Shrinking organized labor to show political clout in Pittsburgh parade



On Monday, thousands of union members will tramp through the streets of Pittsburgh in a traditional show of labor solidarity that’s the unofficial kickoff of the fall campaign season.

AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka was scheduled to join the marchers Downtown, along with a cross-section of union and public officials and politicians of both parties. In the political context, however, solidarity doesn’t mean uniformity in this steadily shrinking share of the American workforce.

That reality affected Gov. Tom Corbett’s public schedule Monday, which now will feature appearances around but not in the parade after a dispute between two unions that had invited him and parade organizers, who balked at what they characterize as his anti-labor record in Harrisburg.

So while his opponent, Democrat Tom Wolf, will join the marchers, Mr. Corbett was to appear at rallies hosted by the Laborers District Council, Downtown, and later at the headquarters of a Boilermakers local in Banksville.

Mr. Trumka, who rose through the ranks of the United Mineworkers, returns to a state where union membership tops the national average, but one that’s not immune to the overall syndrome of falling memberships.

In 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3 percent of all workers belonged to unions nationwide. As late as 1983, one-fifth of the workforce was unionized. Pennsylvania’s union percentage is somewhat higher, 12.7 percent, but the trend was similarly negative for labor here. That was down from 13.5 percent in 2012.

The unionized proportion of workers has been falling in the state since the onset of the Great Recession, when it was about 15 percent. It’s been drifting downward, and getting closer to the national average, ever since. In a report earlier this year, the regional office of the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the 2013 figure was the lowest since 1989, when it began to compile comparable state data.

The widespread representation of office holders and those who wish to join them attests, nonetheless, to the residual political clout of a movement that’s played a key role in Pittsburgh’s history and culture. Recent political events in the state can be selectively picked over to find evidence of the union movement’s enduring strength as well as its decline.

Mr. Corbett has cited, and complained of, labor’s influence in the Legislature and on his agenda. His bid to privatize the state’s liquor sales has so far been mired in large part because of union resistance and labor’s influence with lawmakers of both parties. Unions, on the other hand, played a role in the enactment of another Corbett priority: the state transportation bill.

“Labor was split; some were for it, some didn’t think it was enough, but finally labor was instrumental in delivering some of the last Democratic votes to get it over the top for Corbett,” said Larry Ceisler, the longtime political analyst who is the publisher of politicspa.com. 

While the overlap of interests between unions and the Democratic Party is clear, Frank Snyder, secretary treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, said that his group remained an effective voice in Harrisburg because it works with lawmakers of both parties.

“Our goal, in any election, is not about electing a Democratic senator or Democratic whatever. Our goal is electing candidates we can work with.”

In an election cycle when Democrats are hoping to switch the GOP majority of the state Senate, for example, Mr. Snyder’s group has endorsed some of the same Republican senators in the eastern part of the state who are high on the target list for the Democratic Senate campaign committee.

“It’s not our priority to take back either one of those chambers; it's our priority to work with those chambers,” Mr. Snyder said.

He rebutted the suggestion that labor’s clout has receded along with its numbers, “I’m not so sure it has declined when you look at the whole big picture,” he said. “This is an interesting year. With a completely Republican administration, we were able to fend off some of the most egregious attacks we have seen in decades.”

The Democratic primary that produced Mr. Wolf’s nomination highlights other questions about labor’s impact. The major candidates competed intensely for union support and heralded each local endorsement.

After last year’s Labor Day Parade here, all of the Democratic candidates dutifully paid their respects in a crowded meeting room at the USW building, where they pledged their support to the SEIU in its dispute with UPMC. The statewide AFL-CIO remained neutral as no candidate could attract the two-thirds support of member union needed for the umbrella group’s backing.

But among the major unions that did weigh in, state Treasurer Rob McCord and — to a slightly lesser extent — U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Montgomery County, got the lion’s share of the support. With an extremely low turnout and a relatively liberal electorate, the primary would seem an ideal forum for those unions to flex their influence. In the end, however, Mr. Wolf — and his well-funded television campaign — prevailed over the expressed preferences of many union officials.

“You’d rather have them with you than against you. They can give you credibility and boots on the ground and money, but they’re not determinative,” said Mark Nevins, a consultant who worked on the McCord campaign.

In 2002, the previous time that the Democrats picked a new nominee for governor, unions sided disproportionately with then-Treasurer Bob Casey, now a senator. But former Gov. Ed Rendell, who had clashed with municipal unions in Philadelphia, carried the Democratic primary in a landslide.

“Look at Philadelphia,” said Mr. Ceisler, “Michael Nutter was elected mayor without any labor support. And this is supposed to be such a strong union town. … they can hand you a check, but they can’t deliver their members.”

But Mr. Ceisler and other analysts note that it’s important to recognize the nuances in interests and influence among the groups hoping to highlight their unity at Pittsburgh’s parade and similar gatherings across the county Monday.

“You have to distinguish between public-sector and private-sector unions. They’re two different animals. That, to me, is the big dividing line,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican consultant who’s the political director of the Pennsylvania Business Council. “The industrial unions, most will be with Wolf, but some are with Corbett; but the public-sector unions are 100 percent Democratic.”

“The union movement in Pennsylvania or anywhere is not a united movement,” said Mr. Ceisler. “You’ve got the trades, the service workers, the government employee unions. … So you really have a division as to their political goals.”


Politics editor James O’Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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