The Incline in Harrisburg

Public-sector union PACs give lots of cash to Pennsylvania Democrats. Will Janus change that?

The president may think so, but other labor experts aren’t convinced.

32BJ members talk to voters in Philly during the 2016 election

32BJ members talk to voters in Philly during the 2016 election

Charles Mostoller / SEIU Facebook
Sarah Anne Hughes

For some Pennsylvania politicians, public-sector union PACs are among their top donors. The vast majority of those candidates are Democrats.

So will the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision on fair share fees spell doom for the party?

On a national level, some labor experts seem to think so. President Donald Trump does so, too.

That’s because per the Janus decision, public-sector unions can no longer collect fees from non-members, even as they negotiate on those employees’ behalf. At least in the short-term, the loss of that fee revenue will likely mean tighter budgets for these unions. Perhaps even more critically, the ruling states that new public employees must opt in, not out, of union membership.

Unions remain optimistic that their ranks with stay steady or even grow post-Janus, but studies have shown that right-to-work laws hurt membership and that — when unions suffer — so does the Democratic party.

That hurt filters down to state legislatures. “Democrats control about 5 to 11 percentage points fewer seats in state legislatures following the enactment of RTW laws,” researchers from Boston University, Columbia University, and the Brookings Institution found. “These losses are felt by Democrats in both upper and lower chambers of state houses.”

The study also concluded that, without unions, state legislatures lose working-class representation and are pushed more to the right.

A matter of principle

It’s not that Pennsylvania’s public-sector union PACs don’t give to Republicans and third-party candidates. They do.

It’s just that they give a whole lot more to Democrats.

That giving simply represents “how closely a politician adheres to union principles,” Gabe Morgan, vice president of Service Employees International Union 32BJ, told Billy Penn and The Incline.

In Pennsylvania, a majority of Democratic lawmakers are in favor of unions and collective bargaining, he said, while “it seems like majority of Republican public officials” aren’t.

As a candidate, now Gov. Tom Wolf received $3.8 million from public-sector unions’ political funds during the 2014 election alone, according to an analysis of campaign finance filings by the nonpartisan Follow The Money. Many prominent Democrats in the General Assembly also get a decent chunk of change from these PACs.

Philadelphia’s Vincent Hughes — Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee — received more than $425,000 from public-sector union PACs in Pennsylvania during the 2016 election, according to Follow The Money. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County received $355,950 during the same period. Public-sector unions gave his counterpart in the House, Frank Dermody, $163,000 for 2016.

The party imbalance

Again, candidates don’t get money from unions directly. Public-sector unions have political action committees, which are funded by voluntary contributions from members.

However, unions can spend dues (but not fair share fees) on political mailings directed at members and their family, as well as lobbying and contributions to nonprofits.

SEIU’s Healthcare Pennsylvania and 32BJ (which represents workers in several states) have contributed thousands of dollars to left-leaning groups like Equality Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, and Pittsburgh United, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Unions also stress that their PACs give money to candidates regardless of party. That’s true of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ Pennsylvania Council 13, whose 50,000 members include nurses, prison workers, and custodians.

But spending on GOP candidates from Pennsylvania pales in comparison to Democrats, per a Follow The Money analysis.

All data in this article was collected and analyzed by the nonpartisan website Follow The Money. The charts were created using Flourish.Studio.

The divide is similar for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 181,000 public school employees.

Ditto SEIU’s Committee on Political Education.

Will union contributions suffer?

Commonwealth unions like PSEA are publicly optimistic that members will stick around. SEIU’s Morgan said they’ve seen “a number” of fee-payers sign up for union membership in the wake of Janus, a necessary conversion to make up for the loss of fair share fee revenue.

It remains to be seen if Janus will mean public-sector union PACs will see contributions drop, but at least one Pennsylvania labor expert doesn’t think so.

“People who are willing to voluntarily contribute are probably going to continue to do so,” said Paul F. Clark, director of Penn State’s School of Labor and Employment Relations. “Janus isn’t going to affect people who already support the union.”

Union members also contribute to the political process by knocking on voters’ doors and making calls for candidates. But again, Clark said, that’s all voluntary: “People aren’t compelled to make calls.”

As long as unions continue to deliver for their workers, they should be OK, Clark said. “Unions exist for a reason,” he added. “People want a voice in the workplace.”

But if the unions’ budgets shrink — as they will, at least in the short term, with the loss of fair share fees — and they “can’t operate quite as effectively,” then people may drop out.

Morgan doesn’t think Janus is the end of the world for unions or political spending “as long as people want their union.”

“Union members have to stick together,” he said. If they don’t, unions will cease to exist. And if unions don’t exist, he continued, there won’t be a PAC fund either.

Fundraising in a new reality

Aubrey Montgomery’s Philly fundraising firm Rittenhouse Political Partners counts state Sen. Hughes as a client. She doesn’t think Janus will dramatically change how fundraisers or campaigns interact with labor unions.

Public-sector union and other traditional Democratic-supporting PACs only have the capacity to give so much, she said. This year, there are more Democrats running for office in Pennsylvania, but doesn’t mean that fundraising pool automatically scaled up.

One source of money campaigns are trying to tap into is individual or what Montgomery called emotional giving. It’s ax-to-grind money, she added, donations given because you’re against the other guy.

Montgomery’s also been coaching candidates to reach out to their personal networks. There’s a strong chance a candidate’s neighbor or former classmate hasn’t given politically before, she said.

“This is what labor’s doing with their members: encouraging them to become more active.”

Want some more? Explore other The Incline in Harrisburg stories.

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