Union workers pack Pennsylvania Capitol for protest


By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — All across the state, union workers piled onto buses — some well before the sun rose Tuesday morning — to make the trek to the state Capitol, where they packed the rotunda stairs, filled the balconies and still left busloads of their allies left outside when there was no more space to stand.

Those union workers arrived in force to challenge “paycheck protection” legislation they said will cripple organized labor and silence the voice of the middle class. It marked, so far, the peak of the political battle that promises more fireworks as unions and conservatives go head-to-head on whether the state should deduct dues, fair-share fees and political money for unions from public employees’ paychecks.

Standing before a sea of fellow union employees, Bill Jones, a corrections officer at Lancaster County Prison, called the legislation a “distraction from a failing governor and a distraction from the real issues that people care about.”

“I’m not the problem, workers aren’t the problem and paycheck deductions aren’t the problem,” he said. “This is discrimination, this is revenge and this is wrong.”

NO ROOM: With so many workers protesting at the Capitol, union leaders said several busloads of other members were left outside.

Union leaders used the rally to repeat what’s become a well-worn narrative about paycheck protection: That the legislation is fueled by deep-pocketed conservatives hungry for another victory of organized labor after wins in Wisconsin and Michigan.

“It is nothing more than outside billionaires coming into Pennsylvania to try to silence workers. That’s all this is,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

Two bills — one in the state Senate and one in the state House — would force unions to collect their own political money, dues and fair-share fees, which pay for representation all employees receive regardless if they join a union.

The sponsors of the legislation, state Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, have both said they’re concerned about the government deducting funds for unions after several lawmakers landed in prison for using taxpayer resources for political purposes.

Union officials have responded by pointing out other paycheck deductions, such as money taken out for the United Way or insurance companies. They also said the deduction of dues isn’t forced upon members, but part of the negotiating process that often ends with employers receiving union concessions for agreeing to automatic deductions.

Counter-protesters sprinkled amid the union workers held signs decrying automatic deductions. Some contained messages comparing the issue to the political corruption scandal of years past, contending unions have received a “get out of jail free” card under current protocol.

Even before the rally started, the free-market think tank Commonwealth Foundation issued a news release titled, “Big Labor Scares Workers, Storms Capitol.” President and CEO Matthew Brouillette argued unions wanted to keep an “unfair legal privilege” that helps fund political speech.

“Pennsylvania’s government union bosses are using scare tactics and false pretenses to defend the indefensible,” he said.

The sheer number of union members dwarfed any counter-movement, though. Electrical workers, boilermakers and state liquor stores joined representatives from several other labor groups.

Tuesday’s rally even drew officials from unions representing police and firefighters, even though the intent is to exempt them from the legislation. Danny Drumm, a firefighter from Altoona, said that’s designed to “divide and conquer” union members.

“They think that we will sit back and watch as our brothers and sisters in the public-employee unions are attacked. They think that we will remain silent as they assault the entire labor movement in Pennsylvania,” Drumm said, adding that unions would stand behind elected officials who support them.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, urged gathered workers to continue lobbying efforts in their hometowns, a sign the heated battle could turn into a protracted one, too, as the legislation sits within committees.

Gov. Tom Corbett has said he’d sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. Cutler has acknowledged there’s plenty of work to be done to get it through the General Assembly.

Norman Blakey, a steward for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23 in Canonsburg, donned his yellow union T-shirt to join the hundreds of other workers at the Capitol, where he said he believed the legislation is part of the attempt to privatize state liquor stores.

Blakey was more than willing to represent his union, but lamented that workers had to make the trip in the first place.

“It’s a bad, bad scene,” he said, “and it’s a shame that we had to come down to address this.”

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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