Unions & Labor Policy

Paycheck Protection Primer

January 29, 2016 | Commentary by Commonwealth Foundation

Paycheck protection ends the use of public resources to collect government unions’ political money.

Under current law, state and local governments (including school districts) take both union dues—a portion of which is used for politics—and campaign contributions out of workers’ paycheck and send the funds directly to union leaders.

Paycheck protection will benefit union members, protect taxpayers, and has bipartisan support.

Restoring Teachers' Rights

MAY 17, 2016

Teacher Linda Misja is a religious objector to unionism, and as such, can donate the equivalent of her fair share fee--otherwise owed to the union--to charity. But four years ago, the Pennsylvania State Education Association rejected Linda's charity of choice and instead has been holding her money in a union-controlled escrow account.

Today, the House State Government Committee voted in favor of HB 267 to protect religious objectors, like Linda, by eliminating a legal loophole that lets union leaders roadblock employees’ charitable contributions.

Under current law, public employees who object to union membership on religious grounds must donate the equivalent of their “fair share” fee, otherwise owed the union, to a non-religious charity they and the union agree upon. The PSEA, however, has repeatedly rejected teachers’ charities of choice simply because they don’t support the union’s political ideology.

Yet, a list of charities pre-approved by the union spent $27 million on political activity, according to the Fairness Center, which has filed lawsuits against the PSEA on behalf of Linda and two other Pennsylvania teachers.

Unfortunately, the law gives no clear instructions in the event that a union refuses to accept the employee’s charity of choice. If a dispute ensues, the money may be placed in a union-controlled escrow account indefinitely.

HB 267, sponsored by Rep. John Lawrence, would protect the right of religious objectors to give their money to a recognized 501(c)3 of their choosing--even if it doesn't align with the ideology of the PSEA.

CF President and CEO Matt Brouillette explains the treatment of religious objectors is just one more instance of teacher unions putting their interest before the interests of teachers:

Government unions already enjoy the perk of using taxpayer funded payroll systems to collect their union dues, which they then use for political purposes. And unions already trap their members, letting them leave the union only during short windows of time. As if this weren’t enough, union leaders also want to control nonmembers’ paychecks.

Today’s vote is an important first step in protecting the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania’s public employees.

posted by GINA DIORIO | 00:39 PM | Comments

Senate Protects Excellent Teachers, Sends Bill to Wolf

MAY 9, 2016

In a crucial victory for both students and teachers, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act passed the Senate this afternoon with a vote of 26 to 22.

HB 805, championed by Rep. Stephen Bloom, provides that public school teachers are retained based on effectiveness in the classroom—not merely seniority—in the unfortunate event of furloughs. Today’s passage ensures Pennsylvania’s best teachers remain in the classroom, helping every child reach their maximum potential.

Reform to rigid seniority mandates is long overdue in the commonwealth. A strict, seniority-based system punishes young, effective teachers who excel in the classroom but have not racked up sufficient service time. This is plainly unfair. Every teacher should be evaluated based on their talents as educators, not just their years of service. 

That’s why HB 805 is so important. The legislation now moves to Gov. Tom Wolf, whose options are clear: Side with the teachers’ unions which oppose the bill, or side with public school students and excellent teachers—both of whom stand to gain tremendously from the governor’s signature.

Sounds like a no-brainer.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 01:56 PM | Comments

Pension Debt Grows by Another Billion

MAY 3, 2016

Last week the State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) announced its total unfunded liability increased from $18.44 billion in 2015 to $18.79 billion.

In truth, SERS' unfunded liability grew by about $1 billion this year due to artificially low employer payments. A more accurate calculation comes from the SERS actuary, The Hay Group. They estimate an unfunded liability of $19.45 billion as of December 2015.

Artificially low employer payments aren't the only reason the unfunded liability has grown. SERS assumes a 7.5 percent rate of return for investments, but the actual rate of return has been far less, only 0.4 percent in 2016.

Keep in mind that SERS liabilities represent less than half of the overall pension liability taxpayers will pay. The larger Public School Employees' Retirement System is carrying a $37 billion liability for a total of $56 billion.

