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Public sector union employees deserve more power over their leadership

House Bill 950 is a threat to democracy and the individual rights of government workers.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, along with teachers, union members, parents, and elected officials, on Jan. 8, 2020.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, along with teachers, union members, parents, and elected officials, on Jan. 8, 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In a stunning admission of incompetence, Jerry Jordan, the boss of Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, admitted he only recently started requesting paid family leave for his members. Meanwhile, Philly teachers are left struggling to cobble together time off for maternity leave.

If I were a Philly teacher having money siphoned off my paycheck to fund Jordan’s salary, I would be livid and demand more control over my union leaders. Alas, this is not what teachers and other government sector union employees are going to get if Pennsylvania House Democrats have their way.

A proposed constitutional amendment, House Bill 950, passed the Pennsylvania House this week. The bill grants union executives like Jordan the constitutional power to “bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work.”

The amendment goes on to strip power from lawmakers by prohibiting any laws to be passed that would impact the “application of agreements between employers and labor organizations that represent employees requiring membership in an organization as a condition of employment.”

The bill cleverly prevents lawmakers from passing laws that protect individual government workers’ right to decide whether or not they want to join a union. It would also remove the power of lawmakers to intervene on behalf of government union workers if union bosses negotiate in bad faith.

That happened to public union workers in Erie in 2021. Local union members successfully sued their union when they discovered union executives had misrepresented the employer’s offer. The lawsuit revealed union executives hid a deal that would have provided workers who retired before age 65 a $400 million subsidy to bridge the gap in their health-care coverage.

HB 950 is a threat to democracy and the individual rights of government workers. Of course, Democrats aren’t selling the proposed amendment that way. The bill, introduced by State Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Philadelphia) and Nick Pisciottano (D., Allegheny), is being called the “Workers’ Rights Amendment.” The cosponsors claim that the bill will “support workers in using their numbers to secure better pay, hours and working conditions.”

Philadelphia teacher and former Philadelphia Federation of Teachers member Rochelle Porto told me that’s “a total misrepresentation.” According to Porto, HB 950 will diminish the individual rights of public union members. The proposed amendment undermines the ability of the legislature to do its job and allows collective bargaining agreements to trump state law, giving union executives more power than the people elected by voters.

Porto said this would be a devastating setback to public union employees who already struggle against bosses like Jordan. When she became a teacher in 1999, she said she was told to join a union as a condition of her employment.

She decided to quit the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in 2010 after her local union rep’s ineptitude while representing her during a dispute. Worse, she said, she found out her union bosses were using the dues and political action committee money they took from her paycheck to support politicians and causes she abhorred.

“They never offered me a choice or a chance to voice my own opinion,” Porto told me. She felt powerless.

Even if Porto succeeded in resigning from the union, she still had to pay the union fees — that is, until the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court found that nonunion government workers cannot be required to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service — doing so is a violation of members’ free speech and freedom of association.

The attempt to alter the Pennsylvania Constitution by passing HB 950 will further diminish the rights of union members in favor of union executives.

According to an analysis by the Commonwealth Foundation, government unions have spent more than $190 million on politics in Pennsylvania since 2007. In 2021-2022, government union PACs spent over $20 million in Pennsylvania, including $13.1 million directly to candidates and partisan PACs. More than 99% of the contributions to candidates for statewide office went to Democrats.

It’s a long road to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution. The legislature has to pass the proposed amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then it would be up to the voters to decide via ballot measure. Hopefully, this is enough time to stop this amendment from causing harm to public sector union workers.