Unions Are the Heart of Arizona’s Political Change

Unions Are the Heart of Arizona’s Political Change

Unions Are the Heart of Arizona’s Political Change

The historically red state’s GOP is attacking organized labor, but labor is fighting back and turning Arizona blue.


In May, Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona signed into law SB 1268—an anti-union bill critics say violates federal law and the Constitution—firing a shot at organized labor as Arizona Republicans seek to hold power ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

President Joe Biden’s surprise general election victory in Arizona—which had only voted for a Democrat twice since the Roosevelt presidency, most recently Bill Clinton in 1996—sent a national signal flare that the traditionally conservative state is shifting. With a razor-thin Republican majority in the state legislature and Republican Governor Doug Ducey term-limited out of running for reelection in 2022, Arizona Democrats seem poised to achieve something they haven’t had since 1966: tripartite control of the state.

But anti-union bills like SB 1268 and new voter restrictions, upheld by the Supreme Court in a blow to the Voting Rights Act, complicate the Democratic path to power. SB 1268—which has been challenged in the federal District Court of Arizona by the Arizona AFL-CIO and United Food Commercial Workers Local 99—is an unusual attack on private-sector labor. In addition to mandating burdensome disclosure requirements under penalty of perjury, it legislates that employees can opt out of union-negotiated benefits plans and instead negotiate directly with their employers.

According to Arizona AFL-CIO President James McLaughlin—who also serves as president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99, the largest union in the state—it’s illegal and unconstitutional.

“It’s an attack on many things,” said McLaughlin. “It’s an attack on the notion that states can’t mandate that employers provide a certain level of benefits package, which is a core ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974] concept, it’s an attack on the notion that a contract is a contract, including collective bargaining agreements, and it’s an attack on the notion that the union is the exclusive representative and can negotiate on employees’ behalf.”

McLaughlin says bills like SB 1268 are rare because they’re so clearly unconstitutional; typically, Republican legislation on private-sector unions is restricted to so-called “right to work” laws. But even though defeating the bill in federal court seems likely—SB 1268 legislates on topics preempted by federal laws like the National Labor Relations Act—the Arizona AFL-CIO is concerned that state enforcement and the resulting problems could cause a headache for organized labor just 14 months ahead of a crucial midterm election.

“There are all kinds of mandates that are in this even though the law is clearly unconstitutional,” according to McLaughlin. Some of the requirements for mandatory disclosures, says McLaughlin, are nonsensical, requiring that unions report the amount paid by and paid out to health care plan participants—something that he says makes no sense for evaluating health insurance. “It throws a major monkey wrench into how employers, unions, and benefit funds operate.”

Republican interest in introducing voter suppression, election audits, and costly distractions for labor like SB 1268—and Democratic interest in strengthening labor, shown by multiple bills introduced since January addressing a wish list of union priorities—isn’t a surprise. Educators and education unions in Arizona flexed their muscles with statewide walkouts in 2018 as part of the nationwide wave of education strikes; Arizona ranks last for median teacher pay. Statewide strikes led to a rally in Phoenix with over 50,000 educators and supporters, and secured hundreds of millions for increased education pay. Their momentum continued with a Democratic victory in the November election, with former teacher Kathy Hoffman defeating the incumbent Republican superintendent of public instruction.

Educators aren’t alone. Unions and organized workers have played a key role over years shifting Arizona from a state with the most notorious sheriff in America to a state where a Democratic breakthrough seems likely. Community groups and unions have undertaken the long process of changing Arizona, starting with the “Adios Arpaio” campaign to defeat Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2012. At the time, UNITE HERE called it the start of organizing a new Arizona.

Since then, unions have targeted Phoenix’s municipal politics, and Republican majorities in the state legislature have steadily dwindled to a one-seat difference in both chambers. Many candidates have been union members themselves, showing that unions aren’t just backing candidates—they’re running their own. Phoenix City Councilwoman Betty Guardado, first elected in 2018, was a hotel cleaner and member of UNITE HERE Local 11. Other state legislative candidates, like Arizona Education Association member Christine Marsh and UNITE HERE member Athena Salman, have also come from unions.

Some activists, like Marisela Mares—a 23-year-old activist with UNITE HERE Local 11—have been part of shifting Arizona’s politics from the beginning. Marisela, a former Arizona State University caterer laid off at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, now works as a community organizer for Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy. She first entered political work at 14 on the “Adios Arpaio” campaign, and has been involved through her union ever since.

According to Mares, a key part of her motivation was living through an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid on her home when she was in middle school. “They were looking for my grandfather, even though he had already self-deported because of SB 1070,” she said. “It was a pretty traumatic event for me, and for so long that kind of shaped my worldview.”

“By the time I got to high school, I heard about this opportunity [to organize against Arpaio] and I just had to jump on it.” Getting involved through the union—UNITE HERE Local 11 was heavily involved in organizing against Arpaio—made sense. “I’d seen how much of a difference it made in my dad’s life for him to be a union member.”

For Mares, all these different struggles—immigrant justice, workplace justice, and changing Arizona politics—all intersect. “As working-class folks, as immigrants, as young people, and for myself as a queer person, the system is rigged against me,” she says. “As a kid I was on picket lines, and I learned how the boss inside these workplaces is really similar to people like Arpaio and like [Governor] Jan Brewer.”

Mares was part of the recent effort by UNITE HERE to knock on doors as part of a large election operation targeting key battleground states like Arizona. Over 500 UNITE HERE members and volunteers knocked doors in Arizona. To her, talking to voters wasn’t just about the election—sometimes, it was empathizing with Arizonans hit hard by the pandemic. “People that we were talking to were in a similar situation as me,” said Mares. “[They were] unemployed, afraid of the pandemic, afraid of getting Covid, and had even lost people.”

Their efforts paid off. According to UNITE HERE, they knocked on 800,000 doors in Arizona and had 250,000 conversations with voters. Biden won the state by just 11,000 more votes than Donald Trump. But it also offered people something more, according to Mares: hope. “Even just talking about voting and the power that actually has, gave people a lot of hope.”

Organizing has built labor’s political capacity; UNITE HERE members from Arizona went to Georgia to secure Senate wins for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Despite legislative attacks like SB 1268, unions are likely to play a key role in the 2022 election, and—if successful—may secure rare expansions of labor rights in a historically hostile state. After securing control of Virginia, Democrats enacted key labor reforms like project labor agreements and legalizing public sector collective bargaining.

That could prove essential in 2022, and Mares is hopeful that she and other union members will be part of a political earthquake. She wants to see a Democratic governor and Democratic legislature when the dust settles. “They’re passing these laws that are taking away our freedom to vote, and even are making it harder to organize with SB 1268,” says Mares. “But we know that building grassroots campaigns, talking to one person at a time, that wins the community over.”

She’s hopeful that’ll be the difference. “We know the winning strategy, and we’re going to keep going, [and] even if the rules have changed, we’ll teach our communities how to get around them.”

If political control in Arizona changes in spite of legislative attacks like SB 1268, there’s little doubt it’ll be due to years of work crossing the boundaries of community organizing, labor organizing, and political work. That work has been done by activists like Mares alongside union teachers, housekeepers, grocery store workers, and community organizers. She says the ballot box and picket line are connected, citing an organizing campaign at the Tempe Mission Palms as one of her motivations for continuing to fight.

“That was the first time I’d ever seen working women, you know, moms, abuelitas, really put their lives on the line and go on strike and do a fast and participate in civil disobedience to fight for what’s right,” says Mares. “It inspired me to not just fight politically but fight against the boss.”

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