With the kind of influence that millions in campaign contributions and political ads can buy, shouldn’t the leaders of Pennsylvania’s government unions be expected to follow the same lobbying laws as other political organizations?
Yes, says Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776. He told the watchdog group Media Trackers, "We shouldn’t be held to a different standard than everyone else."
But the fact is, they are—it’s just a much lower one. And a recent investigation reveals an above-the-law attitude that goes beyond mere political privilege.
Media Trackers reports that the heads of three major public unions are not—and haven’t ever— registered as lobbyists, as a 2006 state law requires. A Commonwealth Foundation search of the Pennsylvania Department of State’s lobbyist database confirms this. Yet these union executives maintain frequent contact with lawmakers and staff, in person and via phone and e-mail, on legislative issues.
Young and David Fillman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13, are required to report their lobbying to the federal government. According to U.S. Department of Labor records examined by Media Trackers, Young reported 8 percent of his time as being spent on "political activities and lobbying," while Fillman claimed 15 percent. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president Rick Bloomingdale isn’t required to make the same disclosures.
None of the three is registered to lobby in Harrisburg.
But other leaders of nonprofits—such as Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) president, Michael Crossey, and Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, are.
When confronted by a Pennsylvania Independent reporter, Young replied, "Clearly I do lobby, but it’s not my primary function as president of the union." Young was paid $23,421 (8 percent of his $292,765 salary) for political activity and lobbying in 2013. Registration is required by the commonwealth if payment for lobbying exceeds $2,500 per quarter.
How can union leaders lobby against liquor privatization and pension reform for years without registering as lobbyists? No one’s been checking up on them—until now.
Such activities should be a wakeup call for union members who think their dues are separate from political activities. They aren’t.
Union members’ dues can legally be spent on political activity, whether in the form of political commercials, paid lobbyists, or get-out-the-vote efforts. Indeed, the PSEA told its members last year that as much as $7 million of their dues could be spent on "lobbying and political expenses" in 2013-2014.
In the case of the UFCW, even workers who have opted out of the union are forced to fund political activities.
Recently, some absurd ads vilifying the prospect of selling wine in grocery stores have blanketed the state. (They claim, "It only takes a little bit of greed to kill a child.") Those ads were paid for by the UFCW, which funded a similarly over-the-top $1 million ad campaign last year.
But when the union reported last year’s campaign to the U.S. Department of Labor, it called the nakedly political ads a "representational activity" rather than a "political" one – and the difference matters.
Government workers who don’t wish to fund political ads can opt out of union membership. But in many cases, they still have to pay a "fair share" fee, which is supposed to only cover "representational activity," like collective bargaining costs. That fee cannot be used for politics.
The UFCW crossed that legal line by calling its ads—and even payments to lobbying firms—representational activities. Liquor store clerks who’ve jumped through every hoop to prevent their money from being spent on politics are still being forced to fund union political activity.
Given other special carve-outs for government unions, it should come as no surprise that UFCW’s Young believes he is above the law.
Government union leaders use public resources to collect union dues, fees, and campaign contributions from workers’ checks and spend them on politics with impunity. Similar activity by a politician—or by you or me—would mean fines or jail.
Legislation pending in Harrisburg, called paycheck protection, would solve this inequity. Let’s empower government workers with a say in how their money is spent on politics and hold government union leaders to same political standards as everyone else.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.