Unions have broad appeal in Pa., staunching right-to-work efforts
HARRISBURG — On the surface, Pennsylvania looks like it could be the next front in the ongoing battle between Republicans and big labor that flared up in Michigan this week as lawmakers there approved so-called “right-to-work” legislation.
The Keystone State, like Michigan – and Indiana and Ohio, where similar battles have gone down — has a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature. Like those other states, it has a long history of powerful labor unions.
But all is quiet on the labor front in Pennsylvania, at least for right now. And Gov. Tom Corbett indicated this week that he does not plan on changing that.
NO ‘WILL’: Gov. Tom Corbett said the Pennsylvania legislature lacks the will to pass right-to-work laws.
During an appearance on the Dom Giordano radio show on WPHT-AM in Philadelphia on Monday, Corbett said Pennsylvania lacks “the will” to pass right-to-work legislation and indicated it was not a top priority for him as the Legislature gears up for a new session in January.
Kevin Harley, the governor’s spokesman, told PA Independent that Corbett supports right-to-work in theory and would sign the bill into law if it made it to his desk.
However, Harley said, the governor is taking a practical approach because the right-to-work legislation is unlikely to make it through the Legislature.
“What makes it different is that the Michigan Legislature actually passed it,” Harley said. “(Corbett) doesn’t think it would pass here.”
He may have a point. Right-to-work legislation has been introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly for the past several years, but went nowhere.
During the recently completed 2011-12 session, for example, fewer than 50 of the 253 members of the General Assembly signed on to various right-to-work bills introduced in the state House and state Senate.
In short, right-to-work laws free workers from the requirement to join unions in certain professions. They also prevent unions from requiring members to pay dues to the union. Since those dues form the backbone of unions’ financing for legal and political activities, the result is a weakened labor movement in state with right-to-work laws on the books.
In Pennsylvania, about 15 percent of all workers are unionized, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, but the unions are widely regarded as the most powerful political force in state politics.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said Friday the union would fight right-to-work legislation “with every breath we have,” if it ever was brought up for a vote.
Bloomingdale went on to explain the key to union power in Pennsylvania. Rather than aligning itself with one political party, he said, the unions in the Keystone State have a broader reach.
“We’ve never considered ourselves a party,” he said. “We consider ourselves a union, and we work with people on both sides of the aisle.”
Working with people on both sides of the aisle means helping out when it comes time to campaign.
According to research from the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that works to elect conservative Republicans at the state level, unions in Pennsylvania made more than $1.5 million in political contributions during 2012.
As expected, most of the union money flows to Democrats, but Republicans – particularly the ones in key leadership positions – got more than $80,000 from Pennsylvania unions during the past year.
Leo Knepper, executive director of CAP, said all that money buys considerable influence — and politicians are unlikely to change until that does.
“For a long time, the first thought the members of the General Assembly had about legislation was ‘what will the unions do if I vote for this?’” Knepper said. “Until they reflexively start to ask ‘what will taxpayers and job creators do if I vote against this?’ things won’t change.”
Perhaps worth noting, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was lukewarm on right-to-work for most of his first two years in office.
In an interview this week with MSNBC, Snyder said he was motivated to pursue right-to-work after the unions in Michigan tried to get collective-bargaining rights enshrined in the state constitution via a ballot initiative in November.
That measure failed, but the labor unrest stirred up by the proposal was enough to spur Snyder to action.
Back in Pennsylvania, some on the right say Corbett is looking at the picture the wrong way.
Instead of saying he would sign a bill when it comes to his desk, they believe Corbett should be actively pushing for his agenda – an agenda that should include right-to-work legislation.
“If he thinks it’s a good idea, he should be out there supporting it. When you’re the governor, you’re the boss,” said Bruce Castor, a Montgomery County Commissioner who is considering a primary challenge to Corbett in 2014.
Contact Eric Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.