PHOENIX — A coalition of labor unions and liberal political groups is hoping to get Arizona voters to rethink a 77-year old decision to make Arizona a “right-to-work” state.
The new initiative drive would repeal a constitutional amendment that spells out no one can be denied the ability to have a job simply because he or she is not a member of a labor union. It also bars employers from entering into an agreement with a union to hire only union members.
Federal law already prohibits that.
But the real effect would be to preclude any sort of deal between a union and a company that says anyone who works at a site has to at least contribute to the cost of operating the union. The premise is that if the union is negotiating wages and benefits for all workers, everyone should have to share in the cost, regardless of whether they choose to belong to the union or not.
It remains unclear whether voters, who approved the constitutional provision in 1946 by a 55%-45% margin, might have different thoughts today.
On one hand, Arizonans have shown an increasing interest in worker rights.
That specifically includes measures approved in 2006 and again in 2016 that raised the minimum wage far above the $7.25 floor set by Congress, $13.85 now and going to $14.35 in January. And the latter of these initiatives also provides for paid sick leave of 40 hours a year for employees of companies with 15 or more workers. For small firms, the paid time off is 24 hours.
Robert Nichols, chairman of what’s called the Arizona Works Together initiative, said the move comes as unions across the nation are flexing their muscles.
UPS drivers got pay hikes when they threatened to strike. And the Writers Guild of America just negotiated a new deal for its 11,500 members.
Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers chose to strike all three major domestic producers. And members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is holding out for pay hikes and “residuals” for reruns.
But Nichols admits it will cost anywhere from $6 million to $14 million to gather the 383,923 valid signatures by next July 3 and then to run a campaign. And he said there are “commitments’’ from some unions, including the United Auto Workers, to help finance the effort.
What a repeal would do, said Nichols, is make it easier for unions to organize once it was clear everyone who would benefit from their negotiations would pay a fair share.
They will, however, have to overcome opposition from business groups.
Michael Guymon, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber, acknowledged unions have never been a big part of the labor market in Arizona.
In 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 5.5% of all wage and salary workers in the state were union members. Even at its most recent peak in 2007 and 2008 it averaged just 8.8%
By contrast, even with declining membership nationally, 10.1% of all employees across the county were unionized in 2022.
Guymon said, though, the constitutional provisions is one of the things he believes is driving the state’s economy, saying it is one of the things that attracts employers.
“Being a right-to-work state, those employers would be able to expand their operations here without the potential and the concern of having to manage the union aspect of it as well,” he said.
The other side of that is that, generally speaking, wages appear to be lower in states with right-to-work laws.
“What the tangible effect of it is for the average middle-class person is if you live in a right-to-work state you make, on average, $10,000 less every single year,” Nichols said.
Various other studies have come up with other figures, including one by the Economic Policy Institute that pegs the differential at closer to $7,000. And it also is true that the average wage in Arizona is about $2 an hour less than the national average.
Guymon said there could be other factors at work in those numbers, like higher costs of living.
Danny Seiden, Guymon’s counterpart at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the issue is even more basic. He said the language in the state Constitution — the verbiage the initiative seeks to remove — is “100% about employee choice.”
“It makes it clear that a person in our state cannot be hired or fired based on their decision to be involved with a union,” Seiden said. “Why does that language need to be repealed?”
That, however, goes to the fact no one is forced to join a union. But it leaves the question of whether those who refuse to provide some financial support should be able to profit from the higher wages and greater benefits negotiated by the union with the employer.
Seiden said it’s a First Amendment right, not just with whom someone chooses to associate but also how an individual spends his or her money. And he said it’s not just about supporting the cost of negotiations.
“A lot of times unions do more than collective bargaining,” Seiden said. “They engage in the political process in ways their members don’t agree with.”
That issue of union political involvement — one that often takes a different position than the business-funded chamber — isn’t new for Seiden’s organization.
More than a decade ago, state lawmakers, with the state chamber’s backing, pushed through legislation that would require unions to get specific authorization from each worker, on an annual basis, for any payroll deductions for political purposes.
A federal judge enjoined enforcement, at least in part because it was crafted to apply only to unions and not to other groups, “discriminating against those wishing to express less favored or more controversial views.”
Seiden also disputed the idea that being a right-to-work state is a major impediment to forming unions. He noted the votes to unionize at several Starbucks shops in Arizona.
Even if the coalition manages to get the signatures to put the measure on the 2024 ballot, and even if voters approve, that still won’t totally eliminate right-to-work. There is a separate statutory provision, adopted two years after the constitutional amendment, with nearly identical language.
The problem, said Nichols, is that ballot measures are pretty much limited to a “single issue.” And while the subject matter is the same, trying to repeal both with a single initiative possibly would bring a successful legal challenge that would knock the whole issue off the ballot.
He noted, though, that once the constitutional amendment is gone, the Legislature would be free to repeal the statutory provision. That, however, would require getting support from a majority of the House and Senate which both, for the moment, are in Republican control.
For the moment, the coalition is not very broad. Aside from the auto workers, the other unions involved are the United Campus Workers of Arizona, Arizona Cannabis Workers Rising, and Local 232 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grail Millers International Union.
Also listed as part of the coalition are the Arizona Students’ Association, the Maricopa County Young Democrats Labor Committee, the Phoenix chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Arizona State University chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America.
Nichols acknowledged the involvement of any organization with the word “socialists” in its name might cause concern among some voters. But he was unapologetic about the involvement of those groups.
“This is a broad tent and we are looking for volunteers as often as we can” to carry the petitions to qualify for the ballot.