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New report argues it’s time for public-sector union reform in Pennsylvania

By Anthony Hennen

new report from the Commonwealth Foundation argues that Pennsylvania can increase economic growth and give workers more choice and freedom in their life – if the General Assembly reforms its government union like Wisconsin did a decade ago.

“Government unions have enormous political power in Pennsylvania, due to a host of special legal privileges granted in state law,” report authors Nathan Benefield and Elizabeth Stelle note. “Government union executives use this power to trap government employees in unions, deny them alternative representation, and lobby against fiscal and educational reforms needed to make Pennsylvania more prosperous.”

Benefield and Stelle argue that Pennsylvania should change state law by:

  • Requiring regular recertification elections. 
  • Banning the automatic deduction of dues and PAC contributions from government employees’ paychecks.
  • Empowering government employees to choose whether or not to belong to a union.

The report only comments on public sector unions, not private sector unions.

“When you strengthen individual worker rights, there’s a lot of other things that come from that,” said Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation. “What’s really interesting about Wisconsin’s model – those changes changed culture…you saw some lasting permanent changes.”

When Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed, government workers could stop paying dues to the union and leave – and leave they did. “Between 2011 and 2020, government union membership fell by more than half (from 187,000 to 84,000), and government union density – that is, the percentage of government employees in unions – fell from 50 to 22 percent,” the report noted.

While the report doesn’t advocate all of the Wisconsin reforms, such as reforming collective bargaining, the report focuses on expanding choice for workers.

“We are not calling for some of the broad-based changes to collective bargaining; we’re looking at more specific worker rights like being able to leave the union whenever you choose, or being able to regularly elect the union that supports you,” Stelle said.

Much of Pennsylvania’s labor laws are in state statute, rather than rules written into collective bargaining contracts. Change will require the General Assembly to modify the law, Stelle noted. Doing so would give workers more flexibility, for choosing the union they want to belong to, for leaving a union if they prefer, and for rewards on the job such as merit-based pay.

“This is a really good moment for us to take a look at our public-sector labor laws and make sure that they are empowering our individual workers,” Stelle said.

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