Democratic lawmakers walked out of a House Republican-run committee hearing on public sector unions Monday, claiming the hearing's focus was misplaced.
“This committee should be talking about ways to strengthen our workforce and getting people back to work," Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, said in brief remarks at the start of the hearing by the House Labor and Industry Committee, before leaving the committee room.
The meeting, organized by committee Chairperson Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, featured testimony from Americans for Fair Treatment, a national group that supports placing extra restrictions on public sector unions, as well as the Fairness Center, a public interest law center that's filed more than a dozen legal challenges against those unions.
Americans for Fair Treatment is currently part of the State Policy Network, a constellation of conservative think-tanks and advocacy groups funded by free market billionaires such as the Koch family. The Fairness Center was once a member.
Cox said at the start of the hearing that he had invited representatives from the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, as well as from the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. However, neither agreed to appear.
“The hearing is going to appear lopsided, it was not from a lack of effort on our side," Cox said at the start.
The hearing focused on six bills in the committee, four of which were introduced in the last month. They include:
- A ban on public sector unions acquiring the last four digits of employees' social security numbers, as well as contact information and addresses in contracts. AFSCME's current contact requires that the state share such information with the union
- A bill to require proposed collective bargaining agreements be shared with the public before they are signed, and make documents shared with the employer during negotiations open to public records requests.
- A ban on maintenance of membership clauses in public union contracts, which only allows union members to resign during a certain period of time. The proposal would not apply to contracts with the Department of Corrections.
- Requiring union recertification elections at least every six years for public sector workplaces; under current law, employees may file for such an election if they gather signatures from 30 percent of the union membership.
- Requiring that public employers regularly tell employees they do not have to be union members and tell non-members that they do not have to pay the union for its representation.
- Banning the automatic deduction of union political action committee from public worker's paychecks. The proposal would not apply to police and firefighters.
In a letter sent to the committee, five public sector unions, including PSEA and AFSCME, called the proposals “nothing more than an ideologically driven attack, funded by out-of-state billionaires and extremist organizations that seek to diminish unions and their role in the workplace."
They instead called for the entire General Assembly to use $5 billion in remaining federal stimulus funds to invest in hazard pay, child care, staffing shortages and school building repairs.
The hearing also comes two years after public sector unions were dealt a blow by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that public sector employees could not be required to join or pay for union representation as a condition of employment.
Since that high court decision, conservatives have hoped to capitalize on that decision to pass further laws regulating and restricting public sector unions.
“There is a real need for the General Assembly to get involved, particularly given that the courts have been slow to act after Janus," David Osbourne, president of Americans for Fair Treatment, said at the hearing.
However, public sector unions have remained a powerful force in Harrisburg with connections on both sides of the aisle. While they provide a lion's share of their backing to Democrats during campaign season, they've consistently supported friendly Republicans as well.
That has shown when the Legislature has attempted to pass bills eroding unions standing in the state. An effort to pass an earlier bill notifying employees of their right to not be in a union stalled in the House in 2019.
The House also held a vote in 2017 on the automatic political deductions ban, known among its supporters as “paycheck protection," in which 26 Republicans defected and voted the bill down.
Still, the General Assembly, in particular the House, has changed in recent years, and is growing more conservative, argue Capitol insiders.
Just eight of the 26 Republicans who voted against that proposal will still be in the House by January 2022.
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