Labor unions keep strong grip on Pennsylvania politics
HARRISBURG – On a sunny afternoon in early July, Fredrick Anton was finishing his lunch at a popular Harrisburg café.
As Anton, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and a longtime prominent voice in conservative circles of Pennsylvania politics, headed for the door he nearly bumped into Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for a wide range of labor unions.
“Congratulations,” Anton said, shaking Bloomingdale’s hand, an acknowledgement of political victories scored by the unions in the recently-completely budget season in Harrisburg.
“We’re not done yet,” Bloomingdale said in return.
It was hard to tell exactly what he meant.
In Pennsylvania and across the nation, the fight between business groups and their Republican allies against big labor and its Democratic defenders surely will continue. But something in Bloomingdale’s tone seemed to indicate a deeper significance. At a time when powerful labor unions in other industrialized states were watching their influence wane, the significance of unions in Pennsylvania politics is not done, at least not yet.
June provided a clear example.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett decided early in 2013 they would make a push for two of the unions’ sacred cows during the first half of the year. They launched efforts to privatize the state liquor system, which employs about 5,000 unionized workers, and to overhaul a deeply indebted state pension system by reducing future, unearned pension benefits for state workers and public school teachers.
Though the liquor privatization plan cleared the state House in March without a single Democratic vote, it never found the necessary support among Senate Republicans after Democrats put up a unified opposition.
The pension reform plan Corbett pitched in February barely made it out of the starting gate before Republicans and Democrats were declaring it dead. Lawmakers decided it was too heavy of a political lift to slice away at current employees’ benefits, even though doing so is one of the few ways the state can hope to reduce a $47-billion-and-growing unfunded pension obligation.
Neither fight is over by a long shot. Corbett and Republican lawmakers vow to keep carrying the torch for pensions and liquor into the fall legislative session that is set to begin in September.
“We’re grateful that our members’ jobs are secure for now, but the fall is going to be here quick,” said Wendell Young, president of the United Food & Consumer Wokers, Local 1776, which represents many of the public employees working in the state liquor stores.
There was no more outspoken opponent of Corbett’s liquor privatization plan than Young, who marshaled his yellow-shirted union members around the Capitol with the tenacity of a field general during the final weeks of the liquor debate.