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Commentary: SEPTA strike shines light on Pa. labor laws

Priya Abraham is a senior fellow for the Commonwealth Foundation Here is something no Philadelphian wants to hear: New Yorkers have it better.

Priya Abraham

is a senior fellow for the Commonwealth Foundation

Here is something no Philadelphian wants to hear: New Yorkers have it better.

While those words border on blasphemy in the City of Brotherly Love, when it comes to the recent SEPTA strike, they're true. The strike that left thousands of Philadelphians stranded with no way to work, school, medical appointments, and more would have been illegal in New York, leading to stiff penalties for the unions representing workers from NYC's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Why? In that state - and in 28 others - state law prohibits any public workers (except those covered by specific federal law) from striking.

Yet, in the last two months alone, Pennsylvania has witnessed two major public-sector strikes. Aside from SEPTA, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties set up its picket line in October, leaving college students concerned about the future of their education.

Ask anyone what caused the strikes, and you'll likely hear "health-care costs" among the top answers. But many states don't allow government unions to negotiate health-care costs. Even some blue states limit the benefits government unions can negotiate.

For example, facing unaffordable health-care costs for municipal workers, Massachusetts in 2011 passed reform giving unions two choices: (1) agree to a 30-day limit on negotiating new, less expensive health plans, and workers can net some of the resulting savings; or (2) employees can join plans provided by the state's lower-cost benefits administrator. By 2014 - just three years later - the changes had yielded about $250 million in health-care savings.

Unfortunately, in Philadelphia - and across Pennsylvania - our public-sector labor laws all too often leave union members and the public interest behind. Far from protecting workers' rights, Pennsylvania's public labor laws trap workers in a system that forces them to pay the union simply as a condition of employment and doesn't even ensure they can select the union that supposedly represents them.

That's why the Keystone State received an abysmal D grade in the Commonwealth Foundation's first 50-state report analyzing and grading public-sector labor laws for their impact on workers' rights and taxpayer dollars.

We looked at 11 measures that directly impact taxpayers and government employees, including: Are government workers allowed to strike? Are government union contract negotiations open to the public? Can public resources be used to collect political money for government unions? Are government unions required to hold elections to continue representing members? And are workers forced to financially support a union as a condition of employment?

Twenty-eight states scored a C or higher, while 22 ranked D or F. In almost every area, Pennsylvania fell short. For example, 10 states have some form of paycheck protection to prevent public resources from being used to collect government unions' political contributions. Yet although 67 percent of Pennsylvania registered voters support paycheck protection, it has not yet become reality in the commonwealth - but it's moving closer.

One state, Wisconsin, requires government unions to hold regular elections to continue representing their members. Yet, of Philadelphia's 8,000-plus public schoolteachers, not one had the chance to vote for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) to continue as their union. The PFT became the collective-bargaining representative for Philly teachers in the 1960s and has never stood for reelection.

Public-sector labor laws aren't simply obscure statutes with few consequences. They cut to the core of our liberties, including freedom of association and freedom of speech. Additionally, they deeply impact workers' rights, taxpayers' budgets, and, as we've seen, SEPTA riders' transportation.

But there is good news. Momentum is on the side of workers' rights. In the last five years, Americans have seen an unprecedented sweep of public-sector labor reforms. More states are embracing right-to-work laws that give workers a choice, while others are protecting workers who choose not to join a union. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania took a major step toward contract transparency when Gov. Wolf signed a law requiring that the cost of state government union contracts be made public before they are enacted.

From giving workers a voice to helping prevent Philadelphians from again being stranded, Pennsylvania is ripe for many of these same reforms that will ensure our public-sector labor laws benefit not just a few, but everyone.