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Lawsuit claims 'union money grab' through Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf order

| Tuesday, April 7, 2015, 1:41 p.m.
Fairness Center
A lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of David Smith, a quadriplegic from Phoenixville in Chester County, seeks to overturn an executive order by Gov. Tom Wolf that opponents say would make it easier for homecare workers to unionize.

HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf exceeded his authority with an unlawful executive order making it easier for homecare workers to unionize and enabling Wolf's largest union campaign contributor potentially to tap $21 million in annual dues, a nonprofit group contends in a lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed by the Fairness Center, which according to its website provides free legal service for public-sector employees harmed by their unions, argues that Wolf's order enables a “union money grab” for Service Employees International Union.

David Osborne, a Fairness Center lawyer, said the executive order “smacks of political payback” since SEIU was one of Wolf's major campaign donators. In 2014, the union gave Wolf $988,000 in campaign money, according to an analysis by the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative policy group in Harrisburg. The CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation is chairman of the Fairness Center's board of trustees.

Wolf's spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan called the allegation “ludicrous,” saying the executive order is about helping the disabled and elderly, not union organizing.

The SEIU is trying to gain support of homecare workers, a Fairness Center lawyer said.

The group filed its suit Monday against the Wolf administration and Department of Human Services.

Sheridan called it a lawsuit by a “right-wing, anti-union organization.”

An SEIU Pennsylvania spokesman could not be reached.

“This is not about SEIU,” Sheridan said.

Wolf's order, issued in February, “ensures that homecare workers have a voice in shaping the future of the industry and seniors have choices about where to receive care,” Sheridan said.

He said the order does not grant collective bargaining rights to workers, does not force them to join a union and does not make them state employees.

“It simply creates a process where workers can share their ideas to improve the industry.”

The Fairness Center contends the order would enable a public union such as SEIU to garner annual dues from 60,000 members.

Sheridan denied that, reiterating that the order “doesn't force anyone to join a union.”

Pennsylvania law enables unions to call a vote if 30 percent of members agree to do so, Osborne said. He said Wolf's order changes that to 10 percent. Labor law requires majority approval of members to join a union, Osborne said, and the executive order changes that to “votes cast.”

“It changes the law in no way,” Sheridan said.

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to halt the executive order and asks the court to overturn the order as unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of David Smith, a quadriplegic from Phoenixville in Chester County, and his state-funded homecare provider, Don Lambrecht.

Wolf's order is similar to one issued by ex-Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in 2010, which was rescinded after a Commonwealth Court challenge, according to the Fairness Center.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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