As Wisconsin teachers and other public union workers take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his plans to end collective bargaining, Arizona teachers wonder: Could there be an impact here?
Unlike Wisconsin, Arizona is a right-to-work state, along with 21 other states. The National Education Association has an affiliate here - the Arizona Education Association - and most school districts have individual chapters. But Arizona doesn't have collective bargaining, what public workers are arguing to keep intact in Wisconsin.
The education association represents teachers when lobbying Arizona lawmakers and in negotiation efforts, such as "meet and confer" or "interest based bargaining" with school district leadership.
"With collective bargaining, you're a little more of a partner at the table than what we see here. In some regards we are a partner, but there are other issues we're not always included on," Mesa Education Association president Kirk Hinsey said, pointing out that a school district's governing board ultimately makes the decisions.
The other difference, he said, is that teachers in union states can strike. If Arizona teachers did that, they could be fired and replaced.
The Arizona Education Association represents 30,000 teachers who voluntarily join the group, said AEA Vice President Joe Thomas, who spent 14 years as a teacher in Mesa.
"Teachers aren't the only people who are watching what's going on," Thomas said. "Certainly I think when it makes the news and it makes one of the blogs or Facebook, people are going to be inquisitive and see what's going on."
The association, Thomas said, fosters relationships between district employees and leadership. They meet to discuss ideas, share concerns and try to create positive working situations, Thomas said.
Unlike union states - where teachers pay some type of dues, even if they don't join - educators in Arizona can choose whether or not to join the association. But even if they don't, they're still represented.
In fact, when Mesa district officials sat down this month to start the "interest-based negotiating" process, part of the annual look at employee salaries, working conditions and benefits, it was Hinsey and other members of the Mesa Education Association at the table with them.
But that doesn't mean Arizona is immune to the anti-union sentiment flowing across the country, Hinsey said.
"Even though we're not a union state, what happens in Wisconsin will have a ripple effect," he said.
A lot of what's going on in Wisconsin, Thomas said, is about silencing the voice of the teachers and other public union workers.
"When you're being told you're going to lose 100-plus years of being able to sit at the table and have those informed discussions, that's alarming," he said.
Eric Stuebner, a seven-year teacher who works in Mesa, said he's grateful that Arizona, and Mesa in particular, allows for those open discussions. He's been able to keep tabs on the financial struggles facing the state and the impact on the district.
As a site representative for MEA, he takes that information and passes it on to fellow teachers, bus drivers and support staff.
"It really diminishes that, ‘Well, the district is going to do this,' idea. We're doing it together ... It diminishes that chance of the finger-pointing and the blaming because everybody will have that buy in," Stuebner said.
Arizona's Republican Senate leadership recently issued a statement supporting Wisconsin's governor and blasting the union leadership there.
"Wisconsin union activists also showed their true colors. Teachers called in sick so they could protest in Wisconsin's capitol. That forced school districts to shut down due to understaffed classrooms, and the state's students were left out in the cold," the statement read.
Mark Mix, president of Right to Work, told a local radio station in Wisconsin (WSAU-AM ) that the union is "flexing muscles" there, but that Walker's bill is, "important to the taxpayers, citizens and the public workers in Wisconsin."
Mix argued that the union in Wisconsin is a "private company" that can, because of how the law is set up there, "make demands of the government."
Most recently, Wisconsin union members agreed to some pay cuts, as long as collective bargaining remains.
But as of 3 p.m. Arizona time Thursday, Wisconsin lawmakers were at a standstill on Walker's budget bill. Part of the issue is that 14 Democrats fled the state to keep the bill from being voted on until Walker negotiates, they said.