Shapiro Should Follow Tennessee’s Lead on Dealing with Unions

Story Stream
recent articles

After contributing nearly $11 million to Governor-elect Josh Shapiro’s campaign, executives of Pennsylvania’s biggest labor union will surely expect a return on their investment. But for Shapiro, fulfilling those expectations would be a grave mistake, as the incoming governor can learn by studying contrasting examples from Illinois and Tennessee. 

During his campaign, Shapiro promised that he would “not only protect the right to organize, but expand it.” He promised public-sector unions donating to his campaign that he’d invite them to a “big old veto-signing ceremony” if presented with right-to-work legislation. 

These promises didn’t come without a price tag. The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), and its national affiliate donated more than $1 million to Shapiro’s campaign. The powerful public-sector unions American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chipped in another $1 million each. Unions also used their respective positions of authority to campaign for Shapiro with rank-and-file union members. 

Handing over more power to government unions is not only bad policy but also bad politics. In union-dominated Illinois, voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative that makes it the only state to ban right-to-work constitutionally. Even the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board endorsed a “no” vote on the amendment, in part because its imprecise wording could extend union power beyond core functions, potentially taking over government duties like teacher certification and leading to higher costs for state and local governments. 

Illinois already ranked 50th in fiscal stability ahead of the vote, according to U.S. News & World Report. It has the nation’s highest combined state and local tax rates, and those rates are on pace to quadruple over the next three years. Illinois’ public-employee pension debts – the worst in the country – are killing state and local budgets, and government unions stand in the way of even the most reasonable pension reform. 

Shapiro does not have to go down this path. Instead, he can follow the example of Tennessee, where voters approved a very different constitutional amendment. 

Tennessee’s new state constitutional amendment ensures that employees won’t have to pay a union just to keep their job. The ballot measure won a remarkable victory by what appears to be a nearly 70–30 margin. 

Even more impressive, Tennessee’s constitutional amendment was technically unnecessary. Tennessee has been a right-to-work state since 1947, meaning employees were already protected from having to pay a union as a condition of employment. Moreover, Tennessee is third in the same fiscal stability rankings that put Illinois last. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee supported the measure as a way to “cement” right-to-work – not because it was needed, but because it was good politics. 

For Shapiro in Pennsylvania, it would be smart policy and politics to actively limit government union executives’ power while aggressively supporting teachers and other public-sector employees. 

Americans remain deeply skeptical of union bosses and the political games they play. Gallup’s Honesty/Ethics in Professions poll consistently shows most Americans do not rank the honesty and ethical standards of union executives as either “very high” or “high.” And by last count, a majority of respondents thought labor unions “mostly hurt” workers who are not union members. 

Shapiro’s campaign promise to support educational choice and empower parents suggests that he understands the politics of the moment. And it shows that he’s open to disappointing his union-executive donors for the sake of the commonwealth. 

Shapiro should promise transparency in his dealings with union executives – especially those representing workers in his own branch of government. He should solicit input on educational issues, not just from government-union executives but also from parents and teachers. He should embrace recent legislative measures designed to make government unions more accountable to their members. And he should make sure union bosses play by the rules when they recruit new members. 

Shapiro has a clear choice to make. If he chooses the wrong path of pleasing government-union executives, Pennsylvania can expect a descent into the same mess overtaking Illinois. But if he’s willing to disappoint them, Shapiro will find both popularity and fiscal stability. 

Show comments Hide Comments