5 Questions: Can Labor Unions Survive in Pennsylvania?

Rick Bloomingdale of AFL-CIO warns against anti-union legislation.

Rick Bloomingdale

A labor war is brewing in Pennsylvania. Bills are circulating in Harrisburg that would ban the state from deducting union dues from the checks of public employees. Supporters say it would empower workers by making it easier for workers to opt out of unions; the unions and their allies say the bill is intended to undermine labor’s political power in Pennsylvania.

Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, led a rally in Harrisburg Tuesday, bringing out several thousand workers to oppose the bill He spoke to Philly Mag afterward, about the bill, about labor’s strength in the state, and why public and private sector workers should be allies instead of enemies.

Some excerpts:

There is a proposed bill that would end the practice of the state collecting union dues for public sector employees. Why is this so alarming to you and your membership?

What it does is outlaw our right to negotiate dues collection at the bargaining table. It’s an attack on workers’ rights, and it’s an attempt to silence workers. They’ve worked 37 and a half or 40 hours or whatever it is their working week is, and that money is now theirs and they choose to have their dues deducted out of their paycheck. And we negotiate that, and the employers get something back to offset that. It’s a negotiation, a give and take.

One of the reasons that this historically has happened is because the employer didn’t want lots of union reps on the work site doing hand collection of dues. So we’ve gotten to this automatic deduction that’s negotiated.

Your website published a letter from the Commonwealth Foundation suggesting that the purpose of the legislation is to “slay labor unions in Pennsylvania.” This has been, until now at least, a pretty labor-friendly state. Are the stakes really that high?

They are that high. I mean, Wisconsin and Michigan were states with high union density as well. These billionaires, they come in and they they ask these conservative legislators to dance to their tune. And they do, for the money. And as a result, you get these things that weaken the voice of workers.

Just as an example, in Wisconsin, they want to move everybody to a seven-day work week with no pay on weekends, no guarantee that you’d have two days off in a row. It would be a straight seven-day work week. So we’ve always said, “We brought you the weekend,” and now you have right-wing politicians, as labor gets weaker in Wisconsin, trying to take away the weekends.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a second, or at least let me use Grover Norquist as devil’s advocate. He had an op-ed with Reuters here in the last couple of days, and he suggests that this legislation would empower workers by making it easier for them to choose not to pay union dues and let them choose whether they want union representation. Why is that notion wrong?

Well, because they’ve already chosen union representation. They voted the union in. And unlike elections of our politicians, where they need 50 percent plus one of the people voting, we need fifty percent plus one of the entire bargaining unit. So if you have a bargaining unit of one hundred people, we need f51 votes — not if only 60 people vote we don’t need 31 votes, we need 51 votes. That’s how union elections work.

So they’ve already made a decision that they want their dues taken out. We do get elected in these positions and Norquist, he’s just wrong.

Public unions in particular get a lot of grief these days. We’re in an era where private sector middle class salaries are shrinking or stagnant. There is, as a result of that perhaps, a fair amount of resentment at robust government sector salaries. And there’s also an additional concern about whether public sector pensions are unsustainable. Knowing that those sentiments are out there, what is your case to the public for the value of public unions?

Well, first of all, public salaries aren’t robust. The average public sector worker makes less than the average private sector worker doing the same kind of work. The idea that pensions aren’t sustainable, it’s only because workers’ wages have been stagnant. And the reason workers’ wages have been stagnant isn’t that our companies aren’t making enough — they’re sitting on billions of dollars of cash — the problem is that workers haven’t gotten a share of their increased productivity.

They pit worker against worker, union against non-union, black against white, woman against man, gay against straight — they are very adept at pitting workers against each other in order to make sure that they run off with the money. That’s the real problem here. It’s not some workers make a couple of hundred dollars a week more than other workers. The problem is you’ve got companies that are sitting on billions in cash, almost I guess it’s trillions in profits, and they are not sharing those profits with the workers who actually produced the goods that have made them all that money.

What are the chances that we are going to get a nuclear Wisconsin-style battle out of this debate?

Well, I hope not. We continue to work with Republicans and Democrats on this issue, and we hope that folks will see the truth. If they really do believe in the free market, then they should let employees and employers bargain without interference from the government to restrict which issues can and cannot be bargained. Why they would take something like dues deduction off the table, for management to get something back, is beyond me, but that’s what they want to do.

And, like I’ve said, we’ll keep pushing on this issue. We’re gonna keep fighting it.

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