Clearly, letting Act 120 work means more debt for taxpayers. Giving state workers greater control over their retirement is the only way to boost worker security and stop the flood of red ink.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 00:32 PM | Comments

Historic Victory for Transparency

APRIL 14, 2016

Gov. Tom Wolf just signed Senate Bill 644, empowering the Independent Fiscal Office to estimate the cost of government union contracts before they are finalized.

Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of CF responded:

For years, the government has negotiated billions of dollars in contracts with public sector unions, many of which donate heavily to the very politicians they’re negotiating with. As a result of this legislation, costs negotiated in secret will come to light before, not after, contracts are ratified. We commend Sen. Folmer and members of the state Legislature for championing this critical reform.

Gov. Wolf has been a vocal advocate for transparency reform. He should be applauded for walking the transparency talk and putting people before public union interests. 

Brouillette continued,

We hope the governor applies this accountability measure to contracts he is currently negotiating, even if they are resolved before the law goes into effect in 60 days. Such action would resonate by providing greater transparency to all Pennsylvanians.

The contracts under negotiation could add significant costs to the 2016-17 budget, putting more pressure on state lawmakers to raise taxes.

Meanwhile, there are two more contract transparency reforms making their way through the legislature.

  • SB 645, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Stefano, requires public sector collective bargaining agreements to be posted on state, school district, or local government websites two weeks prior to signing.
  • SB 643, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Aument, requires public notice and open meetings when public sector collective bargaining agreements are negotiated.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 03:33 PM | Comments

Transparency Bill Awaits Governor’s Signature

APRIL 6, 2016

Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled his “Government that Works” plan to reform contracting practices and increase transparency in government. Now, the state Legislature has given Wolf a chance to back up his rhetoric with action.

Today, the Senate passed Senate Bill 644, which would empower the Independent Fiscal Office to put a price tag on government union contracts before their ratification. The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.

“We congratulate SB 644 sponsor Sen. Mike Folmer for championing this vital transparency reform,” commented Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation. “Governor Wolf now has the opportunity to walk the walk on government transparency and accountability reforms.”

Wolf is negotiating contracts worth a combined $3.6 billion with 18 government unions, several of which donated millions of dollars to his election campaign. These contracts cover salary and benefits for state workers as well as special union privileges like release time and automatic payroll deduction for campaign contributions.

“If the governor is serious about ending conflicts of interest and fostering ‘government that works,’ he’ll sign this bill and shine light on contract costs,” Brouillette said.

Last year, taxpayers learned about $23 million in additional costs in a one-year contract with AFSCME only after the contract was finalized. Since 2000, average government worker benefit costs tripled from $12,732 to nearly $39,000. Total compensation per employee reached an average of nearly $93,000 in 2014-15.

If you would like to see how your senator voted on contract transparency, you can view the roll call here.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 01:13 PM | Comments

Big Win for Transparency

MARCH 22, 2016

One year ago, Governor Tom Wolf began negotiating contracts worth billions of dollars with state employee unions. Despite his rhetoric about improving government transparency, these negotiations took place behind closed doors. To make matters worse, six of these government unions contributed more than $2.6 million to Wolf’s campaign.

Thankfully, yesterday's passage of SB 644 is a huge step toward revealing the price of these contracts before taxpayers are asked to foot the bill.

SB 644 garnered wide support in the House with a 108-83 vote and returns to the Senate, where it passed last summer by a wide margin. The bill provides taxpayers with an IFO (Independent Fiscal Office) estimate of the costs associated with each collective bargaining proposal before a ratification vote.

Why is this legislation so critical? Case in point: Last April, a contract was negotiated that added $23 million to the state budgetand taxpayers only discovered this news weeks after it was a ratified

Unfortunately, rapid increases in state employee costs are nothing new. Since 2000, average government worker benefit costs tripled with total compensation per employee reaching an average of nearly $93,000 in 2014-15.

Two more contract transparency reforms are also under consideration. SB 645, which requires collective bargaining proposals be posted online before a ratification vote, and SB 643, which opens collective bargaining negotiations to the public.

