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Right-to-work push fizzles in Pa.

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Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

When lawmakers in Indiana and Michigan passed laws banning compulsory union dues, hopes rose among some conservatives who've spent years trying to do the same thing here.

More than a year later, however, Pennsylvania is no closer to becoming the 25th state to enact a so-called right-to-work law.

“It's not an issue that's on our legislative agenda for the coming year,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.

That frustrates some conservatives, who note that Republicans control the state House, Senate and governor's office.

“Just because the Republicans have the majority doesn't mean we have a majority that is willing to change the status quo,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who has introduced several bills that would ban forced union membership. His most recent, House Bill 50, has remained stuck in the Labor and Industry Committee since he introduced it on April 30.

Battles over public sector unions' bargaining rights and legislation similar to Metcalfe's prompted protests in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, sit-ins at state capitals, and costly efforts to kick governors and legislators out of office before their terms expired.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler Republican, decided to be less confrontational than his GOP colleagues in those states, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College.

“He has made no effort to change the fundamental relationship between labor and business,” Madonna said. “I think it was a conscious policy to minimize labor strife.”

That approach showed in the debate over the transportation funding bill that passed in November, Pileggi said. The bill eliminated prevailing wage requirements for projects costing less than $100,000, which lowered the wages the government must pay some workers.

Unions didn't like the provision, but their opposition never boiled over into major protests.

“The conclusion was, as you saw in the bill, a meaningful change in the prevailing wage law but not a radical one,” Pileggi said. “It was the general understanding that that was going to be the last major change in those laws ... for the balance of this session,” which runs through 2014.

The difficulty of overcoming union opposition to that relatively minor change in labor law sent a signal to supporters of Metcalfe's bill, said Alex Halper, government affairs director of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

“I think there's a perception that taking on right-to-work might be too much to handle,” Halper said.

Metcalfe's bill, which Halper's organization supports, would provoke a far larger fight than the prevailing wage change.

“It's a bad piece of legislation. It's bad for the economy. It's bad for workers. All it does is drive wages down and make unions less strong at the bargaining table,” said Jack Shea, president of Allegheny County Labor Council.

That affects all workers, Shea said. Higher union wages force nonunion businesses to pay workers more to keep them from organizing, he said. Union members earned $943 a week, on average, in 2012, compared to $742 for nonunion workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Since unions have declined — and they've been declining for 20, maybe 25 years — you'll see wages in the middle class go down,” Shea said. “All of us are affected by that.”

Less than 12 percent of U.S. workers belong to a union and 6.6 percent of private-sector workers are organized. Union membership in Pennsylvania fell from more than 20 percent in 1989 to 13.5 percent in 2012, according to the federal data.

But more than one-third of public-sector workers belong to a union, the data show.

“They still have considerable campaign resources, both in terms of dollars and volunteers. You can't say they're insignificant,” Madonna said.

Metcalfe said the decline in union membership doesn't change the need for his bill.

“We have forced unionism,” Metcalfe said. “It's a matter of restoring a very basic freedom, whether it's one worker who's forced to pay dues or a million.”

Riling people up over the issue presents a challenge for Metcalfe and his supporters. Compulsory union dues in some workplaces — most likely someone else's workplace, thanks to declining union membership — doesn't generate much passion, said Matthew Wagner, spokesman for Pennsylvanians for Right to Work, a Carlisle-based nonprofit that advocates for bills such as Metcalfe's.

“It's not a top-of-the-mind issue,” Wagner said. “People get excited about gun control. This is not something that people will get naturally excited about.”

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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