RALLY TIME: Pennsylvania union workers plan to speak out against paycheck protection at the state Capitol on Tuesday, a scene that will belie the fact that some public employees support the measure.
By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A throng of union workers plan to converge upon the state Capitol on Tuesday with an ominous warning: Shadowy, big-money, conservative groups have forced their agenda into Pennsylvania in an attempt to cripple organized labor.
That assertion has played a central role in the battle between unions and the conservatives that contend legislation prohibiting the government from deducting employee dues, fair-share fees and political money for public-sector unions would draw a line for the ethical use of taxpayer resources.
But beyond the heated political rhetoric, there are people such as Matt Eason and John Cress. Both teach in Pennsylvania schools and support efforts to stop the automatic union deductions from their paychecks. They see the issue through a simpler prism — one of personal choice.
“Really it’s taking my say away,” Eason, a teacher in the Avon Grove School District near the Delaware state line, said of the deductions. “I feel like I’m forced into this without (the union) even caring about why I don’t want to do this.”
Eason first ran into the issue of dues deductions and fair-share fees, which fund the cost of representation that employees receive regardless if they’re union members, after the school board approved a new contract last year with the requirements.
“Anything that somebody forces you to do, there should be a red flag,” he said.
A teacher from Lawrence County, Cress pays only his fair-share fee, and doesn’t mind that after working in the corporate world without any protection. He does take issue with paying dues, which can’t be used to directly fund political candidates but can be used for so-called “soft” advocacy measures such as lobbying legislators or sending out mailers.
“It shouldn’t just be taken and given to something that you may or may not believe in,” Cress said.
Cress has personal experience with just that, he said, after finding financial contributions linking the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.
The SEIU has connections to Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest supplier of reproductive health services. That left Cress, a Christian and the father of an adopted daughter, conflicted and wishing he knew earlier he could pay just the fair-share fee, he said.
“I can’t get past that,” Cress said.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, wants to address a different kind of conflict with his legislation, which would not end the practice of public-sector union members paying dues, but would force the labor groups to collect the funds and other fees on their own.
Coming into office after lawmakers passed a controversial midnight pay raise, Cutler said he’s focused on reform and believes the government should not be responsible for collecting money that could be used for political purposes. He lined up political fliers paid for by the PSEA as examples.
“We should not be the middle man or the collection agency on behalf of these organizations,” Cutler said.
Union leaders have countered that Cutler’s legislation — and a companion piece in the state Senate — is not about good government, but rather about silencing unions. And, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO contended in a news release, it’s fueled by “wealthy, powerful, out-of-state special interests.”
David Fillman, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13, said recently the proposal could force labor unions to deal with “nuclear damage” caused by outsiders who have raised a specious argument about the need for a more ethical government.
“There was a hewing cry from taxpayers that we have to have this stop. That’s total (B.S.),” Fillman said.
Though the American Legislative Exchange Council does have model policies similar to Cutler’s legislation, the lawmaker said he didn’t just regurgitate his proposal from the conservative group.
Cutler added he “laughed out loud” when questioned if the conservative siblings David and Charles Koch were behind his proposal and called support of his legislation “organic.”
The Manufacturer & Business Association threw its support behind the bills Monday, while the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, has been particularly vocal in its support of the legislation.
Last year, the organization penned letters seeking donations for “Project Goliath,” a campaign to “starve the giant” through the type of dues-centered legislation that proved particularly effective in Wisconsin, where public-sector labor unions have been decimated by new law curbing the collective-bargaining power.
State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the paycheck protection legislation in Pennsylvania would have a “terrible” effect on unions, and it’s distracting from more important issues such as education funding and unemployment.
Gov. Tom Corbett has said he’d sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, though that might be a difficult road. Costa said nearly all Senate Democrats are opposed to the legislation.
The bills are still in committee. Despite the recent attention paid to the issue, the proposals might remain there for the foreseeable future.
Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, said the legislation “is still under active discussion” and that “no final decision has been made to move either the House bill or the Senate bill at this time.”
The dues fracas will continue with Tuesday’s rally, though Eason and Cress aren’t likely to be spotted in the crowd. They’re at least partial evidence that amid allegations that big-time conservative interests have fueled much of the debate over paycheck protection, there are still individuals at ground level who support it.
Cress knows his stance might be considered part of a right-wing conspiracy, but his justification is simpler.
“A lot of people, they think that you’re just going renegade,” Cress said. “That’s not the case. It just means you’re choosing not to fund the politics.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
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