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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Labor unions in Arizona are scheduled to rally in front of the Arizona state Capitol this afternoon. They'll be protesting four bills quickly moving through the state legislature, bills that could make last year's Wisconsin labor laws look modest by comparison. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Three of the four bills restrict the way unions collect dues and the way workers get paid for union activities. The fourth - the big one - bans collective bargaining between governments and government workers, state and local. Unlike Wisconsin, it affects all government employees, including police and firefighters. Republican State Senator Rick Murphy is sponsoring the bills.

STATE SENATOR RICK MURPHY: It seems as though those employees - or at least the unions who represent them - don't care what the burden is on the taxpayer, as long as they get theirs.

ROBBINS: Murphy says collective bargaining lets public workers put themselves ahead of the public they're working for. The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a libertarian/conservative think-tank, helped Murphy write the bills.

NICK DRANIAS: You're not in government to collect, you know, a fat paycheck.

ROBBINS: Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute says public-sector workers in Arizona make about 6 percent more in salary and benefits than their private counterparts.

DRANIAS: You're in government to serve, and if you get paid reasonably, that's nice. But the moment you feel the need to organize collectively and create laws like collective bargaining laws that give you special privileges to negotiate and extract compensation not seen in the private sector, you've gone too far.

ROBBINS: Arizona is also different from Wisconsin in that it's a right-to-work state. No one can be forced to join a union. So unions in Arizona already have less clout.

Still, 80 percent of police in the state choose to belong to a union. Brian Livingston represents the Arizona Police Association, which is fighting the bills. He says police and firefighters typically get paid less in salary, but he acknowledges they negotiate better benefits and retirement plans. Livingston says cops deserve it.

BRIAN LIVINGSTON: By the time we retire, we know that most of us will not live beyond what the average private citizen does. And I'm speaking specifically about public safety. The rigors of our occupation, the hazards of our occupation take a life-long toll on our longevity.

ROBBINS: Democrats in the Arizona legislature are outnumbered by Republicans two-to-one in the House and more in the Senate, where David Schapira is minority leader. He is appalled by the bills.

STATE SENATOR DAVID SCHAPIRA: These bills are clearly the most anti-worker, anti-middle-class, anti-union bills in the history of the country.

ROBBINS: Schapira says the bills are purely political. They're being considered, he says, because union leaders tend to support Democrats over Republicans.

SCHAPIRA: These are people that the Tea Party leadership at the state capitol in Arizona disagree with, and so they're punishing them. And that's the purpose of these pieces of legislation.

ROBBINS: Bill sponsor Rick Murphy admits public worker labor unions are a political problem for him. The elected officials labor leaders are negotiating with, he says, are afraid to give in to unions for fear of political reprisal.

MURPHY: When the unions are the ones who are disproportionately influencing those elected officials, the elected officials are very rarely on the side of the taxpayer in those negotiations.

ROBBINS: The swiftness of this new attempt at cutting the power of public worker unions took labor leaders by surprise. The bills were introduced just last week, passed through committee and are now ready for a full Senate vote.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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