Dranias testified about the union bills before the Senate Government Reform Committee February 1, 2012. (Image captured from ACTV at

He helped write the bills. Two target union dues deducted from paychecks while another would prevent governments from paying the salaries of union leaders to only do union related work.

“They are required to put that union representative on the city payroll to do nothing but union work on the city’s dime,” says Dranias. “Now the cities’ dime is the taxpayer’s dime.”

2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show about a quarter of Arizona’s public sector workforce belongs to unions. Nationally, public union membership is 35-percent. Georgia State University labor economist Barry Hirsh says the average Arizona public union employee earns $21.78 an hour, about $3 more than non-union public workers.

“Nationwide if you look at union versus non-union in the public sector and carefully control for worker schooling and other characteristics you find that union wage advantage is on the order of about 10-percent,” says Hirsh.

Compared to other states, Hirsh says public union members in Arizona are not overpaid. But, the labor economist says all public employees enjoy better benefits than private sector workers.

“So there you do see costs to employers,” notes Hirsh. “Public employers being somewhat higher for benefits on the health side and the pension side than the private sector.”

But the legislative bills target only union members not other public workers. Tim Hill is president of Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, a union that represents 6,500 fire fighters throughout the state.

“There is no doubt that there is a national effort to spread the word to the states,” says Hill, “that unions are bad and evil and are not on the side of the taxpayers and that is blatantly false.”

Hill says many cities and local governments put the right of unions to represent workers in their charters. Any labor agreement must be approved by elected bodies such as school boards or city councils.

“If there is agreement, then we have to abide by that agreement,” says Hill. “But the elected officials can abrogate that agreement at any time by a simple vote. It’s not bound a contract such as you find with collective bargaining. No where in Arizona does collective bargaining exist in the public sector.”

Hill says the notion that taxpayers are paying union leader salaries is misleading. He says workers agree to lower salaries and benefits in exchange for funding those positions. Hill says the real reason for the attacks against public employee unions is the perception that they use their power and money to favor democratic candidates and causes.

“But the argument that we’re simply an extension of the Democratic party that supports Democratic candidates only is ridiculous,” emphasizes Hill.

Hill says his union has supported more Republican candidates over the years. He says the Goldwater Institute is working with the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC to target unions in states with sympathetic Republican legislatures. The Goldwater Institute’s Nick Dranias laughs at the notion.

Public union members hold up signs against the anti-union bills. Public union members hold up signs against the anti-union bills. (Photo by Paul Atkinson - KJZZ)

“And if anyone wants to try to go toe to toe with us with a conspiracy theory, they’re not going to win,” warns Dranias. “They have to come up with facts. They have to come up with figures. They have to come up with reasoned and logical arguments to beat ours and so far nobody has.”

Labor economist Barry Hirsh doesn’t think the attacks against public employee unions are warranted, but says their involvement in elections make them a target.

“What’s going on politically here is to try to starve the union base for contributions to politicians,” says Hirsh.

Despite the public worker protest, the four anti-union bills advanced out of senate committees, but so far, only one has made it to the House. It requires workers annually renew the automatic deduction of union dues.