PHOENIX (AP) -- With Washington silent for now on legislation championed by unions, the debate is playing out instead in the states.
With a measure approved Wednesday by its Republican-controlled Legislature, Arizona became the fourth state that will ask voters this year to undercut proposed federal legislation aimed at making it easier for workers to unionize. Arizona voters will decide in November whether the state constitution should require a secret ballot for workers deciding whether to create a union; South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah residents will be asked similar questions.
If passed, the secret ballot initiatives would have little immediate effect because federal law already allows employers to require a secret ballot.
Rather, the ballot measures are an attempt to pre-emptively undermine the proposed federal law known officially as the Employee Free Choice Act - dubbed "card check" by opponents.
EFCA would allow a majority of employees to create a union by signing a card. Unions say workers, not their employers, should get to decide how to form a union.
Businesses have the advantage in a union election because management has unfettered access to employees and can intimidate them by changing work schedules and assignments or threatening to fire them, said Bill Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO.
Labor laws are outdated, and employers have learned to exploit them to thwart union organizing efforts, he said.
"Employers have turned it into such an adversarial process," Samuel said. "It's no longer both sides standing up before a crowd and making their case."
Businesses say expansion of the public card-signing process would allow labor organizers to pressure workers into joining.
"You're denying them the privacy and security of the private ballot," said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Work Force Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The issue has stalled on Capitol Hill, but businesses worry congressional Democrats will bring it up in a lame duck session after the midterm elections.
It's not clear whether the federal law would trump the states' secret ballot guarantees, and both sides agree the matter is likely to end up in court.
Arizona Democrats said lawmakers were wasting their time debating a hypothetical federal law. They said Republicans were pandering to their base hoping to boost Republican turnout in the Nov. 2 election.
"This is a blatant attempt to attack unions and...the people who are members of them, which are working families," said state Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Apache Junction. "They go out of their way to side with business over working families."
Republicans cast the measure as an economic development opportunity that would send a message that Arizona is a business-friendly state. Some supporters said it's important for the state to take a stand against what they perceive as overreaching by the federal government on issues like immigration and health care.
"I put nothing past this administration to get its way," Sen. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican, said of the administration of President Barack Obama. Pearce is the architect behind Arizona's tough crackdown on illegal immigration.
Lawmakers originally referred the issue to voters more than a year ago, but a judge sided with union lawyers and kicked it from the ballot because it was improperly crafted.
The state Supreme Court upheld that decision last week, and Gov. Jan Brewer called lawmakers into a last-minute special session to address the issue, saying "the right to cast your vote without fear or intimidation is a fundamental tenant of our democracy."