CF President and CEO Matt Brouillette noted the similarity between SB 644 and the governor's recent calls for transparency,

Last week, Gov. Wolf called for expanded government transparency, claiming, ‘special interests still wield too much power and influence in Harrisburg’. Now, Wolf has a chance to put his money where his mouth is.

Just last year, Wolf's spokesman explained that the governor is,"keeping an open mind on the bills and would review them on the merits if they reach his desk.” Wolf should back up his rhetoric on transparency by supporting this legislation. 

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 03:29 PM | Comments

Ghost Teacher Costs Allentown Millions

FEBRUARY 25, 2016

Allentown School District is no stranger to financial troubles. The third largest public school system in the commonwealth has been in financial distress for years. In 2011, the district laid off 112 teachers, in 2013, 100 teachers, and in 2014, 60 teachers lost their jobs. So it's understandable that former school board member Scott Armstrong and taxpayer Steven Ramos were upset to learn that the district paid more than $1.3 million since 2000 in salary and benefits to the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president, a teacher who doesn’t teach.

“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” said Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”

The current AEA president is Deb Tretter. When Tretter left the classroom in 2009, her salary jumped from $63,245 to $73,373. In addition to the pay pump, Tretter receives a taxpayer-funded salary, insurance, benefits, pension credits and accrues seniority as if she were still employed as a teacher.

The Morning Call reports:

"Now, Armstrong, along with fellow Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos, is taking his fight to court and asking a judge to end the long-held practice of releasing the union president from classroom duties.

Armstrong and Ramos . . . filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Commonwealth Court with the help of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm with offices in King of Prussia and Harrisburg.

They are requesting that the union reimburse the district — with interest — for salary, benefits and pension credits, which they say exceed $1.3 million since the practice began more than 25 years ago."

The lawsuit isn’t questioning the need for a full-time union president, but it is questioning why taxpayers should pay for another organization's employee.

A poll posted at Lehighvalleylive shows overwhelming support for the lawsuit’s argument that taxpayers should not be paying a union employee. Here are the poll results as of this morning: 

Allentown schools are struggling to meet basic needs like elementary music and art classes and updated textbooks. In this environment, it seems reprehensible that district leaders choose to spend tens of thousands each year on a ghost employee.

Watch a full report from WFMZ:


posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 09:23 AM | Comments

The Pretense of Democratic Unions

FEBRUARY 22, 2016

Control over the largest local teachers union in Pennsylvania is up for grabs.

The Caucus of Working Educators (WE) is challenging the leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) because they believe the current leadership is incapable of getting things done.

At first glance, this looks like a democratic process, and it is up to a point. PFT members can challenge and choose their leaders to keep the politically powerful in check. However, this election will only determine who controls the levers of power in the union. The legitimacy of the union's right to represent teachers who prefer different representation will not be on the ballot.

For these teachers, the latest leadership election is of little comfort. No matter who wins, the PFT will continue to represent all members, regardless of their opposition to the PFT as an organization. This is a big problem.

Unions purport to be democratic institutions, but they function more like entrenched bureaucracies, protected by complicated laws from competition. Under Pennsylvania law, unions are not required to stand for re-election once the state grants them the right to act as the sole representative for public employees.

As a result, more than 99 percent of public school teachers never had an opportunity to vote for the union currently representing them. This is not what democracy looks like. Public employees must be able to hold their entire union accountable, not just the union leaders.

If lawmakers want to shift the balance of power from union executives to union members, they can require unions to stand for regular re-election—instead of putting the onus on workers to navigate their way through the time sensitive and labor-intensive union re-election process.

Mandatory union elections is just one of the reforms we call for in our recent policy brief, Bringing Democracy to Pennsylvania Labor Unions. Independent bargaining—the ability of union members to negotiate their own compensation—is another way to empower workers.

