Reports have whipped across the state this week that major anti-labor groups are sending resources to Pennsylvania in a push to curb public employee unions, an effort modeled on successful attacks in the traditional labor strongholds of Wisconsin and Michigan.
"We have seen an uptick in activity by the usual right-wing groups like Commonwealth Foundation," says Wythe Keever, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "We've been hearing that there's some billionaire corporate interests that are pouring money into the state. Republican lawmakers are being threatened that if they don't vote for paycheck- deduction legislation they will face a Tea Party primary opponent."
A likely vehicle for this effort is House Bill 1507. The legislation would make it impossible for public-sector unions to automatically collect dues from their members' paychecks and eliminate the required "fair share fee" from workers who do not join. The legislation would also make it impossible for unions to automatically deduct optional donations to labor political funds.
"Their thinking is that time is tight and that Gov. [Tom] Corbett is vulnerable, and that their window of opportunity is closing," says Keever.
Corbett, a Republican elected in 2010, faces low approval ratings an extremely tough reelection fight this fall.
The legislation could devastate public-employee unions, undermining workers' ability to bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions. It would also weaken a key Democratic ally in a major swing state ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. In what seems like a measure aimed at limiting a political backlash, the legislation exempts police and firefighters.
"We know it is the same folks that have been behind the Wisconsin and Michigan destruction of labor laws out there," says David Fillman, Executive Director of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13, the state's largest public employee union. "Pennsylvania is is now in their sights, and they think they're going to try to accomplish that here."
City Paper has been unable to confirm what "billionaire corporate interests...are pouring money into the state." Koch Industries, run by the conservative billionaire activist brothers Charles and David Koch, has not yet responded to a request for comment.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a major conservative group in Harrisburg, won't say whether something new is afoot. But they seem to be enjoying the commotion.
"Your inquiry is interesting because several union leaders have sent legislators memos recently and have called their members to action to fight a bill that has languished in the General Assembly since June," says spokesperson Cindy Hamill-Dahlgren. "The Commonwealth Foundation has been educating the public on the benefits of paycheck protection for months. Maybe they started reading our blogs."
The governor is already engaged in a conflict with teachers over cuts to public education, efforts to decrease oversight of charter schools and expand vouchers, and a push for contract concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Yet he has avoided the sort of total war with labor sparked by Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. In 2011, Corbett signed a four-year contract with state employees that included raises.
Republicans control state government, and a House Republican spokesperson today told the Inquirer that "there is a consensus that's building" behind the legislation while a spokesperson for Corbett signaled that he was inclined to support the bill (though he did not commit). But Corbett, despite his majorities, typically has trouble moving his legislative priorities through a quarrelsome legislature.
Hamill-Dahlgren says that state government should stop spending taxpayer dollars to conduct a political service on a private organization's behalf.
"Union bosses would simply collect the dues and PAC money themselves, just like every other private organization," she says.
Fillman, of AFSCME, disputes that dues deduction costs the state money. He says big business and conservatives simply want to destroy organized labor in Pennsylvania, and knock out a powerful political opponent.
"They want us to go away and die," he says.
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