Pennsylvania unlikely to become a right-to-work state, many say

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HARRISBURG -- Every legislative session for the past 14 years, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe has worked the Capitol hallways to make Pennsylvania a "right-to-work" state.

Every time, his bills languish, not even mustering enough momentum for a committee vote.

"It's an uphill battle," said Mr. Metcalfe, a conservative Republican from Butler County. "Like pretty much any issue that threatens the power of the union bosses, it is quickly attacked and stifled."

Others might not use such lively terms for labor leaders and their clout. But the scenario Mr. Metcalfe describes is unlikely to change anytime soon in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, even after another longtime bastion of organized labor, Michigan, this week became the highest-profile industrial state to let workers opt out of joining unions or paying dues as a condition of employment.

Like Michigan, Pennsylvania has a Republican-controlled legislature and governor's office. And like Michigan, Pennsylvania has a storied labor history that has produced financially strong and politically influential unions.

But as Gov. Tom Corbett put it earlier this week, his state lacks the political will to get a similar law passed. And the governor has set his immediate sights on fighting unions on a different front: public employee pensions. He is unlikely to expend further political capital on an issue only a handful of Republicans have marked as priority.

"There is not much of a movement to do it," Mr. Corbett said during a radio appearance. "... Until I see a strong will to get legislation passed, we have a lot of other things that we have to get passed."

In neighboring New Jersey, where both legislative chambers are controlled by Democrats, the chances of right-to-work legislation are even slimmer.

Said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, a longtime ironworkers union organizer: "This will never, ever happen in New Jersey as long as I am Senate president."

In Pennsylvania, it is not so much the perceived power of labor unions that tamps down any fervor for pursuing such a law -- though, with 14.5 percent of its total workforce unionized, Pennsylvania ranks 15th in the nation and has an organized-labor machine with potent electoral muscle.

Rather, it's that Republican lawmakers may be loath to take on the political risk of further eroding middle-class wages and benefits by taking such a direct swipe at unions. The market has done an efficient job so far in whacking union wages and benefits without legislative intervention.

"I'm interested, as a labor economist, in what the ultimate effect this would have on middle-class or median workers' earnings," said Lonnie Golden, a professor at Pennsylvania State University-Abington.

His conclusion about that impact, which he said is supported by research: "It's going to drive it further downward."

Before Michigan's legislature acted, all but five of the 23 states with right-to-work laws enacted those laws more than 50 years ago, Mr. Golden said. They were part of a movement by southern states in the 1940s and 50s to differentiate themselves from -- and lure employers away from -- the industrial north. A half-century later, no similarly broad campaign in northern industrial states appears to exist.

And the political calculation behind any effort to extend Michigan's move to other northern states would be a delicate one. It is one thing to attack (as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has, with success) the perceived generous benefits of public-sector unions, but quite another to take aim at private-sector unions, whose members' wages and benefits already have been battered by hard times.

"It's a non-issue here," Patrick Murray, political analyst and pollster at Monmouth University, said of New Jersey's electorate. "There's no groundswell."

One Pennsylvania labor leader, Wendell Young IV, figures Mr. Corbett doesn't want the kind of fight Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got for rolling back public unions' bargaining rights in that state.

"I don't think the governor wants to face some kind of recall effort," said Mr. Young, president of the politically influential United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in suburban Philadelphia.

"Even though they didn't recall the governor," Mr. Young said, "a lot of damage was done to the Republican brand there. I think there's a little more common sense going on in Pennsylvania."

For their part, state legislators need little reminding of the role labor plays at election time.

In New Jersey, unions dominate special-interest spending in state elections. Of all political action committees, unions' PACs gave the most to state and local races in 2011, the last time state legislative seats were on the ballot. Union PACs spent almost $10 million on state and local campaigns in 2011, 55 percent of all special-interest money put into those races, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

And in Pennsylvania, between 2005 and 2011, unions spent $36.7 million of member dues on politics and lobbying, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Matt Brouillette, who heads the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg, cited those numbers Wednesday.

"Right-to-work bills are bottled up because the No. 1 incentive for most politicians is to get re-elected," Mr. Brouillette said in an interview. "And to oppose unions has been that third rail that you just don't touch."

David W. Patti, who heads the Pennsylvania Business Council, has a different take on why Pennsylvania legislators are unlikely to line up behind right-to-work measures: They need each other. He points out that unions and employers have joined forces to land some major initiatives -- such as the Corbett-backed tax break for a planned Marcellus Shale gas petrochemical refinery in Beaver County, supported by labor and business alike.

"I think that organized labor in Pennsylvania and management have started to realize it's not 'us versus them,' " Mr. Patti said. "The reality is, we've had very little labor strife in Pennsylvania in the last 20 years. And stirring that pot is not something that even larger employers want to do."

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