Election 2018

How the governor’s race could shape the future of labor in Pennsylvania

Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner could not feel more differently toward public-sector unions.

32BJ members talk to voters in Philly during the 2016 election

32BJ members talk to voters in Philly during the 2016 election

Charles Mostoller / SEIU Facebook
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Gov. Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner have opposing views on essentially everything from abortion to schools. But the distance between the Democrat and Republican is perhaps best illustrated by their stances on public-sector unions — Wolf is a firm supporter, Wagner a sworn enemy.

The outcome of their race could have big implications for Pennsylvania unions, which are already facing an uncertain future.

Public-sector unions were dealt a serious blow earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled they cannot require non-members to pay fees. To unions and the Democrats they support, the Janus decision created a class of free riders who get the benefits of collective bargaining without paying for it. To conservatives, the ruling freed government employees and teachers from giving up part of their paychecks to unions that may not represent their views.

Wolf: Unions make our lives better

At an October get out the vote rally, Wolf was welcomed by chants and applause from Service Employees International Union members at their Philadelphia HQ.

“I am so proud to be here with all of you,” Wolf said. “If you walk away … from workers, you’re walking away from the central values of American society.”

Unions like SEIU and the Pennsylvania State Education Association are big donors to Wolf, which has led Wagner’s campaign to accuse the governor of being “bought and paid for by the public-sector unions that continuously hold our economy and our education system back from the reforms that we desperately need.”

“First of all, no one buys me,” Wolf said after the SEIU event. “Second of all, I’m proud to stand with teachers. I’m proud to stand with ordinary workers who support me.”

He defended PSEA in particular, saying the union negotiates for better wages and benefits for teachers. “Think of what we would have in the public school system if we go back to the days when we didn’t have unions,” he said.

People employed in unionized workplaces earn more per week than their non-union counterparts, federal data show. But the number of employees in that category has precipitously declined over the past few decades. As more states adopt right to work laws that weaken union power, wage growth has suffered for all workers, a recent study from the University of Illinois found.

Just 12 percent of Pennsylvania workers were unionized in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As governor, Wolf has been a friend of labor. He signed an executive order in 2015 that gave 20,000 homecare workers the right to appoint representatives to communicate (but not collectively bargain) with the state. They elected United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, which is a partnership between SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

That order led to accusations of backdoor unionization and a lawsuit from the Pennsylvania Homecare Association and Fairness Center, a legal nonprofit with a union focus and ties to the conservative Commonwealth Foundation. The Pa. Supreme Court sided with Wolf.

Wolf also vowed in October to veto any legislation “that attacks workers’ rights,” including a bill that would prevent non-members from making voluntary contributions through a payroll deduction.

“These folks have made our lives better,” Wolf said of public-sector unions. “And I think we need to recognize that.”

Wagner: Unions are power-hungry and detrimental

Scott Wagner would likely disagree with Wolf’s statement.

He supports making Pennsylvania a right to work state, which means all unions would be prevented from requiring non-members to pay fees for collective bargaining, and has blamed teachers unions for blocking meaningful pension reform in Harrisburg.

His attitude toward unions is not new. Wagner actually switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat for a brief time in 2002 to vote in a primary against Bob Casey in part because the now-senator is “a big union guy.

During his time in the state Senate, Wagner helped oust a majority leader who took contributions from public-sector unions. He infamously said labor unions are about “power and control” like Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin, and justified a questionable loan to a state Senate candidate by saying he doesn’t “have endless supplies of money like the public sector unions do.”

Wagner also defended his decision not release his tax returns by saying they could be used to attempt to unionize his employees.

“Scott’s been clear that he is against public sector unions utilizing dues for political purposes,” his campaign spokesperson said by email. (Member dues can be used for lobbying and political mailers to members; political action committees are funded by voluntary contributions.)

“He’s also been clear that the PSEA has stood in the way of more money going to the classroom by lobbying against true pension reform,” the spokesperson continued. “Scott has an education plan to invest in students and teachers, Tom Wolf’s education policies are to invest in the PSEA bosses that fund his campaign.”

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