The Squeeze: Government Unions' Grip on Pennsylvanians

MARCH 5, 2012 | Policy Report by PRIYA ABRAHAM, CARA DOCHAT

Pennsylvania's government unions wield tremendous political influence and advance policies that harm the commonwealth's taxpayers, children, and even their own members. Pennsylvania is a forced union state, meaning even workers who are not official union members must pay fees to the union as a condition of their employment. A single union usually has monopoly bargaining power with a government unit, such as a school district, preventing employees from choosing a different union or from bargaining individually. And most government units are "agency shop," requiring non-union workers to pay a fair share fee to a union in order to keep their job.

Pennsylvania law also grants government unions the unique and special privilege to use government payroll and administrative systems to deduct dues and fair share fees automatically from workers' paychecks-money workers earn, but never see. Automatic deductions-at taxpayers' expense-help bankroll six-figure salaries for union bosses, political lobbying, and expensive conferences and junkets while employees have little or no say in how unions use their money.

Government employees were granted the legislative privilege to unionize in 1970, and since then, a number of Pennsylvania laws have increased union power while violating workers' freedom of association. Half of Pennsylvania's government workers are unionized, amounting to nearly 300,000 voluntary members and involuntary fee payers in the four largest government unions: the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Government unions often lobby for policies that work against the best interest of their members. The PSEA-the state affiliate of the National Education Association-advocates for policies that hurt both teachers and students. The "last in, first out" policy, for example, means teachers are furloughed or laid off on the basis of seniority rather than merit, shoving some of the best, most effective teachers out of the classroom.  The PSEA also opposes the expansion of proven programs that serve the individual learning needs of children and give families options beyond the traditional district-based public schools.

Last year, the PSEA spent $4.2 million on lobbying and political activity, an increase of about 60% from the prior year. Members' dues fund activities such as a $22,000 gubernatorial debate video, public surveys on education initiatives such as vouchers, and advertising campaigns on public education.

Current government collective bargaining laws have enabled government unions to drive up taxpayer costs in the form of unsustainable salary, benefit and pension increases at a time when state and local governments face significant budget shortfalls. In Gov. Tom Corbett's 2012-13 proposed budget, payment into state pension plans will increase to $1.6 billion, up from about $1 billion the previous year. By 2016, projected state and school district pension payments will balloon to $5.6 billion, an increase of more than 400% in just five years. The most recently negotiated state contract for AFSCME Council 13 and SEIU Local 668 adds further injury, giving workers an 11.2% pay increase over four years, and requiring minimal employee contributions to health care costs compared to what private sector workers pay.

For the benefit of taxpayers and children, Pennsylvania lawmakers should enact several proven reforms that respect employees' rights at work while empowering public officials to manage their workforce and budgets.  These reforms include ending use of taxpayer resources to collect dues and fees for lobbying organizations, requiring unions to receive permission from union members before using dues or fees for political activity, repealing laws that compel government workers to pay fees to a union as a condition of employment, and relieving unions of having to represent any non-dues or non-fee paying employees. 

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