Time for Paycheck Protection in Pa

Note: This commentary was first published in the The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The government liquor monopoly, the pension time bomb, and Philadelphia’s public school crisis—what do they have in common? Each of these public policy disasters was supported by government unions. What’s more, taxpayers help collect the funds that union leaders use to stand in the way of commonsense reform—and union members themselves want it to end.

According to a recent survey, 80 percent of union households agree that taxpayer resources should not be used to collect campaign contributions. But, contrary to popular belief, public sector union dues and campaign money collected with taxpayer resources are legally being spent on political ads today.

No other political organizations have this right, nor do public officials. Indeed, John Perzel, the former Pennsylvania House Speaker from Philadelphia, was jailed in part for using public resources for politics.

Paycheck protection legislation being considered in Harrisburg proposes to end this unequal treatment and empower public sector workers to have more control over how their own money is spent.

Jodie Kratz, a Dauphin County special education teacher and decade-long union member sees how union leaders are lobbying against the interests of workers and joins the majority of union households who support paycheck protection. She told the Commonwealth Foundation, “I’m encouraged many union members feel this way. If they are doing the job right and being honest and have integrity, I have no problem reimbursing the union.”

Yet government union leaders are quick to argue that collecting their own money would somehow weaken workers’ rights and destroy the middle class.

The truth is, union leaders rarely seek members’ input when it comes to how their dues money is spent. For example, union leaders consistently defend the wasteful state liquor monopoly even though 55 percent of union households support liquor privatization. The UFCW 1776 even spent $1 million of its members’ dues on dishonest ads to kill privatization efforts last year.

As for Pennsylvania’s $50 billion pension time bomb, in 2010 the PSEA encouraged lawmakers to delay making pension payments, thereby exacerbating the problem. As recently as last year, union leaders denied the existence of a pension crisis and falsely claimed retirees would lose their pensions under proposed reforms.

But the threat to taxpayers is real. Additional pension costs are equivalent to nearly $900 in additional taxes per household each year, or the salaries of one third of Pennsylvania teachers. Some union leaders—those representing Philadelphia Catholic school teachers—have actually embraced pension reform, recognizing the long-term benefits for school employees.

Even worse, teachers union leaders are fighting to keep at-risk children trapped in violent and failing schools by working to cut charter school funding and halt charter expansion—despite the 44,000 students waiting in line to attend their school of choice. And in a move harmful to the city’s young teachers and instruction quality, union leaders are suing the School District of Philadelphia for hiring back teachers based on merit rather than seniority.

The American Federation of Teachers even took out full-page, color ads in several major state newspapers this week proclaiming Gov. Corbett “closed neighborhood schools” in Philadelphia through massive education funding cuts. But the truth is, state funding for schools is at an all-time high and the mythical $1 billion in “cuts” was just temporary federal stimulus money expiring. This latest smear was also paid for by teachers’ dues collected using taxpayer resources.

None of this surprises Kratz, who believes paycheck protection would give union members more say over how their dues money is used. “If teachers had paycheck protection, more would pay closer attention to how the money is spent, accountability would improve . . . They [unions] would be more effective at helping teachers.”

A majority of union households agree. A full 65 percent of union members believe paycheck protection will empower individual teachers and workers to have greater control over how their money is spent on politics.

It’s time government union leaders listen to the workers they claim to represent.  It’s time lawmakers remove the unfair political privilege that keeps unions unaccountable to members and taxpayers by passing paycheck protection.

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Elizabeth Stelle is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.