HARRISBURG – On a sunny afternoon in early July, Fredrick Anton was finishing his lunch at a popular Harrisburg café.
As Anton, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and a prominent voice in conservative circles of Pennsylvania politics, headed for the door he nearly bumped into Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for a wide range of labor unions.
"Congratulations," Anton said, shaking Bloomingdale's hand, an acknowledgement of political victories scored by the unions in the recently-completely budget season in Harrisburg.
"We're not done yet," Bloomingdale said in return.
It was hard to tell exactly what he meant.
In Pennsylvania and across the nation, the fight between business groups and their Republican allies against big labor and its Democratic defenders surely will continue. But something in Bloomingdale's tone seemed to indicate a deeper significance. At a time when powerful labor unions in other industrialized states were watching their influence wane, the significance of unions in Pennsylvania politics is not done, at least not yet.
June provided a clear example.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Corbett decided early in 2013 they would make a push for two of the unions' sacred cows during the first half of the year. They launched efforts to privatize the state liquor system, which employs about 5,000 unionized workers, and to overhaul a deeply indebted state pension system by reducing future, unearned pension benefits for state workers and public school teachers.
Though the liquor privatization plan cleared the state House in March without a single Democratic vote, it never found the necessary support among Senate Republicans after Democrats put up a unified opposition.
The pension reform plan Corbett pitched in February barely made it out of the starting gate before Republicans and Democrats were declaring it dead. Lawmakers decided it was too heavy of a political lift to slice away at current employees' benefits, even though doing so is one of the few ways the state can hope to reduce a $47-billion-and-growing unfunded pension obligation.
Neither fight is over by a long shot. Corbett and Republican lawmakers vow to keep carrying the torch for pensions and liquor into the fall legislative session that is set to begin in September.
"We're grateful that our members' jobs are secure for now, but the fall is going to be here quick," said Wendell Young, president of the United Food & Consumer Workers, Local 1776, which represents many of the public employees working in the state liquor stores.
There was no more outspoken opponent of Corbett's liquor privatization plan than Young, who marshaled his yellow-shirted union members around the Capitol with the tenacity of a field general during the final weeks of the liquor debate.
But if relatively small fish like liquor privatization and tinkering with state pension plans cannot be accomplished here, it is hard to believe Pennsylvania will ever see the type of wholesale changes that have been seen elsewhere in the business-labor battle.
In other states, Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures have rolled back union privileges and weakened the political power of labor unions in places where it hardly seemed possible just a few years ago.
Wisconsin's Act 10 of 2011, which limited collective bargaining for unionized public employees, was followed by similar legislation in Ohio and by Indiana's passage of right-to-work legislation, which prevents unions from requiring workers to join their ranks before getting a job in certain industries.
In Pennsylvania, similar proposals have barely gotten out of committee. Even limited measures that are opposed by unions — like finally ending the state monopoly on liquor sales — have come up short. Modest changes to the state's prevailing wage laws never got close to passing the state House.
Anton said he would like to see Pennsylvania become a right-to-work state, and would like to see lawmakers pass legislation banning the automatic deduction of union dues from employees' paychecks, as Michigan did last year. But he's been fighting those battles for decades with little progress.
"I feel those issues are much more polarizing as far as the unions are concerned, then, for example, privatizing the liquor stores," Anton said last week.
This year, Corbett didn't even get help from the unions on the one issue where it looked like he might — transportation funding.
In the months leading up to the budget, the AFL-CIO and other building-trades unions publicly voiced their support for the governor's plan to spend $2 billion annually on highways, bridges and mass transit. But when it came time to push the bill through a tricky vote in the state House, the top unions did very little of the behind-the-scenes work that gets big bills across the finish line. Their support was expected to leverage some Democratic votes for the transportation bill, which were necessary if it was going to pass.
While the anti-privatization unions were out in force, the building-trade unions largely sat on their hands during the final weeks of June.
And at least one union that represents liquor store workers — not Young's group, but the smaller Independent State Store Union, or ISSU — began lobbying Democrats to oppose transportation funding in the hopes of killing the liquor privatization bill. Because that's the way things work in Harrisburg.
The seeming supremacy of the public sector unions over the historically more powerful private sector unions caught some by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn't have.
Thirty years ago, 70 percent of Pennsylvania's 1.35 million unionized workers were in the private sector. As manufacturing waned and government grew, that ratio has changed. In 2012, nearly 50 percent of the state's unionized workers were in the public sector.
In the same period, the overall number of unionized workers has slipped from 1.35 million to fewer than 850,000 — less than 15 percent of all Pennsylvania workers. Still, the state maintains cultural attitudes that are tipped towards the unions in many ways.
"I don't think the unions — other than the public sector unions — have much power in this state," Anton said. "I think it's because of union traditions in this state; the tradition of unionism in the families of so many people in Pennsylvania."
For Leo Knepper, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, the problem is not that Republicans in Pennsylvania are ineffective in taking on unions. It's that they are complicit in the union-driven political order of the state.
"There are enough Republicans who are rented by the unions that they can squash anything that is remotely pro-taxpayer," Knepper said. "The Pennsylvania GOP is not based on ideas or principle, it about maintaining powers."
His group has made a name for itself in Republican circles by challenging – and defeating – moderate and left-leaning Republican lawmakers. Candidates endorsed by CAP must be willing to forgo a state pension, must support right-to-work legislation and hold other core conservative beliefs.
Knepper acknowledges that Pennsylvania is a few steps behind other states, where similar campaigns to elect more conservative lawmakers had time to build-up a "back bench" of supporters before governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker or Ohio's John Kasich had the necessary legislative support to embark on a union-busting agenda.
But that does not let Corbett off the hook, he says.
"In other states, you have guys who showed some leadership at the top level, that's not something you're seeing from Tom Corbett and the legislative leaders," he said.
But Young, the ever-energetic head of the liquor store employees' union, sees it differently.
Those anti-union measures in other states were passed "during a very narrow window following a wave of conservative victories" in the 2010 elections, Young said.
That was, of course, the same year Corbett took office and Republicans seized full control of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
"I think that wave has broken and rolled back out," Young said.
If so, the wave never reached Pennsylvania. The unions here remain high and dry.
Boehm can be contacted Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a conservative national nonprofit journalism organization.