In a historic election campaign, more than $1.3 million in union cash has gone to state Supreme Court candidates this year, a sum labor leaders say underscores a siege mentality that has them looking to the courts as a bulwark against the enemies of organized labor.

"They're looking and digging for ways to get rid of unions," Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, said of some state legislators.

From liquor-store privatization and pension changes to challenges to laws that set a minimum wage for public contracts and allow unions to negotiate contracts in private, unions fear a rise of proposals that would weaken them.

If one or more of those proposals passed when a Republican administration reigned in Harrisburg, the courts would have become the battleground.

For the first time since 1704, three Pennsylvania high court seats are on the ballot.

"For us right now, the Supreme Court is ground zero," said Joe Battaglia, treasurer of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, representing about 3,000 workers in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Unions see a worst-case scenario in Wisconsin, where collective bargaining and mandatory dues collection from private-sector workers were eliminated. Such legislation has been proposed in Pennsylvania but is unlikely to become law.

Republicans have a majority in the legislature, but the GOP's Southeastern Pennsylvania caucus is viewed as friendly to unions. In addition, Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, would surely veto any such bill.

Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), who proposed a bill that would keep government from withdrawing union dues from public workers' paychecks, was skeptical that unions were any more challenged now than in the past.

"I think it really hasn't substantially changed," he said. "Many of these proposals have been around for years, if not decades."

One local legislator who supports unions, Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), agreed.

"There's a philosophy in Harrisburg that paying workers anything makes job-creators sad," he said.

Experts say an increasingly active faction of the legislature isn't fond of unions.

"There seems to be more of a trend to take on labor," said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College.

Union leaders worry Wolf might compromise on issues important to unions for the sake of reaching a budget deal.

Seven candidates, three from each of the two major parties and an independent, are running for the three open high court seats. Governors and legislators come and go, but Supreme Court justices serve 10-year terms, and most justices are retained for another 10 years.

One Democratic candidate, Kevin Dougherty, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, is the brother of John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, the politically influential leader of the city's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local. Judge Dougherty has received more union cash than any other candidate, about $850,000, but his brother is doing more than rallying support for his family, union leaders said.

"To his credit," said Eiding, "we're pushing all three [Democratic] candidates."

John Dougherty did not respond to requests for an interview.

Kevin Dougherty has extensive experience in family court and said that if elected he would treat labor matters as he approaches all cases, mindful of protecting individuals' rights.

"I believe unions are representative of the working class and concerned about families," he said. "Pennsylvania is a working-class state."

He agreed some pending legislation in the state could be viewed as unfriendly to unions.

Republican court candidate Anne Covey, a Commonwealth Court judge from Bucks County, spent years as a labor lawyer and served on the Labor Relations Board.

"Labor, management, and investors all have a right to be heard," said Keith Naughton, her spokesman, who said the judge was not available for comment Friday. "Beyond that, it is not for the courts to say what policy should be."

Naughton noted Covey received support from unions, with two donating a combined $11,000 to her campaign so far.

Union members make up 12.7 percent of workers in the state, according to the Department of Labor. Slightly higher than the national average, the number has held steady for the last two years, though it is far lower than just a quarter-century ago, when membership among workers was about 20 percent.

Union support will go beyond cash, Eiding said. Members will mobilize get-out-the-vote efforts but will confront a challenge, he said, that bedevils court races annually. As important as they are, few pay them much attention.

At the FMC Tower construction site at 30th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia, union workers on lunch break said they knew little about the court candidates. So far there hasn't been much buzz about it at meetings, they said.

"You'll hear about it probably the next couple meetings as [the elections] get closer," said Ryan Roberts, 40, of Tabernacle, a member of the ironworkers' union.

They said they were, however, deeply concerned about their ability to make a living if unions are targeted.

"They like workers to be afraid of losing their jobs," said Eugene Noel, 63, of Hellertown, a steward for the ironworkers' union. "It's all about control and power."

Public-sector unions, in particular, say they are threatened by bills that would limit their ability to negotiate contracts privately and have dues automatically withdrawn from paychecks.

"We can't just sit back and sit on our hands and let this thing happen," said Dave Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13, which represents 65,000 public-sector workers statewide.

Cutler, the Lancaster County Republican, said he was not antiunion but did not want government collecting money to be used for political initiatives.

Leach, the Montgomery County Democrat, said the bills were devised to harm unions.

"Some folks in the legislature," Leach said, "I think the entire reason they're legislators is to oppose unions."

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