Two major labor unions have joined up to try to push through a public-employee bargaining law.
The local joint venture between the Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is called the Arizona State Employees Association.
The unions want to combine resources and staff to organize as many of the 40,000-plus state employees as possible to try for collective bargaining. The state employs nearly 10,000 people in Southern Arizona and is the fourth-largest employer in the area, according to this year's Star 200 survey of employers.
Less than half of state employees are represented by a labor union, and unions can provide them advice in grievance proceedings and some agreements with state agencies, but not collective bargaining.
"Belonging to a union is going to give them more of a voice in their workplace," said Linda Hatfield, president of CWA Local 7000.
A public employee bargaining law would give the new association the ability to bargain with the Legislature over worker pay, in an attempt to bring wage levels closer to private-sector pay. Even if the unions don't get their new law, they will lobby the Legislature about pay during budget proceedings, Hatfield said.
"They're trying to create a problem where there really isn't a problem," said Noah Clarke, an economist with the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit policy research group.
The union's perception of a wage gap between public- and private-sector employees doesn't account for the better medical and retirement benefits and job security public employees enjoy, he said. The average salary for a state employee is the same as the per capita income in Arizona, Clarke added.
Since taxpayers are the true employers of state workers, the unions should be asking taxpayers whether they want to give workers a pay raise, Clarke said.
State employees in New Mexico got a collective-bargaining right through an executive order from Gov. Bill Richardson in 2003. The Arizona group won't ask
Gov. Janet Napolitano for a similar order, Hatfield said.
The Arizona unions modeled their effort after the New Mexico State Employee Alliance, which represents about 3,000 state employees, 70 percent of whom are union members.
The alliance won New Mexico employees a three-year labor contract designed to quickly raise the wages of the lowest-paid workers.
It's important for state employees to organize to stand up to management, which changes every four to eight years, said Dan Secrist, a New Mexico Alliance regional vice president.
"It's government: the eternal bastion of managerial incompetence," he said. In the alliance, workers get "better representation, better working conditions, a chance of getting better wages, and better protections," he said.
Low wages also are the top concern of Arizona workers, Hatfield said. Another concern is understaffing that leads to overtime and stress, she said.
"Our wages and benefits need to remain competitive in order to attract qualified individuals, which will lead to higher retention rates for the state, thus reducing turnover," Hatfield said.
Erick Ramirez, a member of AFSCME Local 3194 who has worked for the Arizona Department of Revenue for 21 years in Tucson, told union organizers at a rally last week that he is especially concerned that no one seems to care that state employees' wages are low compared with those in private-sector jobs.
Down the road, the unions' leaders also hope to organize state employees at Arizona's three universities, Hatfield said.
The biggest obstacle is access to state workers, which requires applications for set times and places to get permission, she said.
Union lobbies called it a victory when state employees won an average 5 percent pay hike for workers this year, the largest raise in decades. AFSCME had asked for a 9.5 percent raise as a bargaining point.