A helpful reader sent me a link to a Reuters piece last week by Grover G. Norquist and Patrick Gleason, declaring that Pennsylvania is the new Wisconsin.

Well, not really. We don’t have the cheese for it.

But Norquist — founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform who once famously said he’d like to shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub — and Gleason were talking specifically about the fight over public unions. Back in 2011, Wisconsin was Ground Zero for that battle as Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill eliminating most union rights for public employees.

Now the tussle is here, and our own Rep. Bryan Cutler has thrown the opening punch.

Cutler, Norquist and Gleason note, has sponsored a “paycheck protection” bill in the state House that would “prohibit government employers from deducting from a public employee’s salary ‘any funds which inure to the benefit of a private organization.’ ”

In other words: Union dues are often deducted from unionized government workers’ checks by government itself. The bill would stop that, putting the onus on the unions themselves to go collect the dues.

On the surface, it’s hardly an outrageous proposal. What’s outrageous is the rationale Norquist and Gleason use to support the idea: “This change empowers workers — making union leadership more responsive and accountable to them,” they proclaim. “... it would force union brass to prove their value to rank-and-file workers in order to convince them to part with their hard-earned income. ... workers are empowered when the decision whether to give their money to unions is voluntary.”

Yes, this is about empowering workers.


Empowering workers to what? Withhold support from the union? Slit their own throats, economically?

If that’s what the workers want to do, then sure, they should be permitted to do so. But let’s not play games. The purpose of Cutler’s bill, and a similar bill pending in the state Senate, is to wound public unions, to undermine them.

To kill them.

Now, there’s a legitimate debate to be had over whether the inherent costs of public unions are sustainable. The cost of government simply cannot keep escalating ad infinitum in a world where paychecks and household income aren’t keeping up.

But this notion that these bills are about empowering workers is simply dishonest. This is about disempowering them.

It’s about limiting wages, limiting benefits, maybe limiting job security. Again, there’s a legitimate argument to be had over what public employees should be paid. But if we’re going to have that argument, let’s hit it head-on. Let’s make the case explicitly that, say, teacher pay should be capped at “X,” whatever “X” is, that taxpayers are tapped out and it’s time to make hard decisions, decisions that are going to make some people deeply unhappy.

Let’s not dress it up in sanctimonious pap about how we’re really concerned about union employees. Because the bottom line is that the Grover Norquists of the world think unionized government employees are treated too well and that they need to be treated less well in the future.

Bust the unions, and you can pretty much guarantee that.

Because, say what you will about unions, and I’ve heard most of the epithets, they exist to do right by their members — or rather, to make sure the employer does right by the union members. And government unions have done that; many government jobs pay a solid middle class wage, and provide what we used to consider solid middle class benefits. It wouldn’t have happened without unions.

But that success now makes unionized public workers outliers. Not necessarily in terms of the amount they take home in a paycheck, but in guaranteed raises; in defined benefit pension plans. The public, watching its own wages stagnate and swimming with the sharks in the 401(k) pool, either can’t foot this bill any longer or doesn’t want to. Resentment runs high. And that makes it the perfect time to strike, if you’re looking to strike unions.

The “taxpayer-funded union dues collection system,” Norquist and Gleason conclude, “enables unions to block the policy reforms that would help make sure the state pension plans are funded and sustainable, fix a broken education system or change an uncompetitive tax and regulatory system that puts Pennsylvania at a disadvantage in attracting jobs and investment.”

In other words, unions are too powerful. So why the rhetorical tap dance? Why are we calling these legislative proposals “paycheck protection” bills?

How about “kill the unions” bills? You know, a little truth in advertising out of Harrisburg.

For once.

Gil Smart is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer. Email him at gsmart@lnpnews.com, or phone 291-8817.

Gil Smart is a Lancaster Newspapers investigative reporter and columnist. He also blogs about politics at Smart Remarks. He can be reached at gsmart@lnpnews.com or (717) 291-8817. You can also follow @GilSmart on Twitter.

Suggestions, corrections, clarifications, added information welcome

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