If unions were focused on winning re-election, they would be more inclined to worry about their members’ needs, rather than spending millions in dues on political causes, many of which alienate their own members.

posted by BOB DICK | 03:51 PM | Comments

Taxpayer-Funded Union Politics in Philadelphia

FEBRUARY 18, 2016

It's no secret that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) plucks teachers out of the classroom to work as full-time union operatives. These individuals are known as ghost teachers—and their salaries are paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers.

How much? Philadelphia ghost teachers made more than $1.7 million in 2014.

The union is authorized by the School District of Philadelphia to pull up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to conduct full-time union work. According to the PFT, these teachers typically serve as information officers. But reporting from Evan Grossman of Watchdog.org explains that some ghost teachers work in an explicitly political capacity:

Hillary Linardopoulos, who has not taught in a classroom since 2009, “coordinates much of our political activism and legislative involvement,” according to an op-ed penned by union members that endorses its current leadership team going into an upcoming internal election. Since leaving the classroom, her taxpayer-funded salary has almost doubled to $91,156.

The PFT says it reimburses the district for ghost teacher wages, but documentation supporting that claim was not immediately available from the union.

The article continues:

Candidates running for positions on the PFT’s collective bargaining team have all been on leave from the classroom for years, according to documents obtained by Watchdog. Eight ghost teachers running for office earned a total of $874,305 last year working full-time for the union. On average, those eight individuals have been on leave for an average of 16 years. They’ve also received annual raises, despite a three-year wage freeze while the district and union have failed to negotiate a new teachers’ contract.

Union President Jerry Jordan and Vice President Arlene Kempin have been on leave for more than 30 years and have worked exclusively for the union longer than they taught in the classroom.

Fortunately, the battle to end this abusive system is underway in the state Capitol. House Bill 1649, championed by Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, prohibits employees on public school payroll from leaving the classroom to work full-time for unions. Sen. Pat Stefano intends to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

Rather than subsidizing union lobbying efforts, it’s time for students and taxpayers to get what they deserve: good teachers in the classroom.

posted by JAMES PAUL, CODY STRYKER | 09:40 AM | Comments

Attack Ads Funded by Taxpayer-Collected Union Dues

JANUARY 22, 2016

Seeing a political attack ad on TV is nothing new. You probably roll your eyes and change the channel. But what if you learned you unwittingly helped put that ad on the air? Most Pennsylvanians would be shocked—and for good reason.

Since the end of December, the union-backed political group America Works USA has spent more than 1.1 million to air misleading ads slamming the state budget as "garbage" and parroting the Wolf administration's false claim that the budget "cuts education."

America Works TV & Cable Ad Buy

12/29/15 to 1/19/16

Media Market














Targeted by District




In a fact that would surprise many, the ads are funded with union dues and collected by taxpayer resources. This political privilege is partly responsible for facilitating America Works’ deceptive messaging campaign. Here is what we know about the group’s funding sources thus far:

  • AFSCME Council 13, representing Pennsylvania state workers, gave $115,000 directly to America Works USA.
  • The National Education Association, the parent union of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, gave $1 million directly to America Works USA.
  • The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) funds America Works USA.Government unions gave nearly $6.5 million to the DGA, according to the latest annual reports filed with the U.S Department of Labor.
  • Last year, the American Federation of Teachers—the parent union of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers—sent just under $1.5 million to the DGA. AFSCME National Headquarters sent more than $4 million.
  • Unions finance these contributions from the mandatory dues (not voluntary PAC contributions) of teachers and other state workers using publicly funded payroll systems.

This America Works’ union-dues funded misinformation campaign is not its first. Back in July, the group ran ads targeting lawmakers who opposed the governor’s massive tax increases. Regrettably, the ads aren’t the only instance of dues being used for political purposes. This is a pattern, not an anomaly.

Taxpayers should not be required to help fund blatantly political activities. And union members should be given the ability to hold their unions accountable if they feel their dues money isn't being spent appropriately. Paycheck protection legislation, which passed the Senate last year, can achieve both goals.

It’s time Pennsylvania require unions to collect their own attack-ad money and stop using public resources to bankroll their politics.

posted by GINA DIORIO | 11:17 AM | Comments

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