Pennsylvania as the new Wisconsin in union fights
The Wisconsin state capitol was the site of massive protests in 2011 during the fight to pass Republican Governor Scott Walker’s labor reforms. The following year Big Labor staged demonstrations in Michigan against Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s right-to-work bill, which ultimately passed. Now Pennsylvania’s state capitol is set to reach fever pitch, as unions plan to bus in hundreds of protestors this week to fight legislation that, if bad for union bosses, could be a boon to rank-and-file workers.
Pennsylvania is a longtime labor stronghold. Consider that a plaque directly across from the state capitol commemorates the unionization of government workers. But Pennsylvania lawmakers are now poised to pass a law to end automatic deduction of union dues from government employee paychecks.
The “paycheck protection” bills pending in state Senate and House of Representatives committees, propose to prohibit government employers from deducting from a public employee’s salary “any funds which inure to the benefit of a private organization.”
If enacted, this legislation would end this use of state resources for political activity. Currently, the state uses taxpayer resources to collect union dues from government workers and these funds are used for political purposes by union lobbyists and political action committees. Police, firefighter and prison guard unions, however, are not covered by the bill.
For state Representative Bryan Cutler (R), sponsor of the House bill, it comes down to whether union political dues collection is an appropriate state government function. “The entire bill is about one fundamental question,” said Cutler. “Should government be in the business of collecting political money?”
Unions have declared war against this simple reform. In a recent op-ed, Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the AFL-CIO, wrote that this law would harm workers’ ability to negotiate and “singles out unions only for unnecessary and burdensome rules and restrictions.”
But Bloomingdale seems confused. This legislation does nothing to change the relationship between a worker and his or her union; or the union and an employer.
Instead, this change empowers workers — making union leadership more responsive and accountable to them. Bloomingdale and other union bosses speak highly of what they do for workers. If they provide such valuable representation and services, they’ll have no problem getting workers to voluntarily pay to become members — like every private association and organization already does. (Including the one we work for.)
The fact that the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and others think they need the state to collect their dues is telling. Expect a continuation of their claims that paycheck protection would hinder workers’ right to organize or negotiate.
It would do no such thing. Instead, it would force union brass to prove their value to rank-and-file workers in order to convince them to part with their hard-earned income. Just as a parent with an education voucher is empowered and taken more seriously by school officials than a parent without choice, workers are empowered when the decision whether to give their money to unions is voluntary.
Speaking of school choice, the absence of this paycheck protection legislation may be one reason why Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) has been unable to pass his education reform proposals and other key parts of his agenda. For unions use the millions of dollars in government employees’ dues to lobby for higher taxes and elect candidates who oppose school choice.
Corbett also campaigned on getting the state out of the liquor business. There is broad public support for this. Two-thirds of likely Pennsylvanians voters favor privatizing Pennsylvania’s arcane government-run wine and spirits system. This makes sense — since selling spirits is clearly not a core government function. Opening the industry up to competition would likely bring down costs — as well as widen the available selection.
But because the state funnels millions to union coffers at taxpayer expense, government unions are able to effectively lobby against getting the state out of the liquor business. Pennsylvania remains, four years after Republicans took control of the state capitol, the only state, aside from Utah, that runs both wholesale and retail liquor operations within its borders.
It now seems clear that a key factor in many major problems facing the Keystone State is the taxpayer-funded union dues collection system. It enables unions to block the policy reforms that would help make sure the state pension plans are funded and sustainable, fix a broken education system or change an uncompetitive tax and regulatory system that puts Pennsylvania at a disadvantage in attracting jobs and investment.
Expect a lot of bluster and hyperbole to come out of the demonstrations at the Pennsylvania capitol this week. According to a recent Commonwealth Foundation survey, however, 79 percent of Pennsylvania voters are opposed to the use of state resources for political activities.
The votes to pass this reform are reportedly there in the Pennsylvania legislature. Passage would be good policy — as well as good politics.
PHOTO (TOP): A view of the Pennsylvania State house from the State Street bridge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, January 18, 2012. HARRISBURG-CAMPBELL/ REUTERS/Tim Shaffer
PHOTO (INSERT1): Protesters occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, late into the night March 9, 2011. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett speaks at a news conference on the Penn State campus in State College, Pennsylvania January 2, 2013. REUTERS/Craig Houtz