HARRISBURG – The hottest political potato in Pennsylvania’s Capitol this month is a bill that has drawn a network of conservative groups and labor unions into a clash over how tens of millions of dollars in dues payments are collected from hundreds of thousand public-sector workers.
The bitter confrontation comes before any vote is even scheduled.
But it is an election year when Republicans are tasked with defending their control of the state government, and the bill’s passage could weaken labor unions’ ability to marshal campaign cash to unseat perhaps the most endangered Republican of all, Gov. Tom Corbett.
Democrats are dead-set against it. Stuck in the middle could be moderate Republican lawmakers while there is still time for a more conservative challenger to get on the ballot for the May 20 primary election. To an extent, the battle in Pennsylvania is a proxy for a wider war playing out nationally as conservative groups that often do not disclose their donors target labor unions.
On Wednesday, Corbett said he would sign the bill, and then put the onus on leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass it.
“I’m going to look to the leaders to see whether they have the votes,” Corbett told reporters.
Top House and Senate Republicans have said little about whether they will fight for the bill. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, only suggested that the bill’s aims are worthwhile and that supporters make a “compelling” case.
At issue are identical House and Senate bills that would effectively bar the state, school districts, municipalities and numerous other government employers from automatically deducting union dues or union political action committee contributions from the paychecks of unionized workers.
Firefighter and police unions are supposed to be exempt. But by preventing unions from negotiating the automatic deductions into labor contracts, it would force the unions to spend money and time collecting the contributions themselves.
“Should the government collect political money?” questioned the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. “I think the answer is and should be ‘no.”’
Conservative activists also said it is a matter of fairness: Why are public-sector workers forced to pay into a union?
Even public-sector workers who do not want to join a union are still subject to a “fair share” deduction that is supposed to pay just to negotiate labor contracts, not things like campaign contributions, lobbying or public relations campaigns.
Union leaders insist it is a union-busting bill that is being pushed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, and caution that the next step will be a similar attack on private-sector unions or a broader attack on the bargaining rights of public-sector workers.
“I think the Koch brothers heard that we’d been somewhat successful in blocking some of the crazier right-wing proposals out there and … they decided that the way to beat us in the Legislature is to defund us,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation in Pennsylvania.
Electricians, laborers, steelworkers and other largely private sector unions say they are joining the fight.
“Written somewhere in the Bible is what you do to the least of our brethren, you do to me,” said Patrick Gillespie, the business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council. “We’re in this with everyone.”
Libertarian groups, including Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, both Washington, D.C.-based groups backed by the Koch Brothers, and business groups, including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, are vocal proponents.
“We are all in on this,” said Jennifer Stefano, the Pennsylvania director of Americans for Prosperity.
FreedomWorks says at least seven states have variations of “paycheck protection” laws.
Both sides are lobbying rank-and-file Republican lawmakers and trying to sway public opinion. Meanwhile, the issue is leaking into the governor’s race: Treasurer Rob McCord, a Democrat who is seeking the party nomination to challenge Corbett, issued two fundraising emails attacking Corbett on the issue.
Bloomingdale said unions swung into action after hearing that a Koch brother or a representative had demanded that Republican legislative leaders hold a vote on the bill before Feb. 18, the first day for a candidate to circulate nominating petitions to get on the primary ballot.
Cutler and Stefano said they knew nothing of such a demand. Rather, Stefano said she had pressed lawmakers for a vote before Christmas, and she and other conservative activists warn that lawmakers are being closely watched.
“For Republican donors and the activists, this is the new litmus test, not abortion or guns,” said Ryan Shafik, founder of the Harrisburg-based campaign consultancy Rockwood Strategies. “If you side with the government unions on this, you have no business being a Republican.”
Aides to Republican legislative leaders say GOP support for the bill is growing because unions are increasingly viewed as a political extension of the Democratic Party.
Bloomingdale said it would be illegal for Republican lawmakers to court union support – or at least, neutrality – in the election in exchange for blocking the bill. But unions will heavily consider the bill’s fate, he said.
“We support those who support us,” Bloomingdale said. “It’s a simple as that.”