The organizing team, a nonprofit called Arizona Works Together, is working to put a measure on the 2024 ballot that would strike “right-to-work” language from the state constitution.
Arizona is one of 26 states that have “right-to-work” laws. Under such laws, states have the authority to determine whether workers can be required to join a labor union to get, or keep, a job.
For the initiative to be on the 2024 ballot, organizers need to get about 384,000 signatures from Arizona voters. According to the campaign’s chair, Robert Nichols, that doesn't account for invalid signatures, which can sometimes reach as high as 30%. So the campaign will likely need to collect about 500,000 signatures, he said.
Supporters of the initiative who spoke at the press conference recognize it will not be easy to put the measure on next year’s ballot and win in the election.
“A campaign of fear will also be launched against this effort, and it will be backed by millions in spending by business owners and their anti-union consultants, who benefit most from right-to-work laws,” said Michael McQuarrie, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Work and Democracy. “It will be said that people won’t invest in states with strong unions, never mind that six of the 10 largest state economies are heavily unionized.”
Several state legislators spoke at the press conference, including Reps. Oscar De Los Santos, Cesar Aguilar and Leezah Sun, along with Sen. Eva Diaz.
“Part of what we’re doing is coalition building. The other part is pushing for specific language that we have put forward in our ballot initiative,” Nichols told the Phoenix New Times.
‘You have to convince Arizona citizens’On the surface, "right-to-work" laws appear to favor the free choice of the worker to join or not join a union. However, according to the AFL-CIO, the laws weaken workers’ ability to form unions.
“‘Right-to-work’ is the name for a policy designed to take away rights from working people. Backers of right to work laws claim that these laws protect workers against being forced to join a union. The reality is that federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join a union,” according to the AFL-CIO.
HCR2008, which would have repealed Arizona’s right-to-work laws, was sponsored by De Los Santos, a Democrat from Laveen, in January. The bill eventually was held in committees.
But Arizona employment attorney Josh Black said Arizona Works Together’s new effort may be successful, even if it is met with initial skepticism.
“You have to convince, of course, Arizona citizens that this is indeed worth changing the constitution,” he told Arizona’s Family in September. “Because this isn’t just changing a statute. This is something that is part of the Arizona constitution.”
Organizers look to return state to union rootsAlthough Arizona’s constitution includes what critics describe as “anti-union” laws, organized labor played a critical role in the early days of the state. It joined the U.S. in 1912 at the tail end of America's progressive movement, which fought for better working conditions and greater worker protection.
George W.P. Hunt, Arizona’s first governor who held office for a total of 14 years, was a former mine worker and notably pro-union.
Mining unions organized strikes across the state during World War I when copper was in high demand for the war effort, according to the Arizona Historical Society. With the approval of President Woodrow Wilson, the striking miners were kidnapped, taken to New Mexico in cattle cars and warned not to go back to Arizona.
In 1946, the legislature put "right-to-work" legislation in the state’s constitution.
“In a way, we are carrying on the legacy of early Arizona politics by fighting to appeal 'right-to-work' laws and create an affirmative right to organize in its place,” Nichols said at the press conference.
With high inflation crunching workers, unions are on the rise around the country and in Arizona. That includes medical, cannabis, airport, hospitality and trade workers.
“Arizona workers are not asking for the world, all they’re asking for is a living wage, basic benefits and the freedom to join a union,” De Los Santos said. “I am proud to fight alongside Arizona’s workers who simply want to earn enough to own a home of their own and to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.”
Aguilar, a Democrat from Phoenix, told New Times that as a ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, he’s seen more money from President Biden’s manufacturing laws making its way to Arizona to build new facilities. To receive that funding, businesses were required to pay workers acceptable wages and provide benefits.
“There are union workers building these huge facilities, making great money right now,” said Aguilar. But he added that a problem may be on the horizon: Unless the state repeals "right-to-work" laws, union workers likely won’t be working in those facilities.
Even Michael Kintscher of United Campus Workers Arizona, a public university union that represents students, staff and faculty, spoke in favor of the measure despite the fact that "right-to-work" laws target the private sector.
“The overwhelming majority of our students will go on to hold private sector jobs after they leave university. These students will be entering the workforce with the unprecedented financial burden thrust upon them by the university leadership and the Arizona Board of Regents continuing to raise tuition and fees,” Kintscher said.