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Union targets: Education funding, vouchers, sale of liquor stores

| Monday, Sept. 5, 2011

The 2012 election is 15 months away, but unions representing public employees are gearing up for what could be one of the most significant elections in a generation.

Those union members, traditionally Democrats, have poured tens of millions of dollars into some of this year's biggest political skirmishes in Wisconsin and Ohio, where bitter state ballot battles that could shape the nation's political agenda have raged for months.

The story is much the same in Pennsylvania, where union officials acknowledge their collective-bargaining abilities have not been jeopardized in the same way their counterparts' in Wisconsin and Ohio have, but say they face their own make-or-break issues, including:

• Fighting plans for state-funded vouchers for students to attend private or parochial schools, jeopardizing jobs for public school teachers.

• Preventing privatization of state-owned liquor stores, which could eliminate about 3,500 unionized store clerk positions.

• Dealing with steep cuts to education that resulted in 4,000 teacher furloughs across the state this year.

• Maintaining health and retirement benefits for public-sector workers and retirees.

"It's been a very interesting year. It's gotten our folks more active politically," said David Fillman, executive director of Council 13 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the largest public-employee union in Pennsylvania. "Our members are sitting up and noticing what could happen right here, and we've gotten more support and generated more interest among our members than (we've had) in a long time."

Unions represented about 770,000 Pennsylvanians in 2010, up from 753,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of that number, 347,492 workers are members of public-sector unions, including 227,000 teachers and support aides and 80,000 government workers represented by AFSCME.

In general, union spending on elections in Pennsylvania increased sharply during the past decade, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Public- and private-sector unions spent more than $11.6 million during 2010 races, nearly triple the $4.2 million spent on candidates and political committees in 2000. Nationally, unions gave about $265 million in 2010 to political candidates and committees.

Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, said unions "made a massive effort in Wisconsin" trying to get Democrats elected in a series of recall elections after last winter's battle over collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers set off a firestorm when they voted to curtail union rights, a move that brought protests by more than 70,000 union workers and their supporters to the state Capitol in February.

DiSarro said the $37 million that unions poured into recalls in Wisconsin and the number of volunteers on the ground are examples of what people can expect to see elsewhere next year. He estimated union spending could be 10 percent to 20 percent higher in 2012 than it was in 2010.

"The stakes in 2012 are huge for labor," DiSarro said. "I think you'll see an increase in contributions, individuals going in to help organize and mobilize labor supporters and you're going to see more issue ads."

Not everyone believes increased activity will help unions win what they want.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said taxpayers who lost jobs or experienced benefit cuts aren't sympathetic to union demands for pay increases and hearty pensions. He sees union messages potentially backfiring.

"To the extent the public-sector unions are going to be able to gin up votes for Barack Obama and his ticket next year, they've already gotten what they're going to get," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican strategist with Quantum Communications. "There are a significant number of independent and swing voters increasingly concerned about the demands ... of the public-sector unions in these tough economic times."

Pearre Dean, deputy director of public affairs and legislative liaison for the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative policy group, predicted that unions will come out swinging. He said public-sector unions in particular should be careful.

"If (unions) are saying 'better benefits and better pay,' it could backfire (if voters) say 'That's not what I'm making,' " said Dean, once a member of the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Philadelphia.

Public-sector workers became a public enemy in this country because, in some cases, they are the only people in neighborhoods who have health insurance or a pension, since many private-sector employers no longer provide those benefits, said Gabe Morgan, president of the Service Employees International Union's State Council and director of Local 32BJ Western Division. SEIU represents public- and private-sector workers.

A lot is on the line in the 2012 election -- not only the president's job, but all U.S. and state House members, one-third of U.S. Senate members and one-half of state Senate members.

In Pennsylvania, union leaders said they're working to nail down candidates' positions on key labor and education issues and to inform members who will staff phone banks, knock on doors and talk to people in their communities. They say they're waiting to see how redistricting reshapes the political landscape before concentrating on specific contests.

"We will mostly be getting the boots on the ground and getting our members educated," said Fillman. "We will be doing ads, but mostly we'll be concentrating 75 percent to 80 percent of our time ... on educating members. In the labor movement, we find we get most of the bang out of our time and bucks by phone calling members (and) sending direct mailings."

Teachers unions are battling state lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett about offering state-funded vouchers to public school students, enabling them to attend private or parochial schools. The fight intensified when lawmakers slashed state aid by about $900 million this summer, causing furloughs.

Mary Ann Cupples, political action committee chair for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said she'll set up phone banks and prepare informational packets for members.

"I strongly believe some of our teachers voted for Gov. Corbett. For what it's worth, now we're facing a lot of issues," Cupples said. "If we were able to win (that) race, maybe we wouldn't be facing thousands of layoffs. That's why unions became politically active. ... If they don't, then the people who are not our friends are elected."

G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster with Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said with so much at stake, unions will have to target their efforts toward races that mean the most to them -- likely the presidential race and congressional seats.

Next year's is "arguably one of the most important elections in our generation," he said. With Republicans and Democrats holding divergent views on how to handle foreign policy, entitlement programs, the national debt ceiling and other major issues, the election "could well set the direction of the country for some time."

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