Pa. and unions: Perfect together?

Sen. Bob Casey
Sen. Bob Casey
Posted: March 04, 2014

NOTICE the political buzz around unions, especially public unions?

No? Well, allow me.

Your state Legislature's showing signs of life on a couple of union issues.

If you know your Legislature, you know that it rarely shows signs of life. If you know your state, you know that it rarely questions unions.

But there's a House bill to erase provisions of a law on the books since the Hindenburg blew up over Jersey that permits stalking, threats and harassment during labor disputes.

You read that right. Pennsylvania: Condoning thuggery since 1937.

It's sponsored by Rep. Ron Miller, R-York County. It's been sitting around for most of a year. But that recent visit from the feds to ironworkers in Philly on the topic of racketeering and violent intimidation seems to have given it breath.

I don't know. To me, stalking, threats and harassment sound like a normal day at the office - in Philly or in Harrisburg.

Then there's "paycheck protection" to stop government from deducting dues and political contributions from public-union workers' paychecks.

It's not new either. But suddenly it's getting attention.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey last week wrote GOP state legislative leaders asking them to drop the issue. He calls it "an attempt to unfairly target the rights of hard-working Pennsylvanians and silence their voices."

It's not often that Casey gets up in the business of our Republican-controlled Legislature. It's less often that Republicans controlling it pay him any attention.

But the issue is odd, probably going nowhere and clearly would end up in court.

Union-workers' dues and any voluntary donations to union PACs are electronically deducted from paychecks by the state.

Been that way for some time; direct deposit's been in place since 2003. A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which issues state checks, says that no costs are connected to making the deductions.

Union leaders argue that deductions are part of a negotiated contract, and that efforts to end them are intended to reduce union clout.

"It takes away our ability to negotiate with employers," says state AFL-CIO chief Rick Bloomingdale. He notes that bargaining rights are guaranteed under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and, for Pennsylvania public unions, the 1971 Public Employees Relations Act.

(He doesn't note the obvious: Without automatic deductions, union PACs suffer.)

But Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, sponsor of a House "paycheck-protection" bill, says that although he understands union concerns, "it's a question of ethics: Should government collect political money?"

Matt Brouillette, head of the conservative think-tank Commonwealth Foundation, says that using state resources to collect political funds doesn't differ from former lawmakers who "went to jail for using public resources for political purposes."

Except that union deductions are part of a legal contract.

So, it's hard to see this issue moving.

Although Republicans control the House and Senate, some less-right Republicans from southeastern counties are not automatic "yes" votes, especially in an election year.

Some suggest that that could change March 11 after candidate petitions are filed and lawmakers see (a) if they have primary opposition or (b) a serious general- election opponent.

Others cite pressure from conservative donors to get this rolling in case Gov. Corbett, who says he'd sign it, loses re-election.

And union leaders remain on guard with an eye toward possible post-election action whether Corbett's re-elected or not.

It's further complicated by potential pension-reform votes because pension reform is seen as anti-union and there's likely little appetite for two such votes this year.

Meanwhile, AFSCME Council 13 chief David Fillman says that the deduction fight's a waste of time: "If this passes, it doesn't create one job, help the economy or save the state money." He notes that even right-to-work Texas allows deductions for dues and political contributions.

Pennsylvania hasn't exactly been hard on unions.

The AFL-CIO's Bloomingdale says that we're the only state with a Republican governor and legislature that hasn't enacted anti-union laws.

At least not yet - although some conservatives reportedly are using that as a battle cry.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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