Corbett expected to take tough stance with state workers

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While laid-back Gov. Tom Corbett isn't likely to provoke a high-profile fight over worker rights and benefits the way his Wisconsin counterpart has done, he's viewed as a tough negotiator who will seek significant concessions in coming contract talks with 17 unions representing state workers.

Contracts for 17 of the 20 unions representing state employees expire at the end of June. One of the contracts is with AFSCME -- American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- Council 13, which represents about 33,000 state employees, 40 percent of the work force.

Union officials, government leaders and political observers said they expect wage freezes and higher health-care contributions to figure prominently in upcoming talks as Mr. Corbett, who has pledged not to raise taxes, wrestles with a huge budget deficit. The Republican governor and his advisers already have turned down the unions' proposal to extend the contracts -- and maintain the status quo on pay and benefits -- to June 30, 2012.

"I don't think there's any question that in the collective bargaining process, they're going to take a hard stance," said Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park.

With the contracts ending at the same time the state's fiscal year begins, Mr. Corbett will be in a strong bargaining position, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said. Pennsylvanians want to rein in union "excesses," Mr. Metcalfe said, predicting that sentiment will surface in various legislative initiatives in coming years.

Mr. Corbett's position on the contract extension isn't an ominous sign, just an indication he's eager to roll up his sleeves, said David R. Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13. He said unions and the state have compromised on budget crises before and can do it again, even though the GOP controls not only the governor's mansion but both chambers of the Legislature.

"We've been there," Mr. Fillman said.

The trick will be to arrive at contracts that save money, give workers what unions consider a reasonable standard of living and mollify those who want workers to sacrifice for the common good. The process could be a noisy one.

"I certainly think that's going to lead to a lot of protests and rallies and so forth" by groups on both sides of the issue, said Nate Benefield, director of policy research for the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.

Mr. Corbett's office did not return phone calls for this story.

The average Pennsylvanian's pay was $44,435 in 2009. Average overall salary for a state worker is $49,082, while department averages range from $37,210 at the State Tax Equalization Board to $67,456 at the state police.

Those figures do not include overtime. According to the most recently available data, the state spent $176.8 million on overtime in 2009-10, with the state police, Department of Public Welfare, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Department of Corrections consuming most of it.

Health care could be a key issue in contract talks. State workers contribute 3 percent of their salaries to health-care premiums, or more if they choose the most generous of three benefit levels. The conservative Commonwealth Foundation said the average Pennsylvanian contributes 6 percent of pay for health insurance.

With many states experiencing budget problems, rights and benefits of public-sector workers have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks, especially in the Midwest.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, proposed stripping public employees of collective-bargaining rights. Amid protests by unions and counter-protests by other groups, Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a quorum needed for a vote.

Republican officials in Ohio and Indiana also have considered bills to weaken the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, leading to protests in those states, too. Ohio's bill appears headed for passage, and new Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, has said he'll sign it.

Supporters said the worker concessions -- wages, benefits and limits on collective bargaining -- are a response to federal funding cuts and other economic realities. Critics called the legislative moves union-busting, an attack on the middle class and a strategy that could backfire by giving new life to labor groups.

"I see this as a huge opportunity for us," said Rick Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, an umbrella group of unions representing public- and private-sector employees.

Daniel J. Santoro, associate professor of sociology and a labor specialist at University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, said it's too soon to say whether the legislative efforts will be as historically significant as the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed wildcat strikes, banned the closed union shop and allowed states to pass right-to-work laws. Mr. Santoro said many other states may try to limit worker rights and benefits, but believes most of those efforts will be gradual.

"Eroding union power, I think, is a greater possibility than doing it all at once," he said.

In Pennsylvania, some groups and lawmakers want to restrict union prerogatives. How successful they'll be is a matter of dispute.

"I don't think the Republicans want to take on that battle here in Pennsylvania," Mr. Fillman said. If there's a budget crisis, he said, "you want all the players at the table."

Mr. Bloomingdale said Mr. Corbett likely will be a "tough bargainer" but hasn't shown any interest in stripping employees of union rights, beyond agreeing to sign a right-to-work law, which would allow workers to decide whether to join a union, if one ever reached his desk. Mr. Bloomingdale said a Wisconsin-type showdown also is unlikely because of widespread respect for labor's role as a "firewall" for the middle class and unions' long alliance with lawmakers of both parties.

"We do have a lot of moderate Republicans we've worked with over the years," he said.

However, citing the heightened awareness of labor issues and a solid Republican majority in the Legislature, Mr. Metcalfe said he believes legislation banning teacher strikes and making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state can be enacted within two years.

In the past, he said, such efforts have been stymied partly by labor's relationships with influential GOP lawmakers in the southeastern part of the state. He said Republican leadership has shifted to Central and Western Pennsylvania at the same time fiscal problems are straining labor's relationship with the GOP and residents are clamoring for change.

"We are the teacher strike capital of the country," he said.

As Mr. Corbett took office, the Commonwealth Foundation offered "80 ideas for a prosperous Pennsylvania," such as spending caps, tax reductions and modified pension benefits for public workers.

To help the state as it struggles with huge unfunded pension liabilities, the Legislature last year increased the vesting period and decreased the multiplier used to calculate benefits for public workers. The Commonwealth Foundation wants the state to go further by instituting a defined-contribution plan for new employees and modifying unearned benefits for current employees.

The group also proposed a right-to-work law, a ban on strikes by public employees and an end to the practice of deducting union dues and political contributions from public workers' paychecks. Why, Mr. Benefield said, should the state function as a collection agency for labor?


Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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