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Right-to-work measures latest battleground between business, labor

By   /   August 16, 2011  /   2 Comments

Republicans say workers should not have to pay mandatory union dues
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Businesses and organized labor are clashing over a proposal to eliminate the mandatory payment of union dues by non-union employees in some professions.
A package of bills, introduced this session by state House Republicans, seeks to repeal state laws requiring all state workers, local government employees and public school teachers to pay dues, even if they choose not to join a union.
Business groups say the compulsory dues are an affront to freedom and the so-called “right-to-work” laws would increase personal income and job creation.  Right-to-work means that employees are not required to join labor unions or pay union dues, even if they choose to work in a union shop.
“Workers should be free to make their own decisions about the organizations they join and give their money. It’s the American way,” said Kevin Shivers, state director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses in the state.
Unions counter by saying that non-union employees benefit from the collective-bargaining process, resulting in better wages and benefits that otherwise would not be achieved. Since non-union workers enjoy these benefits, they should pay their “fair share,” they argue.
“While an individual’s right to associate is maintained, the purpose of assessing fair-share fees for nonmembers is to cover appropriate costs and to prevent individuals from becoming free-riders who take the same benefits and services without payment,” said Michael Crossey, president-elect of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, which represents 191,000 public school teachers.
Though the amount of the “fair-share payment” varies from union to union, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Richard Bloomingdale said it averages between 75 percent and 85 percent of the full union dues in most cases.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, is the prime sponsor of the main right-to-work bill, which would prevent employment in the state from being conditional on the payment of union dues.
Bills from state Reps. Jim Cox, R-Berks, Kathy Rapp, R-Bucks, and Tom Creighton, R-Lancaster, would remove the requirements for local government employees, public school teachers and state workers to be members of unions. Teachers and state employees have been under mandatory dues laws since 1988 and local government employees since 1991.
Twenty-two states have “right-to-work” laws on the books, mostly in the southern part of the country. At Tuesday’s hearing, both sides used statistics, showing how right-to-work laws succeeded or failed in those states.
The measures would not prevent anyone from joining a union and would not restrict union membership.
Karen Roberts, a retired teacher from Philadelphia who lives in Snyder County, said workers “should have the option to not be a member of the union and to negotiate your own salary.”
Roberts said she resisted joining the teachers’ union, but she was shunned by members and pressured into joining the union, which she eventually did.
But nonmembers benefit from union collective bargaining power and should contribute to cover those costs, said Hilary Chiz, a Pittsburgh resident and member of the United Steelworkers union.
“If you didn’t have to pay the dues, you would probably choose not to be a member of the union anymore,” Chiz said. “It would dismantle the union structure across the state.”
Private-sector union membership has declined significantly in recent years in Pennsylvania. As of 2010, only 9.3 percent of private-sector workers were union members, down from 15.6 percent in 1990. Public-sector union membership has declined slightly from 50.9 percent to 49.9 percent during the same period, according to the federal Department of Labor.
Lawmakers are sharply divided along party lines on the legislation.
Gov. Tom Corbett has said he would sign a right-to-work bill into law. Similar legislation has been introduced in the state Senate this session.  But state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, said the bill was not one of his priorities for the fall session.
Miller said dealing with the state's $3-billion unemployment compensation debt to the federal government and securing the long-term solvency of the unemployment fund are the most important issues facing his committee. He said passage of prevailing wage laws, which also pits business leaders against union groups, also would rank ahead of the right-to-work legislation in the fall.