As a politically engaged union activist, Ben Danson — a veteran history and government teacher in the Rose Tree-Media district's Penncrest High School — has long been an enthusiastic participant and donor when it comes time every fall for the state's largest teachers' union to recommend a slate of candidates.
Although he's a self-described progressive, active with the Delaware County Democrats, Danson said he's understood why the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, has always backed a handful of GOP incumbents — even in an era when the natural alliance between unionized teachers and the Democratic Party has been growing stronger. It's estimated that a third of local teachers are Republicans, Danson told me, and GOP candidates who got PSEA backing were typically political moderates in a time when centrists still retained some clout in Harrisburg.
But watching the state legislature fall under the increasing sway of far-right Republicans like House Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny County — backer of anti-labor bills such as a proposal to block payroll deductions of government workers' union dues — has made Danson angry that PSEA's strategy might help keep people like Turzai in power. When local PSEA leaders held a press conference last month to recommend GOP state Sen. Tom McGarrigle and two Delco Republican incumbents in the state House, Danson wrote on Facebook that "this actually makes me want to vomit."
"I can't separate the Republican Party's anti-union and anti-public education stance (state and national) from these few moderate R[epublican]s who we have chosen to endorse," the Delco teacher told me in a subsequent email interview. "By endorsing them we endorse the status quo."
Nationally, one of the big political story lines of 2018 is the supposed "blue wave" of angry teachers and other blue-collar union activists determined to sweep Democrats into office, but here in Pennsylvania that supposedly azure tsunami is splattered with red. And the PSEA is hardly alone among organized labor in backing Republicans in key races that will determine control in Harrisburg in a year when Democrats expect their biggest gains in a generation.
For example, the state's biggest labor umbrella organization, the AFL-CIO, is backing Delaware County's McGarrigle as well as two other Senate GOP incumbents and eight Republican candidates for the state House. In Delaware County, the Electricians Local 98 — longtime fiefdom of labor leader John Dougherty, considered a kingmaker for Philadelphia Democrats — has spent a surprising $500,000 backing Republicans in Delaware County, including disgraced state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, not seeking re-election after two women accused him of sexual harassment and abuse.
The ideal of the pro-labor Republican is a long-held notion in Pennsylvania, where blue collar workers and their unions were historically a political force that politicians of any stripe would want on their side. In a bygone era when forging a bipartisan coalition was a requirement for getting anything serious done in Harrisburg, having friends and allies on both sides of the aisle was Politics 101.
"Generally speaking, our position is that public education is not a partisan issue," Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the PSEA, told me, in describing the organization's political recommendation process that which involves candidate questionnaires, with decisions on local races made by regional activists. "We need to elect legislators from both parties that put schools and teachers first."
Times have changed, however. As Danson and other rank-and-file critics of PSEA practices note, electing even a handful of Republican incumbents means not just continued power for hardliners like Turzai but another stint as chairman of the influential State Government Committee for Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, avowed enemy of organized labor.
It was Metcalfe who honored Labor Day in 2017 by posting this to his Facebook page: "Labor Day created by unions, of course it would be celebrated by avoiding work! The public sector labor unions are one of the greatest threats to economic freedom and prosperity in Pennsylvania!"
And some political observers note that even so-called moderates in today's Republican Party who pay lip-serve to labor increasingly end up bucking their union patrons –whipped into line on key votes by their right-wing party leadership.
McGarrigle, in gaining the PSEA endorsement, won praise for enacting changes backed by teachers in the state Keystone Exams and a recent vote for increased education funding, which had lagged under a series of GOP-led legislatures. But the senator's critics note the Delco Republican also opposed public unions on a bill (SB 645) they said hampered their bargaining rights, while supporting charter-school legislation also backed by a big donor, charter mogul Vahan Gureghian.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, or PFT, backs a slate that's more heavily Democratic than the PSEA, although it did endorse two Republicans this year — Reps. Thomas Murt of Montgomery County and Gene DiGirolamo of Bucks County — whom PFT president, Jerry Jordan said have been supportive. Jordan noted that Democrats — even some from Philadelphia — backed charter-school legislation opposed by his union. "I'd hope having a Democrat-controlled state House and Senate would make many of the changes that we need — but there's no guarantee of that," he said.
Attorney Christine Reuther chairs the Democratic Party in Nether Providence Township and also has an impressive union pedigree as the grand-niece of the late Walter Reuther, the mid-20th Century leader of the United Auto Workers, associated with middle-class prosperity and his fight for civil rights as a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Reuther said the days of more aggressively pro-labor Republicans like Chester's Dominic Pileggi — former state Senate Majority Leader, now a judge — are gone, replaced by politicians egged on by right-wing talk radio and the base's contempt for unions. "Given how they feel about organized labor and collective bargaining, it's harder to cut deals with individuals" who'll by "marginalized" by the GOP for any pro-union votes, she said. She also pointed to the reality that moderate Republicans seen as too friendly to labor and teachers face the risk of a primary from their right.
But 2018 poses a unique challenge. The two political parties seem further apart on issues than any time since the run-up to the Civil War. The recent, bitter brouhaha over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh hardened those divisions — and probably further energized already-angry female voters in the Philadelphia suburbs. That development that has some insiders wondering if November's "blue wave" could even be powerful enough for the Democrats to pick up the 21 seats they'd need for a miraculous takeover of the state House.
They leaves union leaders in a bind. Do they make the safe choice and make sure to keep a few friends on the Republican side who may be able to help on an issue or two, even as those lawmakers face pressure from party leaders to further curtail workers' rights? Or do they bet the house on the long shot of a Democratic surge that — with the likely re-election of Democratic Gov. Wolf — could put pro-labor policies back on the front burner in Harrisburg?
The outcome of that bet will be closely watched by rank-and-file members, who more often see modern Republicanism as a threat to unions and wonder why their leaders don't fully agree. One of them is the history teacher Danson, who's given generously to PSEA campaign efforts in the past. "I am going to see how things turn out in November," he said, "before I make a final decision on whether or not to renew my contributions."