Pa. public workers keeping eyes on Wisconsin

Unions expect small fights with state's GOP leadership

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Though Republicans have taken over the Capitol and the state faces a massive deficit, Pennsylvania's public sector unions do not seem headed for a Wisconsin-style budget brouhaha with GOP leadership.

But they do expect smaller fights on a number of other fronts this year.

Teacher unions see the first bill introduced to the state Senate in 2011 -- a school tuition voucher proposal -- as an attack on their members. Unionized clerks for the Liquor Control Board have declared "war" on impending efforts to privatize state stores. In Pittsburgh, transit workers are steeling themselves for a bill from House Speaker Mike Turzai to open Allegheny County transit services to the private sector.

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed eating away at his state's $3.6 billion deficit partly by increased pension and health care contributions -- matched with a rollback of collective bargaining rights -- it triggered mass protests and a walkout by Democratic legislators. Pennsylvania faces a similar $4 billion budget deficit this year, but leaders from Gov. Tom Corbett on down have avoided such talk, saying their eyes are on budget rather than labor matters.

"Our focus has been really just tightening our belts and being fiscally responsible," Mr. Turzai said Monday. "The taxpayers are demanding more. We need to tighten our belts like the private sector is doing."

Labor groups are largely keeping a lid on their rhetoric, too, saying they have a better relationship with GOP leaders in Pennsylvania than counterparts in Wisconsin, Ohio or other states primed for fights.

"We have our Republican friends unlike some of these other states, but that doesn't mean we don't have to be vigilant," AFL-CIO spokesman Marty Marks said.

To that end a variety of public workers -- including firefighters, bus drivers and school crossing guards -- are expected at Pittsburgh City Council this morning to receive a council proclamation praising them for their service and pushing back on national talk about rolling back union rights.

"Public employees are getting the brunt of the criticism, when the conversation should be so much bigger than bus drivers earning $45,000 a year," said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. "This isn't just about unions, it's what it means to be middle-class in the United States ... Or trying to maintain what used to be a middle-class lifestyle."

Another rally among union groups in support of Wisconsin workers is expected Thursday at the United Steelworkers building, Downtown.

In addition to the bills already introduced that could affect unionized workers, the budget package Mr. Corbett presents March 8 may have to tackle other looming contract costs facing the state. His transition team in December rebuffed three of state government's largest unions when they floated a trial balloon about a contract extension, and contracts expire this year for 17 of the state's 19 employee unions.

In addition, there are underfunded municipal pension plans in Pittsburgh and elsewhere across the state facing major difficulty.

Union agreements "are part and parcel to the fiscal challenges we're facing, because labor costs are such a big part of government spending," said Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg. Funding for pensions "is going to be the juggernaut going forward, because it pays for no government services at all. They're just big old massive checks."

Mr. Marks countered that public employees bear most pension costs and governments have not been living up to their funding commitments.

Get ready for a lot of such back-and-forth through 2011 and beyond.


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com


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