With only Republicans in favor, state lawmakers took the first steps Monday to putting a measure on the November ballot to throw a potential roadblock in the path of future union elections.
Both the Senate Judiciary and House Commerce committees agreed with lobbyists for business interests that the Arizona Constitution needs language which would require an election by secret ballot before any group of workers could organize as a union. The full House and Senate are set to debate the measure Tuesday.
Monday's votes came over objections from Democrats, and not only because of what's in the measure itself.
House Minority Whip Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said if lawmakers are at the Capitol they should deal with serious questions, like how two murderers and one convicted of attempted murder were placed in a medium security private prison from which they escaped. Two have since been captured, one just Monday, but not before the murder of a couple in New Mexico believed link to two of the escapees and an accomplice.
"The question is, why is the governor and why is the state not investigating this?'' Campbell said. He said Gov. Jan Brewer should amend the call for the special session that began Monday to also include looking at the classification system which allowed the three to be placed in the Kingman facility.
But gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said any such legislative inquiry -- much less changes in state law -- is premature.
"We need to first keep our focus on capturing the remaining fugitive and subsequently to determining later what, if any, improvements policy-wise need to be made,'' he said.
But Senseman said that Brewer has no particular problem with murderers being housed in medium-security facilities. He said the escape seems to be the result not of the Department of Corrections classification system that put them in the Kingman facility but that staffers at the private facility violated policies and the terms of the contract.
And state Corrections Director Charles Ryan said there's nothing inherently wrong with murderers in medium-security prisons, saying that's the situation for more than half of the 2,700 inmates serving time for murder.
Republican legislative leaders also showed no interest in having hearings, at least not now
"We reserve our right to do that,'' said House Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix. He said decisions about housing murderers in privately run medium security prisons is "up to the Department of Corrections.''
And Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, said lawmakers are on "a very tight timeframe'' to push through the union voting measure to get it on the November ballot.
The rush by business interests and their Republican allies stems from the fear Congress will adopt "card check'' legislation. That would allow unions to organize by getting the signatures of at least half the affected workers in a company.
Now either the company or the workers can demand a secret ballot.
Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said a constitutionally guaranteed secret ballot will protect workers against some unions "and the thugs that they have, and the things they've done around this country, threats, assault and intimidation.''
Clint Bolick, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute, echoed the concerns.
"With card check, it allows coercion by union organizers and therefore increases the odds that a union would be formed where it would not be formed if it were put to a secret ballot,''
Rebecca Friend of the AFL-CIO, conceded card check likely would make it easier to unionize. But she said there's another side to the issue.
"What card check would do is eliminate the employer harassment of workers who want to form unions, which we have studies over and over that document in most union elections the employers use tactics that sometimes are not legal, certainly questionable, to pressure employees to vote against the unions,'' he said.
Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, said it is pure speculation that Congress would ever approve such a change.
But President Obama himself, in a speech earlier this month to the executive council of the AFL-CIO promised to "keep on fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act,'' the formal name for card check.
Even if that is the case, Cheuvront said the push by business interests is legally meaningless. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that federal law supersedes any local laws on labor organizing, particularly as it involves interstate Commerce.
"That is simply not the case,'' said Clint Bolick, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute. He said the high court has held in the past that any "very strong'' state interest can overrule federal law.
"I cannot think of a stronger value that has ever been before the U.S. Supreme Court in a preemption case than the right to secret ballot,'' Bolick said.