It can’t negotiate salaries. And it won’t defend every worker accused of wrongdoing. But a major national union is trying to persuade state employees to sign up as members — and give up 1.25 percent of their wages.
In making the push, Service Employees International Union is trying to displace the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has represented state workers for years. Scott Washburn, SEIU’s state director, said he believes his organization can do a better job.
That has provoked an angry reaction from AFSCME lobbyist Roman Ulman.
He said SEIU does a good job of organizing, getting workers to sign up — and sign over a portion of their paychecks.
“But when it comes to representation,” it stinks, Ulman said.
Washburn said there is a small bit of truth in Ulman’s accusation.
He said SEIU will provide representation to employees the state is trying to discipline or fire who have made innocent “mistakes.” But Washburn said not all workers brought up on charges will find an SEIU representative at their side.
“If you’re a problem employee, we’re not here to protect you,” he said.
The fight comes amid the question of what good is union membership in a state where governments need not negotiate with the representatives of their workers. Some communities do have “meet and confer” policies where there are informal discussions.
Arizona, however, does not.
In fact, the traditional big issue for private unions — negotiating wage hikes — is decided at the state level as part of the budget negotiations: Lawmakers and the governor decide what increases, if any, to give.
So why should anyone join?
Ulman said there are other things that a union can do — and AFSCME has done — for state workers.
For example, he said, state employees were complaining several years ago about the quality of health care being offered by Cigna, the company that had the contract to insure the workers.
He said AFSCME persuaded Gov. Janet Napolitano to direct the state Department of Administration to self-insure, with the state seeking bids for companies to manage the process. Cigna decided not to bid.
Ulman said AFSCME also got the Department of Administration to alter its pricing structure for that insurance.
He said there were two categories: single employees and employees with families. Ulman said there is now an option for employees with a spouse but no children, one that is less expensive than the family plan.
MORE THAN WAGES AND BENEFITS
Washburn has his own spin on why state workers should join a union — and, specifically, his union.
“Everybody thinks that a union is about wages and benefits,” he said. But Washburn said that’s only “part of the equation.”
Some of it, he said, is simply recognizing the reality that workers are not going to be getting significant pay hikes — if any at all — this year.
“The economy here in Arizona is a real mess, at all levels,” Washburn said.
He said that has created havoc not only with the state budget but also in the cities and counties where SEIU has members.
But he said there are other things SEIU can do for its members.
“We’re really committed, as are these employees, about the notion of quality service and how do we involve employees in making decisions that affect their work life, which is a big issue for them,” Washburn said. He said the union can help advocate for employees in getting changes in the kind of work they are performing.
At this point, though, those are strictly promises.
“We haven’t been able to change much yet,” Washburn said.
“We’re still in our infancy here,” he continued. “We’re trying to grow the organization right now to become pretty good-sized in each one of these different agencies.”
Hence, the outreach.
Washburn won’t say how many members SEIU has. It is more than 1,000 — the level at which the state will allow payroll deductions.
Ulman pegged AFSCME membership at 5,000 to 6,000.
One big difference between the two organizations is SEIU is much more politically involved. For example, the union was the main source of financial backing in opposing a 2004 ballot measure to deny many public benefits and services to people not here legally.
Voters approved it anyway. But SEIU has stayed active in the immigration debate.
“That’s controversial,” Washburn said. But he said the union gets involved in initiatives because of larger public policy concerns rather than just what it means to union members.
There are other ballot measures where SEIU has taken an active role that have a closer link to labor issues: It was a primary source of dollars for the successful 2006 campaign to establish an Arizona minimum wage higher than the federal level.
AFSCME, on the other hand, has been more active at the Legislature.
It has been involved in efforts to allow state employees to become precinct committeemen and women for political parties.
“That’s where so much of the action takes place,” Ulman said, helping to get candidates elected. But current law keeps state workers from holding any office within a party.
One other difference separates the unions: cost. AFSCME’s 1.4 percent dues are higher than the 1.25 percent charged by SEIU. But Ulman said that figure is capped at $28 a month.