By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
The battle over the so-called paycheck protection legislation has gone local in Pennsylvania.
About two weeks after hundreds of union workers flooded the state Capitol in Harrisburg to protest two bills that would force public-sector labor unions to collect their own dues, commissioners in Berks County approved a resolution supporting the state legislation.
Berks County Chairman Commissioner Christian Leinbach, a Republican, also serves as president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and hopes to see the organization throw its support behind the legislation with a resolution of its own.
“There are other counties that are looking at it actively,” said Leinbach, who indicated he’s reached out to several county leaders.
DEDUCTION BATTLE GOES LOCAL: Some Pennsylvania counties have waded into the fray over the paycheck protection legislation that’s divided state lawmakers.
Lehigh County commissioners went a step farther than Berks County. In late January, they requested their county executive negotiate an end the government’s responsibility of collecting union dues.
“It prevents the government from sort of stepping out of the shadows and picking the pocket of the person who worked so hard to earn that pay,” Lehigh County Commissioner Scott Ott, a Republican, said last month.
The local moves build on the debate over the proposed legislation that flared up in late January after closed-door talks among lawmakers leaked out.
Labor unions quickly coalesced against the legislation, describing it as an attempt to silence labor unions and the working class. About the same time, the right-leaning think tank, the Commonwealth Foundation, began touting paycheck protection as a good-government reform that would prevent public resources from being used to collect money that unions could use for political purposes.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair — the prime sponsors of paycheck protection bills in their respective chambers — first stated their case during a Jan. 27 news conference. The next day, representatives from organized labor all across Pennsylvania piled into buses to converge upon the Capitol to blast the proposals and lobby lawmakers.
David Fillman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13, said it looks as if local government employers are jumping on a “topic of the day” that hasn’t been a long-standing issue.
“We’re hoping this is a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing, but we have to deal with it,” Fillman said.
Right now, unions can negotiate the deduction of dues into contracts with their public employers. The government then deducts the funds for the unions. Cutler and Eichelberger’s legislation aims to end that practice and have unions collect the money themselves.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said he’s surprised that county officials want state lawmakers to eliminate one of their bargaining chips before they sit down at the negotiating table.
“I thought those local government guys were supposed to be for small government and local government control?” Bloomingdale said.
Union leaders have pointed to deductions that go to the United Way or insurance companies and say deep-pocketed conservatives from outside Pennsylvania want to cripple organized labor – similar to what happened in Wisconsin when that state curbed collective bargaining rights.
While the Philadelphia City Council already has condemned the legislation, supporters argue the bills won’t fracture the relationship between unions and their members. Leinbach said union leaders simply fear being held accountable by the rank-and-file members, who would have to cut their own dues check to their respective labor groups.
“Our employees deserve better. They deserve the right to question their union from time to time,” Leinbach said. “If I’m not happy with what I’m getting for the money, maybe you need to come get it.”
So far, the legislation remains in committee.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, chairman of the House State Government Committee, said Cutler’s bill would pass that hurdle. Despite that, Metcalfe said he doesn’t want to move the legislation forward until he works with sponsors and leadership to guarantee it will go to a vote.
“Once we have the green light, we’re ready to move it,” Metcalfe said.
Fillman hasn’t heard whether the legislation will move, but said the union hasn’t “let down its guard.”
Even if the state doesn’t take action this year, unions might have to take on the issue at the local level.
The previous time at the bargaining table, Berks County dropped plans to end the payroll deductions only in deference to asking unions for a pay freeze, Leinbach said. Now he’s ready to take the issue to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which could put forth a resolution supporting the legislation.
While a contingent is “aggressively” supporting paycheck protection, it remains to be seen whether a resolution would pass through the entire association, Leinbach said.
“At the end of the day, the results are what they are,” he said, adding he didn’t want to speculate on whether any Democrat would support the resolution. “If a majority supports it, great. If they don’t, it’s the voice of the counties.”
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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