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Top donors to hash out union contracts with Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Wolf

| Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf takes the stage after defeating Republican Gov. Tom Corbett on election day  Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in York.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf takes the stage after defeating Republican Gov. Tom Corbett on election day Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in York.

When Gov.-elect Tom Wolf negotiates Pennsylvania's largest public sector union contracts in 2015, his administration will sit across the table from some of his largest campaign supporters.

The national chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gave Wolf's campaign $500,000, as did the political arm of Pennsylvania's Service Employees International Union. The state's AFSCME Council 13 donated $54,000. AFSCME and SEIU contracts for state employees will expire June 30.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, said donations of $5,000 or more from unions to Wolf's campaign total more than $2.7 million, citing figures from Public Source. Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis of the Commonwealth Foundation, said donations don't mean there's a “quid pro quo,” but four of the top 10 donors to Wolf's campaign were unions.

“He will be negotiating with the same people that gave his campaign a lot of money,” he said. “Those have significant cost implications going forward that can tie the hands in terms of spending, in terms of a large number of employees.”

Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Wolf's transition team, said Wolf is beholden to the people of Pennsylvania, not his campaign supporters.

“The fact that they donated to his campaign is not going to be a factor in these negotiations,” Sheridan said. “But it's premature to talk about any negotiations.”

Groups such as AFSCME, SEIU and the Pennsylvania School Education Association spent the past four years railing against the policies of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who lost to Wolf. But during the Democratic primary, Wolf did not receive their support. Wolf was his campaign's largest financial backer, with him and his wife, Frances, contributing $10 million.

After Wolf emerged from the four-candidate primary race as the victor, organized labor support coalesced around him.

Dave Fillman, executive director for AFSCME Council 13, said the state's financial picture, not donations, drive negotiations. Early indicators suggest Wolf will inherit a budget crisis. Last week, the state's apolitical Independent Fiscal Office projected a $1.85 billion deficit going into the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“If he treats us fair, which I'm hoping he will do, our members will recognize that there is not an unlimited tap of funding coming from the state,” Fillman said.

Fillman compared the situation to that during outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell's term. The union did not endorse him during his first campaign but did when he ran for re-election.

“To say all of a sudden that the treasury opened up and money came flying in, no,” Fillman said. “They still have to balance the budget; they still have to be accountable.”

They did not endorse Corbett in 2010 and still wound up with a fair contract, he said. It included a one-year wage freeze and an increase in employee health care contributions to 5 percent, up from 3 percent.

Contracts determine spending on health care, schedules for raises, wage freezes and time off for a four-year period. AFSCME Council 13 represents about 45,000 state workers, and SEIU represents about 10,000. According to the Corbett administration, they make up the majority of state workers.

Fillman said he hopes Wolf will bring all sides together to discuss strains on the state's two major public pension funds. Together, they carry a combined unfunded liability of nearly $50 billion. Corbett proposed changes to reduce the cost of future worker pensions, which Fillman and other union officials did not support.

Rick Bloomingdale, executive director of Pennsylvania's AFL-CIO, which represents a mix of public- and private-sector workers, said Corbett had some union support when he took office in 2010, but he took “a hard right turn,” supporting right-to-work legislation that prohibits mandatory union membership.

Wolf shares labor's core philosophies, Bloomingdale said. The organization gave $5,500 to his campaign.

“His discussions about economic justice and fairness, and making an economy that works for everybody — those were just the right issues for us,” Bloomingdale said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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