By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The “right-to-work” fight isn’t new to Pennsylvania. Neither is the ideological line in the sand between labor unions and lawmakers seeking to limit their influence.
But this session, Pennsylvania can become the nation’s 25th right-to-work state. At least, a group of Republican House members and a coalition of supporters think it should.
On Tuesday, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said five other Republican House members introduced the Pennsylvania Open Workforce Initiative. The package of six bills aims to end “compulsory unionism” for private- and public-sector unions, a practice requiring nonmembers to still pay fees.
“In right-to-work states, people can be a union member if they choose to. We’re just saying, ‘Let union members choose if they want to be in a union,’” Metcalfe said. “Why do they need the government to enforce it?”
The legislation comes after Michigan, a state with strong union presence, passed right-to-work laws in the midst of heated protests and full-out demonstrations in the streets of Lansing.
Labor advocates call right-to-work policies an attack on workers, pointing to lower wages, poorer working environments and an overall weakened middle class as results of weakened union power. But supporters say it’s an issue of constitutional personal freedom, and that workers should have the right to decide whether they want to be represented.
Tuesday’s announcement was made at a news conference with about three dozen lawmakers, business officials, school board directors and political advocates, 20 of whom gave personal testimony on why they believe Pennsylvania should become a right-to-work state.
That included non-union member and public school employee Neil Weidman, and Mary Burkholder, a nurse and former union member. There was also a presence from the national right-to-work movement, including Justin Davis of the National Right to Work Committee.
Gov. Tom Corbett already has said that he Pennsylvania “lacks the political will” to pass right-to-work laws, though he would sign them if they came across his desk. But that sentiment seems to fuel right-to-work supporters, including Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren.
Warren said there are a number of “core conservatives” in the General Assembly who are committed to seeing these laws change.
“If Governor Corbett would step up, and our party leaders, and take the lead on this issue, Pennsylvania would be America’s next right-to-work state,” Rapp said.
Her legislation would keep unions from collecting dues from non-union public school employees, a measure she’s introduced previously.
Simon Campbell is a director at the Pennsbury School Board, and the president of Stop Teacher Strikes. He called out Corbett for allowing the latest contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to include a provision on compulsory dues payments. Pennsylvania law, he said, allows that to be negotiated.
“Just because it exists in a previous agreement doesn’t mean it has to exist in a future one,” Campbell said.
There are about 20,000 state workers who are not union members that the provision applied to, Campbell said.
But getting these laws passed in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly would mean winning over many Republican lawmakers who take campaign donations from labor unions. Metcalfe said that if citizens in Pennsylvania demanded that lawmakers stopped “representing the special interests of the unions,” that lawmakers would listen.
With that will of the people, he said, the legislation could win approval.
“I believe that the power of the individual citizen can overcome the power of the public-sector unions and the unions at large in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Stephen Herzenberg, economist from the Keystone Research Center, said right-to-work laws deliberately weaken unions and result in a weakened middle class.
“You can’t look at these laws in isolation from the overall situation of workers and employers,” he said. “When you look at the overall situation, the problem in the United States is not that unions are too strong, it’s that they’re too weak.”
To the unions that these laws would affect, right-to-work laws are an adversary that they are prepared to fight.
Abe Amorós, the Pennsylvania legislative director for the Laborer’s International Union of North America, said right-to-work proposals show nothing more than “hostility towards workers,” whether they are unionized or not. Wages in right-to-work states like Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia are 3 percent lower than other states, he said.
Amorós said he doesn’t see House members who support right-to-work finding success. In 2011, the House Labor and Industry Committee held a hearing on similar initiatives. Amorós said the bills did not make it out of the committee.
“We knew this was coming, and we’re going to prepare to fight it off like we did last time,” he said.
Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said that nonmembers who pay dues have the same protections as members that go beyond salaries and benefits. For example, a nonmember has the same rights against discrimination from a boss, he said.
“You take away unions, you take away the middle class,” he said. “The two are inextricably linked in this country. We didn’t have a middle class before the labor movement got strong.”
Right-to-work has been introduced in every legislative session for the past 30 years, Bloomingdale said.
“We’ve kept it bottled up and defeated for 30 years, and we’re going to keep trying to bottle it up as defeat it as long as we can.”
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]