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Fight over unionism gains steam in state

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:20 p.m.

HARRISBURG — For years, pro-business lawmakers trotted out bills to make Pennsylvania a state that can't force people to pay union dues. Such bills languished in committees with no expectation of legislative action.

“They've been introducing right-to-work bills since at least 1983, and over 30 years, they've gone nowhere,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. Even Republican control of the Legislature and governor's mansion did not change that.

Yet with a package of bills introduced last week, observers sense that “something big is happening,” said David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association.

“I have come to believe this issue is coming our way, whether anyone realizes it or not,” Taylor said.

“We're going to take it as a serious threat,” Bloomingdale said. “We'll continue to fight for people's rights to belong to a union.”

The renewed optimism for supporters in Pennsylvania occurred when Indiana and Michigan, home of the United Auto Workers, adopted right-to-work laws in December, bringing the total number of states with laws to 24.

Anthony Riedel, spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, said the group considers New Hampshire, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Montana and Alaska the next battlegrounds.

In Pennsylvania, there's “a shot,” Riedel said.

“I was stunned at how it happened in Michigan,” said Taylor, referring to swift passage during a lame duck session and a signature from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who previously appeared disinterested.

Worker freedoms

Right-to-work laws typically apply to the private sector, although some target public-sector unions.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry, the lead sponsor, filed legislation that would apply to both sectors.

“Evidence across the nation proves that the most critical and essential step for economic growth is to break the government-sanctioned grip of compulsory unionism,” said Metcalfe.

Opponents — House Democrats, many Republicans, and average Pennsylvanians — “understand that the worker protections in current law improve conditions and pay for all workers, not just those in unions,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

“The so-called right-to-work proposals get recycled every two years, but they are not about worker freedom. They are simply an attempt to depress wages and benefit a corporate bottom line,” Patton said. “House Democrats will strenuously oppose this effort to hurt working people.”

Since taking office in January 2011 with a GOP-controlled House and Senate, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler Republican, has expressed little interest in tackling a right-to-work bill. Corbett would sign one if the Legislature sent it to him, said spokesman Kevin Harley.

But Harley said Corbett has “a full legislative agenda moving into the session,” and his priorities include state pension reform, a privatized liquor system, transportation funding and a balanced budget.

Asked about the likelihood of passage in Pennsylvania, Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster County, suggested Democrats would not help.

“I don't know if they have a shot,” Sturla said. “I don't know if there are 102 Republican votes,” the minimum required.

Paying ‘fair share'

Workers who opt out of a union must pay “fair share” dues. A third-party auditor determines the annual share, typically about 65 percent of dues that members pay, Bloomingdale said.

Bloomingdale said the union may represent non-union workers in the same shop, and non-members benefit from the wages and benefits negotiated in contracts.

“Right-to-work is the right to accept whatever your employer says,” said Sturla.

The advantage of belonging to a union is “protection against arbitrary firings,” said Bloomingdale, who points out that in an “at-will state” such as Pennsylvania, an employer can fire someone without cause.

“Unions work when there is solidarity. We stand and fight together.”

Teri Adams, president of Independence Hall Tea Party Association in Philadelphia, argues that “coercing workers to join a union and pay weekly union dues, against their will, is undemocratic and un-American.”

Sometimes union dues fund political candidates and organizations “at variance with political beliefs and wishes of workers,” Adams said.

Domino effect

Taylor bases his anticipated good outcome in Pennsylvania on the “domino” theory.

With Michigan becoming a right-to-work state, Ohio won't want to cede business to Michigan and could follow, said Taylor. If Ohio falls, Pennsylvania would be hard-pressed to resist, he said.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich told the Columbus Dispatch last week that right-to-work legislation is not a priority or crucial to Ohio's ability to lure jobs. The GOP governor and legislature are not eager to tread there, considering Ohio voters trounced a 2012 ballot initiative to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.

Yet Ohioans for Workplace Freedom is gathering signatures to put a right-to-work measure on the ballot.

When Michigan approved its bill, “it was like jet fuel for our effort,” said Chris Littleton, who is leading the signature drive.

Pennsylvania prospects

Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Carlisle, believes Pennsylvanians “can see that forced unionization kills jobs. It's 2013, not 1953, and we can't afford to keep chasing away our best jobs and talented workers to other states.”

Opponents maintain such legislation is an attempt to de-fund unions by taking away non-member dues.

“This is nonsense,” said Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers 1776 in Philadelphia.

Said Leo Knepper, spokesman for Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a Camp Hill group that backs pro-business and pro-taxpayer legislators: “We haven't had a serious effort to end forced unionization because the leadership of the Republican Party lacks the will to make it a priority.”

Legislative leaders dodged the question when asked whether right-to-work legislation has a chance this year.

“We are going to be looking at many ways to improve the jobs climate in Pennsylvania,” said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester County, said the House “appears eager to take the lead on right-to-work. If they pass legislation, we will certainly review it.”

A long-standing relationship exists between unions and many Republicans, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs of southeastern Pennsylvania.

“The unions here, specifically the building trades, have always had cordial relationships with center-right and moderate Republicans,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public relations specialist.

Said Young: “There are Republicans in the Legislature with good voting records for working families.”

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol writer for Trib Total Media.

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