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labor Pennsylvanians Fill State Capitol in Defense of Union Rights

Union members in Pennsylvania held a mass demonstration inside the state capital to protest a Republican effort to strip public employee unions of their right to have member dues collected through payroll deduction. The protesters were clear that they see this Republican effort as just the beginning of an attempt to destroy unions and workers' rights in the state.

After seeing labor union rights erode in Wisconsin and Michigan, labor union members from across Pennsylvania took over the state Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday to say they will not let that happen here.

More than a thousand firefighters, police officers, boilermakers, sheet metal workers, teachers, electrical workers and others came out in force to ward off what they see as the start of an all-out attack on workers’ rights.

Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate that would bar unions from being able to negotiate the collection of dues through payroll deduction. This would force unions to collect dues directly from members, which is anticipated would weaken union support.

But the speeches made by various union members and labor supporters made it clear that they see these bills as part of a bigger movement to take away workers’ rights and silence labor’s voice in Pennsylvania.

“They think we will sit back and watch as our brothers and sisters in employee unions are attacked. They think we will remain silent as they insult the entire labor movement in Pennsylvania,” said Danny Drumm, an Altoona firefighter to an at-times raucous crowd. “We won’t let that happen here.”

William Hamilton, president of the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, echoed that sentiment, saying labor unions came late to the fight in Wisconsin and Michigan. “We’re here on time,” he said.

Supporters of the legislation accused the unions of obfuscating the legislation’s true intent to rally support against Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican Party.

“The bill looks to remove the administrative burden placed on public and private entities for processing and collecting and paying union dues,” said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni. “It has nothing to do about squashing worker rights whatsoever. “

But if the legislation that would take dues deductions off the bargaining table made its way to the governor’s desk, Pagni said Corbett would sign it.

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Impromptu chants of “We are one” and “Union strong,” among others, interrupted speeches and speaker introductions throughout the press conference-turned rally that drew enough of a crowd to fill all four floors and still leave four busloads of people standing outside.

Throughout the speeches, Hamilton and others alluded to a rumor that Charles and David Koch, billionaire owners of privately owned Kansas-based Koch Industries who are playing a role in funding efforts to strip public employee unions of rights around the country, are planning to intervene in Republican primaries of anyone who doesn’t support what some call paycheck protection legislation.

“We don’t have the money that’s being expended by outsiders,” Hamilton said. But he added union members will be out in force in districts of lawmakers that support the legislation telling people in their districts that “you have screwed us.”

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County, one of a multitude of mostly Democratic lawmakers in attendance at the pro-labor rally, encouraged all to go back to their communities “to make the case we will not allow this administration and the Republican Party to take steps, to bring resources from all around this country, to come into Pennsylvania to try to strip away workers’ rights.”

Interspersed throughout the crowd, though, were the occasional protestors who held up signs that spread a message about how unions rely on taxpayer resources to collect dues, fees and campaign contributions from workers.

Afterward, Matt Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, dismissed the notion about the Koch brothers’ involvement in Pennsylvania elections and challenged the unions to produce proof. He called it “part of their bogeyman narrative.”

“This is truly about whether taxpayer resources should be used to collect campaign contributions. That’s all this is about,” Brouillette said.

He said deducting union dues from paychecks is different than health premium deductions, which unlike union dues cannot be used for political purposes. He said deductions for United Way contributions are different as well because they are voluntary.

“What makes this different is it’s about collecting political dollars,” Brouillette said. “They admit the use of dues for political advocacy. They admit they collect campaign contributions using taxpayer resources. Any organization that is using taxpayer resources for those purposes should lose that privilege.”

David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said government is supposed to be neutral to all parties and citizens. But when government acts as a payroll service to specific organizations that “is outside that core neutrality that is so important for public integrity.“

The House bill and the Senate bill to eliminate this provision for dues collection are awaiting action in their chamber’s respective State Government committees.