Note: The author of this guest commentary, Christian Leinbach, is Chairman of the Berks County Commissioners and Chairman of the Board of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP).
On February 6th, Commissioner Mark Scott and I voted to support employee paycheck protection by passing resolution 41.14. With all the important issues facing Berks County, why have we chosen to bring attention to this particular problem? Because it’s the right thing to do, both morally and fiscally, for Berks County public employees and our taxpayers.
Employee paycheck protection is needed now in order to provide accountability between unions and their members and break up the built-in conflict of interest that comes from the government collecting union dues.
So how does the current system work? The county payroll system, paid for by Berks County taxpayers, automatically withholds union dues and even campaign contributions before employees ever see the money. The county collects it and sends the money to the unions’ bank accounts.
The process is similar to tax withholding, except our taxes fund government services such as road repair, school renovations, and county administration. In contrast, government union leaders are using this dues money to bankroll their own partisan political agendas and influence public officials.
In effect, taxpayers and county commissioners are acting as collection agents for the political causes favored by government unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents many Berks County employees.
The unions tell us that dues money is never spent on politics, but the five largest government unions in Pennsylvania, including the PSEA, AFSCME, UFCW, SEIU and PFT, reported spending nearly $5 million of dues money on political activities and lobbying in 2012. This data comes from the US Department of Labor Organizations Annual reports.
No matter how you look at it, the collecting of union dues and campaign money by the county creates a conflict of interest. Imagine if this hypothetical scenario had taken place during my reelection campaign in 2011. As county commissioner, I’m involved in negotiating with government unions when contracts expire. If these unions had chosen to support my campaign, I could have been negotiating the use of county resources to collect money that would then be given right back to me.
It would all be perfectly legal, but that doesn’t make it right. Rest assured that the status quo is not right.
I’m not questioning the right of unions to be engaged in politics. All American citizens have that right. Nor am I challenging their right to support or oppose candidates for county commissioner or any other level of government. I am saying the current system creates a clear conflict of interest and that the county and taxpayers should not be the ones collecting these dues.
The second major concern with the current system is the lack of accountability between unions and their members. Union dues are taken from members’ pay without them ever seeing the money. This is unlike other deductions such as insurance or flexible spending accounts, which are deducted based on the express direction of the employee.
Accountability occurs when the member has to write the check to the union. That is the point when they ask the question: “What are my dues actually being used for?” That doesn’t happen with public sector unions in Berks County or Pennsylvania, but it should.
Employees should have the right to question their union. Any organization, profit or non-profit is held accountable by its funders. If consumers don’t like a product or service, they stop buying it. If members of most organizations are unhappy, they withhold dues or contributions.
Public sector employees do not have that option. Now is the time to empower employees to make the contribution decision and hold their unions accountable.
If government unions are doing a good job for their members, they have nothing to fear from paycheck protection legislation. If they are not, members will be more empowered to become “fair share” payers and stop paying for their union’s political agenda. This is really why union leaders oppose paycheck protection: They are more worried about lost revenue when what they should really be concerned about is accountability to and fundamental respect of individual union members.
It is not an undue burden for government unions to collect their own dues, fees, and campaign contributions—every other political organization in the state does. Why should government sector unions be given a special exception?
Ultimately, paycheck protection leads to a more transparent collective bargaining process, helps take politics out of collective bargaining, gives union members more control over how their money is spent on politics, and frees up county resources to be used for the public interest.
That is why Berks County is calling on our County Commissioner’s Association, Governor Corbett and our State Senate and House Delegation to stand with us and support employee paycheck protection for Berks County taxpayers and public sector employees.
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Christian Leinbach is the Chairman of the Berks County Commissioners and the Chairman of the Board of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.