As Pennsylvania’s GOP gets more conservative, labor unions are back in the crosshairs

Pennsylvania’s GOP leaders are seeing new opportunities to weaken public sector unions.

Pennsylvania Legislature

(Commonwealth Media Services)

An increasingly conservative legislature and next year’s open gubernatorial election have Pennsylvania’s public sector unions on high alert. Meanwhile, the commonwealth’s anti-union advocates are starting to feel like they might make some long-awaited headway.

Over the last several years, the Republicans who control the state House and Senate have introduced a series of labor-related measures with the same general thrust: making it easier for workers to opt out of unions, making it more onerous to form unions, and making it harder for unions to raise money for political work.

But over and over, those measures have failed, partly because Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has consistently threatened vetoes, and partly because Pennsylvania is a state where organized labor attracts some bipartisan support.

However, people on both sides of the debate say the playing field could be changing, especially if a Republican wins the race for governor in 2022.

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“What I’ve seen over the course of my 11 years in the state House has been a shift to the extremes in both parties, but more so in the Republican Party,” said Rep. Gerald Mullery (D-Luzerne) who serves as minority chair of the House Labor and Industry Committee. “So, yeah, these [lawmakers] are a real threat to public unions. They’re scary.”

On Monday, Mullery and the rest of his Democratic colleagues in the committee walked out of a hearing at which Republicans — who control all committees — discussed a half-dozen proposals designed to undercut the power of public sector unions.

Proponents of these measures criticize public sector unions for driving up costs and having too much control over how vital government services, including education, are performed.

Most bills weren’t new. As often happens in the legislature, lawmakers recycled them from previous sessions after they failed to advance.

David Osborne, CEO of the nonprofit Americans for Fair Treatment, which works to limit unions’ power, agrees the climate on these issues has changed in Harrisburg.

Labor law changes were “once a topic that Republicans were afraid to get involved in because they thought, ‘Well, what are the unions going to think?’” said Osborne, who has led a number of lawsuits against public sector unions in the state. “But as an observer of this process, it has been obvious to me that Republicans have changed over the last few years.”

The moderate exodus

One of the last times the state legislature came close to passing a bill that would have significantly affected unions’ political power, it flamed out in unusually spectacular fashion.

In 2017, the state Senate had already passed what is commonly called a “paycheck protection” measure, which would have barred public employers from deducting workers’ voluntary donations to their unions’ political action committees directly from their paychecks.

Republican supporters argued it was inappropriate for employers funded by public dollars to make these political deductions. Democrats said it was a bald attempt to weaken union power.

Despite a looming veto from Wolf, the House appeared poised to pass the bill. It moved steadily through the first two votes necessary, but then on the third and final consideration, a small group of moderate Republicans threw a wrench in the process.

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Ahead of the vote, Gene DiGirolamo, then a Bucks County Republican representative, expressed the concerns of that faction in comments on the House floor.

The “paycheck protection” bill, he argued, was “not about good government” or “protecting anybody’s paycheck.”

“This is about silencing the voices of hardworking, ordinary, middle-class men and women, Pennsylvanians who live in each and every one of our legislative districts,” he said. “They are teachers, they are nurses, they are corrections officers, they are firefighters, they are the men and women of our police department that protect us each and every day.”

DiGirolamo ended by noting that the Fraternal Order of Police, a union that is perhaps more allied with Republicans than any other in the state, opposed the bill.

On the floor that day, 26 Republicans ended up defying party leadership and voting against the measure. In a chamber where Republicans have total control and can generally guarantee measures have sufficient support before they get on the floor, the bill died there.

Four years later, the legislature looks very different.

Since 2017, most of the Republicans who were instrumental in the rejection have departed the legislature. Come January, just nine will be left. Some retired. Some, like DiGirolamo, now a Bucks County Commissioner, ran for different offices. Many others were voted out as Democrats made gains in purple districts.

Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), one of the moderate Republicans who voted against the 2017 bill and is still in the legislature, argued that those changes haven’t made a significant difference in his party’s attitude toward labor. He thinks there’s still a strong cohort of Republicans who support union rights — particularly private sector unions like the building trades, which work in the oil and gas industry.

“We have been the party that put the building trades to work on the cracker plants in Western Pa. and NE Pa,,” he said in a text message. “The SE Republicans are solidly pro-building trade, as are the Western Rs and NE Rs.”

DiGirolamo largely agrees. Though his former caucus may have shifted politically, he doesn’t necessarily think voters have changed their minds on labor.

“The districts of those 26 people [who voted against the 2017 ‘paycheck protection’ bill], the makeup of their districts, I can’t imagine that they’ve changed that much,” he said.

But he added a significant caveat. If a Republican wins the 2022 gubernatorial election, he said, there will be “pressure on leadership in the House and the Senate to try to move bills similar to the ones we are talking about,” particularly ones that target public sector unions.

“The caucuses are very conservative right now,” he said. “The pressure is going to be enormous and they’re going to try to move these bills.”

‘Weird little shell game’

One of the bills Republicans discussed Monday in the House Labor and Industry Committee was a new version of “paycheck protection,” this time with police and firefighters carved out.

Another would require that public sector workplaces recertify their unions at least every six years, even though members can already vote to decertify their unions whenever they want.

Other bills have provisions including:

Jim Cox (R-Berks), who leads House Labor and Industry didn’t return a request for comment. But Osborne, the nonprofit CEO who leads anti-union lawsuits, characterizes these as bills aimed at “accountability for the unions and power for employees.”

Steve Catanese, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents human services workers, has a different take.

“They are distractions. They’re bills built on false premises,” he said. “It’s this weird little shell game of promising some type of unnecessary reform by creating additional regulations … with language meant to erode little itty bitty pieces of our rights.”

Catanese is more confident than Mullery that the shifting politics of the Republican party won’t necessarily spell victory for these kinds of bills. For one thing, he argues, a lot of private industry union members in Pennsylvania remain dedicated to their units, even if otherwise politically conservative. Public sector unions have also been known to endorse Republicans — as has the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

“Those conservative [union] members have actually reached out to a lot of conservative legislators, Republican legislators, and talked to them about why our union aligns with their conservative values,” he said. “Everything I’ve seen makes me think that that messaging is going through.”

But he adds, he still has concerns of his own.

“I’m not blind to how the nature of the capital changed over the last several years,” he said. “They’ve tried to make it harder to be a labor-friendly Republican.”

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