Pennsylvania’s Wisconsin Moment

We already had it, and the unions won

The future of the labor movement seems to hang in the balance in Wisconsin, and the national press is busy speculating where public employee unions will get whacked next. Ohio? Indiana? Maybe even Pennsylvania? Don’t expect the commonwealth to be at the forefront of any union-busting wave, no matter how much Koch money comes this way. It’s been almost entirely overlooked in the Wisconsin mess, but lawmakers in Harrisburg have already seriously considered limiting collective bargaining rights here in Pennsylvania back in the summer of 2009.

The movement did not last long, though. As soon as the unions caught on to what was happening, they obliterated the reforms overnight.

Still, the episode is instructive. It showed there are pols in Pennsylvania on both sides of the aisle who would dearly like to limit unions’ collective bargaining rights on big issues like pensions and health care, which are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s chief targets. But 2009’s battle suggests that labor in Pennsylvania remains strong enough to snuff out any such movement in its infancy.

It was Philadelphia’s fiscal crisis that prompted the whole debate. Remember? City Council had denied Mayor Nutter’s request to raise property taxes. So the mayor was forced to go hat in hand to Harrisburg, where he asked for the state’s permission to temporarily raise the sales tax and defer pension payments.

Some Republicans in the State Senate sensed an opportunity in the city’s crisis to deal a blow to the labor movement and shore up municipal pension funds across the state. Instead of simply granting Philadelphia the relief it sought, the senate passed a bill that overhauled the pension systems for local workers in cities and towns across the commonwealth.

The bill would have effectively killed unions’ collective bargaining rights over retirement benefits in those municipalities with stressed pension systems, like Philadelphia’s (and also Pittsburgh’s, Scranton’s, Bristol’s, York’s and so on).

The bill seemed to come out of nowhere. Sure, pension reform had been debated for a long time, but its prospects had seemed dim. All of a sudden there it was, and Democratic legislators were presented with what was for them a grim choice: bail out Philly and gut collective bargaining, or preserve union power and risk the mass layoff of cops and other city workers in Philadelphia.

Organized labor was caught unawares, and for a stunning moment, it looked like the bill might pass. Gov. Rendell was ready to sign it, telling the Inquirer‘s editorial board at the time “what the senate did is basically sound … it’s very, very difficult to oppose it.”

The state House was controlled by Democrats back then, but would Philadelphia’s delegation side with Republicans in order to the get the city the budget relief it so desperately needed?

As it turns out, no.

Public employee unions across Pennsylvania began applying intense pressure to state senators and representatives. Arguably the most effective lobbying was done by Fraternal Order of Police lodges in counties and cities with far more Republican leanings than Philadelphia. Unlike the white-collar unions, cops and firefighters have plenty of friends on the GOP side of the aisle in Pennsylvania. As soon as the union lobbying began, the house rejected the senate’s bill, and the senate eventually agreed to rescue Philadelphia while leaving pensions more or less alone and not touching collective bargaining rights at all.

Now a lot has changed since the summer of 2009. The Tea Party was in its infancy back then, and Republicans have since gained control of both chambers in Harrisburg and the governor’s office. So perhaps an attack on collective bargaining in this more conservative political environment would be more successful now than in 2009.

But considering that a more limited version of the Wisconsin reforms failed here less than two years ago, despite the cover of far more serious financial crisis and a Democratic governor’s support, it seems unlikely. And Gov. Corbett apparently realizes that.

“This is Pennsylvania, not Wisconsin,” Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley told the Morning Call last week. “We’ve had Act 195 [the collective bargaining law] since 1970, and I anticipate that we will continue to have it … I don’t think a bill [repealing it] has a chance in Pennsylvania.”