By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Two pieces of legislation that cleared the state Senate on Wednesday would give taxpayers a better look at public-sector union contract negotiations, but Democrats and union leaders have decried the effort as an attempt to undermine organized labor.
One bill would require that the Independent Fiscal Office analyze the cost impact of proposed public-sector union contracts. A second would mandate that those proposed collective bargaining agreements be posted online for two weeks before a deal is finalized.
LET THE LIGHT IN: The state Senate passed two bills shining a light on public-sector union negotiations, but organized labor and Democrats don’t like it.
The legislation would mark a shift from current practice, in which taxpayers learn of the cost of collective bargaining agreements only after the governor and public-sector unions reach an agreement behind closed doors.
“I’ve always wondered why there’s been so little transparency,” said state Sen. Patrick Stefano, the Fayette County Republican sponsoring the legislation requiring a two-week posting period.
“These are big decisions that our elected leaders are voting on, decisions that can alter the fiscal health of a government for years to come. Yet it seems to be one of the only decisions where the voices of the people are not heard from before action is taken.”
Organized labor leaders have howled over the bills, which they call “anti-union.” Democratic state senators joined the opposition, arguing the legislation was less about transparency and more about attacking unions and driving down public workers’ wages.
State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, questioned the motives behind what he called “selective openness and transparency.”
“The motives are to impact the ability of the bargaining unit to be able to be successful in negotiating a fair and reasonable contract with their employer,” he said. “That’s your motive: to impact it in a negative way.”
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, wondered whether outside interests — specifically whether the wealthy libertarian Koch brothers, who have championed union reforms across the United States, were at work.
“They’re setting up shop. They’re on the move. They and their billion dollars want to take over, want to take over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Hughes, who argued the bills are part of a larger strategy “to break the backs of working people and organized labor in Pennsylvania.”
Hughes included paycheck protection legislation and a bill closing a loophole that exempts those engaged in a labor dispute from stalking and harassment laws as part of that conservative cause.
State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, sponsor of the IFO bill, brushed aside that rhetoric. He has said lawmakers and the public need to know the cost of union contracts to pass responsible budgets.
Fourteen contracts, which cover more than 44,500 state employees, expire at the end of June and cost taxpayers more than $3 billion, Folmer said. Another four that expire in 2016 and 2017 total more than $1.5 billion, he said.
“It has nothing to do with attacking unions, and it certainly has nothing to do with some kind of secret plan from the Koch brothers,” Folmer said. “Rather, this is openness, transparency and accountability of taxpayers’ monies.”
Unions hate the idea.
AFSCME Local Council 13, the largest public-sector union in Pennsylvania, gave the package of legislation a thumbs-down on its website, describing the bills that open the collective bargaining process to the public as “anti-union.”
Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, issued a statement this week saying lawmakers were pushing a “shocking double standard.”
“The same legislators who want to open confidential negotiations to the public are making deals on multibillion dollar budgets behind closed doors without any possible transparency,” he said. “If these legislators want to open every negotiation and share every confidential document with anyone who wants to see them, then they should go first — and open up their backroom deals for everyone to see.”
Even Democrats, whose ranks were further diminished in November’s election, couldn’t fight off the bills. Both passed 29-19 in a party-line vote, with all Democrats voting against them.
The legislation heads to the state House next. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said the bills simply allow taxpayers to review negotiations involving public money.
“Here’s where the real fear is,” Scarnati said. “The taxpayers will see it, and they’re not gonna like it.”