Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race will play a big role in deciding which party controls the chamber next year, and one of the big policy areas affected by that control is workers’ rights.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has run a campaign premised, in large part, on his support for organized labor; “the union way of life is sacred” has been a refrain since he launched his Senate bid last year. Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has mainly focused his job-related rhetoric on broad economic issues, saying Pennsylvania needs to produce more natural gas and coal, and that the U.S. needs to do less business with China.
With Labor Day upon us and candidates in Pennsylvania’s big races taking advantage of optics in historic union hubs like Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, here’s how Oz and Fetterman compare on labor policy.
What Fetterman has said about labor issues
One of the key parts of labor policy currently before the U.S. Senate is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, a package of reforms designed to make collective bargaining easier.
It would let unions override a slew of state “right-to-work” laws, which allow workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues. It would also place tougher safeguards against employers influencing union elections, allow arbitration for new unions seeking a first contract, and bar employers from using workers’ immigration statuses against them while deciding employment terms.
The measure passed the House and stalled in the Senate. Fetterman, his campaign wrote in an email, “would immediately co-sponsor the PRO Act as currently written,” but added that he thinks more should be done, including passing “legislation and sign[ing] executive orders that put more power directly into the hands of workers, protect their rights, and dramatically expand union membership across this country.”
Fetterman also supports a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, wants “smart trade deals that are fair to American workers and guarantee jobs are not outsourced to countries with cheap labor and poor safety standards,” and favors punishing American corporations that try to outsource jobs.
On fossil fuel and its related jobs, Fetterman splits the difference. Republicans, his campaign said, “need to get real about climate change, and Democrats need to get real about our energy needs.” Fetterman, 53, has said he hopes the American economy will be based on renewables by the time his young children are his age.
What Oz has said about labor issues
Oz’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story, and his website says nothing specific about organized labor, workers’ rights or the minimum wage.
It does say that he supports small businesses and opposes “government regulations that stifle growth,” that he will work to overturn “heavy-handed regulations” on fossil fuel industries “that are hurting Pennsylvania jobs and our local communities” and that he wants to “confront” China.” Fetterman’s campaign noted that Oz has had his own business relationships with China, including manufacturing branded products there.
Oz also alludes to a possible desire for less government involvement in the medical industry on his campaign site, writing that “we need to expand the role of religious institutions, non-profits, and community groups in providing support for stronger families and neighborhoods.” That, he concluded, is “how we combat our underlying emotional sickness that leads to opioid addiction and isolation.”
Oz hasn’t said much publicly about the minimum wage or the PRO Act, either. His one notable mention of organized labor came when he told a Newsmax host that teachers’ unions had too powerful a role setting COVID-19 policy.
What do unions think?
Not all unions or union members have the same politics. Though generally aligned with Democrats, some sectors are politically mixed. The building trades, for instance, sometimes work in the oil and gas industries and balance their desire for pro-union policy with a desire to maintain lots of fossil fuel jobs.
But in general, most of the labor support has gone to Fetterman.
“For us, it was one of the easiest endorsements we’ve ever had to make,” said Gabe Morgan, who serves as executive vice president of Pennsylvania’s SEIU 32BJ. “Fetterman has always been a really strong advocate of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He’s been a strong advocate of workers having the right to organize and supporting workers and have organized.”
32BJ represents a mix of public and private sector workers, including Philadelphia teachers, airport workers, cleaners, security officers, and building engineers. Its focus, Morgan said, is on “turning what had been poverty wage jobs into good jobs by organizing workers into a union.”
Its members skew fairly liberal, he added — they mostly live in cities and are pretty racially and ethnically diverse. There are some differences of political opinion, but not as much as in some unions. But even in more conservative unions, Morgan added, he doesn’t think Oz has strong appeal.
“Even conservative union members — that’s a hard vote for them to make. This is not someone who is supportive of, really, any union principles,” he said.
Unions supporting Fetterman include the Pennsylvania State Education Association, AFSCME Council 13, EAS Carpenters, and United Steelworkers, along with the state AFL-CIO.
Oz’s only labor-related endorsement, according to his website, is from Pennsylvania’s Fraternal Order of Police. Some unions, particularly in the trades, have also held off on making endorsements in the race.