August 23, 2015 12:00 AM
A legislator-turned-organizer who now holds a position high in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has been in regular communication with the labor union that used to employ him, in an arrangement that Harrisburg Republicans call too close for comfort.
Michael Brunelle took the post of special assistant to Mr. Wolf just after leaving the Service Employees International Union, where he worked as executive director of the union’s Pennsylvania State Council, and then later as the national campaigns director.
Emails between Mr. Brunelle and SEIU leaders, obtained by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation through a right-to-know request, show a familiarity, but fall short of proving that the union gets everything it wants.
“I am assuming that this pension meeting will go for about an hour, which would give me about a half-hour to talk UPMC,” Mr. Brunelle wrote on March 6, in one of around 600 pages of emails involving the administration and unions, reviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I was imagining more like an hour but will take what I can get,” answered Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.
Republicans admitted there was no legal bar to Mr. Brunelle’s contacts with SEIU. They said that his ties are potentially more insidious than those of businessmen who take seats in government, since SEIU represents many state employees.
“[Mr. Wolf’s] actions very quickly and specifically were aimed at helping public sector unions and SEIU,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican caucus. “It’s a very cozy relationship.”
‘Working on the inside’
SEIU donated close to $1 million to Mr. Wolf during his campaign for governor last year, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics — a tally for which the union doesn’t apologize.
“SEIU members, nurses, health care workers, janitors, public employees, taxpayers all across the state, are very supportive of Gov. Wolf’s priorities,” said Mr. Bisno. “As we know, corporate Pennsylvania and the wealthiest Pennsylvanians, they just write massive checks to campaigns,” while union members voluntarily contribute $10 a month to a political action committee.
Because some SEIU members work for the state, that looks to some Republicans like a loop in which state salaries are converted into campaign contributions which in turn encourage friendly collective bargaining.
“SEIU has been known in particular states for working on the inside,” said Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Washington University-St. Louis and author of the book “What Unions No Longer Do.” He added, though, that “it’s hard to dispute the growing influence of corporations in the political process,” so one can see unions as “a necessity.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, former Gov. Tom Corbett’s chief of staff, Leslie Gromis Baker, was married to a UPMC lobbyist, Scott Baker.
Mr. Brunelle said that his conversation with Mr. Bisno about UPMC wasn’t about SEIU’s efforts to organize its employees, but rather on the effects on consumers of the health care giant’s years-long fight with insurer Highmark.
The allegation from the right is that SEIU has become more than a counterbalance to business interests. “The governor has given payback to these unions,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation.
The union and the order
A cornerstone of the right’s argument is an executive order issued by Mr. Wolf on Feb. 27 which, critics say, sets the stage for mass unionization of home health care workers.
The order creates an appointed, seven-person panel called the Advisory Group on Participant-Directed Home Care, and also calls for the election of a “representative for the direct-care workers” to meet regularly with the governor.
In other states, such advisory panels have created a better atmosphere for union organizing of home health workers, by reclassifying the jobs as quasi-public, said Mr. Rosenfeld.
Numerous emails from February show SEIU communicating with the administration about the then-emerging order. “They’re bouncing it back and forth before the order came out to make sure SEIU knew what they were doing,” said Mr. Benefield.
The emails, though, also demonstrate that SEIU didn’t get everything that it wanted. For instance, the union wanted a May 1 start date for the advisory group, but the order said June 30.
Mr. Bisno called the result “an incredibly common-sense executive order that allows the administration to receive input from consumers and direct care workers … so that fewer seniors are lined up in nursing homes unnecessarily.”
The administration defends the order as an effort to improve access for patients and working conditions for their employees. They argue it did not grant collective bargaining rights to workers, does not force them to join a union and does not make them state employees.
A coalition of care providers and recipients has sued the Wolf administration, claiming the order is a stealth unionization attempt. Among the plaintiffs is The Fairness Center, whose board chair is Matthew Brouillette, the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation.
That lawsuit is Exhibit A in the Wolf administration’s argument that the Commonwealth Foundation isn’t really a “free-market think tank,” as it calls itself.
“They’re a far right-wing group that masks themselves as a policy group,” said Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan. “They exist to oppose Democrats and oppose organized labor.”
Like SEIU, the Commonwealth Foundation has compatriots on the inside. For instance Jay Ostrich, communications manager for House Republicans, worked for the foundation through 2013.
Union first, GOP second
On March 3, when Mr. Wolf presented his first budget, Mr. Brunelle repeatedly emailed with Mr. Bisno.
“Full Budget Talking Points … you can share the other ones, but these should be kept close to the vest,” Mr. Brunelle wrote in the morning.
That afternoon, Mr. Brunelle wrote to leaders of three unions, including SEIU, to thank them for supporting the budget and set up a meeting. “Before engaging with Republican legislative leadership, we are hopeful to sit down with you all as a group,” Mr. Brunelle wrote.
“They are certainly hand in hand, working together, from messaging to organizing an event together,” said Mr. Benefield. “It kind of goes to the whole idea that the governor continues to be in campaign mode.”
He called the level of communication from the Wolf administration to SEIU “very much more so than [the Commonwealth Foundation] ever got with the Corbett administration.”
It’s increasingly common for political leaders to reach out to sympathetic organizations — be they unions of the Chamber of Commerce — for help in amplifying their messages.
“I don’t think it’s at all unusual,” said J. Ryan Lamare, assistant professor, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And I think it’s a bit of a strange double standard when we start saying that unions don’t have a right or an ethical or a clear choice to try and influence politics that way, but we give corporations every possible ear of government.”
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.