A bill that targets state unions and should be an easy sell to GOP lawmakers in the House has instead been stopped by a debate over how much to push a powerful interest group that has dug in its heels.
At issue is legislation sponsored by Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, that requires public employers to annually remind employees that they don’t have to belong to a union to keep their jobs.
After passing out of committee on a party-line vote last month, House Republicans haven’t been able to reach internal agreement.
Klunk contends her bill “just lets [workers] know what their rights are” in light of last year’s Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ruling, which reversed 40 years of labor law precedent. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down public sector agency fees — or mandatory payments non-union members made to their workplace’s union for bargaining purposes.
While Klunk’s bill seems small on the surface, public sector unions say it could portend worse laws for organized labor. And their legislative allies are wary of provoking a bigger fight.
“It’s like whacking a hornet’s nest,” Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a pro-labor Republican from Bucks County, told the Capital-Star. “I don’t see why we need to pile on to that decision.”
‘As vanilla as it gets’
Klunk’s bill repeals old laws that allowed for unions to deduct agency fees and includes the notification requirement. A previous version would have put the notice reminding members they don’t need to be in a union on every paycheck, but Klunk said she removed it to garner more support.
Klunk said she is still trying to educate her fellow lawmakers on what the bill does and doesn’t do. Some don’t need much convincing.
“It’s benign. It’s common sense. It’s about as vanilla as it gets,” Rep. Jerry Knowles, a rank-and-file Republican from Schuylkill County, said. “I thought it would sail through with no problem.”
The bill also has the vocal support of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg.
“The one point of information employees don’t have is clarity that they don’t have to join,” Stephen Bloom, the foundation’s vice-president and a former GOP House member, said.
According to an August 2018 survey commissioned by a number of conservative groups — including the Commonwealth Foundation — 71 percent of surveyed public sector union members were aware of the Janus decision and its impact.
A slim majority — 51 percent — thought it was a positive development. A quarter of respondents said they planned to quit paying dues, while nearly 7 in 10 said they would continue to pay.
The last number could explain why state public sector unions haven’t seen a nose dive in membership since Janus.
Steve Catanese, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668 — which represents some 19,000 state human services workers — said membership is actually a bit up since this time last year.
“It’s clear now that people wanting to drop from the union isn’t the risk,” Catanese told the Capital-Star. “The way public service is now, all our agencies are under siege.”
Membership in AFSCME Council 13, which represents 67,000 state employees, is above where it was last year, Executive Director David Fillman said.
Fillman said the union saw Janus coming years ago and spent its resources to bring agency fee payers into the fold as dues paying members.
Both Catanese and Fillman oppose Klunk’s bill.
Fillman called it “another poke in the eye” for public sector unions, while Catanese said the bill “would have a chilling effect” on union membership.
While the current bill may be different, Catanese thinks the since-scrapped paycheck reminder was a tip of Klunk’s hand.
“It’s not really language meant to show a choice,” Catanese said. He fears the bill is a preview for “right-to-work” laws, which eliminate all agency fees — even for private sector unions.
Some Republicans like DiGirolamo question the need for the bill at all. They point to the action of the state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which eliminated agency fees soon after the Janus ruling.
PSEA had 6,500 fee payers before Janus and most declined to join the union, spokesperson Chris Lilienthal said.
While Janus may be law of the land now, the ruling doesn’t require a bill like Klunk’s, according to Mike Duff, a former Teamster, National Labor Relations Board investigator, and labor law professor at the University of Wyoming.
“In my opinion, Janus does not compel the two notification features of the bill,” he said in an email.
Playing both sides
Some labor supporters are happy to chalk up the opposition to Pennsylvania’s reputation as a union state, but it also belies political power.
Many political action committees connected with state public sector unions actively support both Democratic and Republican candidates for the Legislature — including in competitive races.
For example, PSEA gave $109,000 to support Democratic House candidates in 2018, while handing $43,000 to Republicans, according to an analysis of campaign finance data by the National Institute on Money in Politics. AFSCME Council 13 gave just under $79,000 to Democrats and a little less than $13,000 to Republicans. The AFL-CIO also regularly endorses a handful Republican incumbents each year.
That support shows on big votes.
In December 2017, House Republicans fell 12 votes shy of passing so-called “paycheck protection” — which bans the automatic deduction of voluntary union PAC contributions from public employee paychecks — despite having a 115-member majority.
Even with heavy turnover last November, 12 of the 26 Republicans who voted against paycheck protection are still in the General Assembly. If all voted with every Democratic member, that would make a 105-member majority.
In another show of organized labor’s power, it took two tries in the winter of 2018 for the House to pass a bill setting up a drug formulary for injured workers — a bill that many state unions, including one that represents first responders, opposed.
But even if Republicans are able to garner the votes to get Klunk’s bill through the House and Senate, the legislation will likely meet the same fate as the formulary bill — vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
In an email, administration spokesperson J.J. Abbott said Wolf “opposes any effort that discourages or seeks to hinder” an employee’s union rights.