HARRISBURG – Labor unions packed the Pennsylvania Capitol for a raucous rally Tuesday as they widened their fight over legislation that aims to prevent the state, school districts and local governments from deducting union dues and political action committee contributions from the paychecks of unionized workers.
The Capitol Rotunda was so full that police forced many more union demonstrators to wait outside in the freezing cold.
No vote on identical House and Senate bills is scheduled. But the fresh memory of major Republican-backed legislation to weaken union rights passing in fellow northern industrial states has spurred unions to aggressively lobby rank-and-file Republicans and to assail the legislation as an “attack on workers’ rights” led by out-of-state billionaires and conservative groups that do not disclose their donors.
“If you watched what happened in Wisconsin and Michigan, it was far too late when it got to the House,” William Hamilton, president of the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, told the packed rally. “We’re on time.”
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, said he would sign the bill while leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature have been publicly noncommittal, perhaps reflecting their split ranks.
Democrats staunchly oppose the bill, and some, including state Treasurer Rob McCord, a prospective Democratic candidate for governor this year, spoke at the rally.
Members of private-sector unions also streamed into the Capitol in what they called a show of unity.
“They’re coming at our friends,” said Lou Acampora, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 380 in the suburban Philadelphia town of Collegeville.
The union demonstrators took some shots at Corbett, who will be targeted by some unions this year as he runs for a second four-year term.
The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brian Cutler, R-Lancaster, framed it as built on the principle of getting government out of the taxpayer-funded activity of collecting money that is put toward a political use.
It would prevent unions from negotiating the automatic deductions into labor contracts, forcing the unions to spend money and time collecting the tens of millions of dollars in contributions from hundreds of thousands of teachers, state employees and other public-sector union members.
Unions counter that they have offered to pay for the minimal cost of setting up the deductions and that other groups, such as the United Way, benefit from public-employees’ paycheck deductions.
That the bill is supported by this historic opponents of organized labor has made the confrontation that much more bitter.
The legislation has broad support among conservative groups and major business associations.
Some supporters link the legislation to their broader goal of making Pennsylvania a so-called right to work state where employees in unionized workplaces would not have to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Other supporters argue that the automatic deductions give unions an unfair advantage over rival groups that raise campaign cash.