The self-created image of public sector unions as the protector-of-the-little guy is being expertly debunked by a new reform group. A series of legal actions brought by the Harrisburg-based public interest law center, The Fairness Center, reveal an ugly pattern of union bullying and trampling over laws and individual rights. The cases show that unions are really about squashing potential competitive challenges (like charter schools) and forcing workers, who oppose joining a union, to pay dues to support political candidates and activities - a direct violation of state law.
The revelations, stemming from the court proceedings, are beginning to weaken the stranglehold the public sector unions have had on the legislative process as well.
The Fairness Center was established two years ago with this hope in mind by giving those victimized by the unions a say in court. Fairness Center Board member and President of the Commonwealth Partners, Matthew J. Brouillette, explains:
“There are two ways to establish and protect individual rights, in the Legislature and in the courts. Our mission is to represent those who otherwise would have no say in court.”
Brouillette is quick to add that The Fairness Center is not anti-union as some have claimed, but is rather devoted to the idea that “people should have a right to associate with whomever they like.”
One modestly paid group of people, the home health care workers, almost didn’t get that chance. Last year, two powerful public unions, SEIU and AFCME, appealed to their ally, Governor Tom Wolf, to issue an executive order that would allow the unions to extract dues from thousands of home health workers.
Commonwealth Court ruled two weeks ago that the order violated not only state law that bars home workers from collective bargaining, but the separation of powers doctrine. Post & Schell’s James J. Kutz, who represented the industry in the case, said that even if the labor relations law were not violated, “the Governor made law by creating the exclusive bargaining representative, providing for election and certification by a private party.”
In court, Judge Patricia A. McCullough abruptly ended the masquerade when she said to the attorney representing the governor:
"Counsel, there's an old saying: If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it's a duck.”
The public sector unions are used to operating with such impunity in Pennsylvania that in their promotional pamphlets they encouraged the home care workers to “unite” by applying “for membership in and designate United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania (UHWP) – “…a joint partnership of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, 1199C/NUHHCE, and AFSCME Council 33, to represent me for purposes of any meet and confer sessions which may occur between representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and UHWP.”
Former Governor Ed Rendell, a union friend, tried a similar maneuver just before leaving office in 2010. Then, the court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the executive order. Rendell quickly dropped it. Governor Wolf issued his order in February of 2015, one month after he took office. The administration said it’s unsure of its next step given that it was disallowed in court.
David R. Osborn, President & General Counsel of The Fairness Center, who has lived in the right to work states of Florida and South Carolina, says he is shocked at the behavior by public sector union officials in Pennsylvania.
“It’s really more of a cultural problem here than a legal one,” Osborn said. “They (unions) create the perception that they are on the side of the taxpayers when actually they are in many instances working against them.”
In a separate legal fight, the Center is taking on another imperious move by Governor Wolf, who last April demoted the chairman of the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia, William J. Green IV. Green committed the unpardonable sin of authorizing more charter schools in Philadelphia, a threat to under performing public school teachers and their schools.
Osborne said that the governor clearly exceeded his powers.
“The law is very clear that the chairman can’t be removed except for malfeasance, and even then he has to be given a chance to defend himself against the charges,” he said. “All Green received was a letter telling him he was demoted.”
The governor replaced Green with Marjorie Neff, no friend of charter schools. Arguments on the case are scheduled for October 19 in Commonwealth Court.
The Center celebrated another recent victory when on September 8, the Commonwealth Court ruled that the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board shirked its duties when it refused to investigate a college professor’s complaint over the use of union dues to promote then-candidate Tom Wolf for governor.
The 1970 Public Employee Relations Act forbids the using union dues to support political candidates. Again, the unions have ignored the law for decades.
PMA President David N. Taylor noted that the Fairness Center is already having an impact on the legislative process as well.
In June, the House Education Committee cleared legislation, HB 2125, that would prohibit the unions from pulling teachers from the classrooms to work for union causes, including political campaigns. This “ghost teacher” practice gained notoriety from a suit filed in Allentown by the Fairness Center that revealed that since 2000, more than $1.3 million intended for educating students has instead funded the salary and benefits of the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president. Another lawsuit is pending in Philadelphia, where it’s alleged that last year 16 ghost teachers earned $1.5 million while working for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“For too long, the bureaucrat unions have used their inordinate influence to expand government and block reforms that could save the taxpayers billions,” Taylor said. “By defending the rights of citizens, taxpayers, and captive union members, The Fairness Center is reminding everyone that the government exists to serve the people, not the other way around.”
The need for reform is urgent and the list is long. Pennsylvania is stuck with a depression-era liquor system that exists merely to protect union jobs; a taxpayer-funded government payroll system that is corruptly used for union purposes; and the big whopper, a public pension system that is $63 billion in the hole and getting deeper. According to the Independent Fiscal Office, just covering the interest owed on the unfunded liability will cost an additional $3 billion in the next General Fund budget.