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How secretive union contract negotiations cost Pennsylvanians

Op-Ed by Matt Brouillette. This piece originally appeared at RealClear Pennsylvania.*

With little fanfare and even less transparency, Gov. Josh Shapiro and his major union campaign donors recently met behind closed doors and negotiated new state contracts that will carry a $3.2 billion price tag for Pennsylvanians over the next four years. Among the contract provisions is a 22% salary increase for union members who just helped elect Shapiro as their contract negotiator.

The secretive process isn’t new, and neither are the many red flags surrounding it.

During the 2021-22 campaign cycle, Shapiro was the top recipient of Pennsylvania government union contributions, at nearly $5.5 million. AFSCME, the largest union involved in the contract negotiations, gave Shapiro more than $1.2 million, leading the Wall Street Journal to observe that the new contract represents “a tidy return” on investment for the union.

But no one knew just how big a return until after the contract was ratified, because Pennsylvania allows union contract negotiations to evade transparency.

Every several years – not coincidentally around election season – the state’s largest government unions meet behind closed doors with the governor’s administration to hash out new contracts that determine pay, benefits, and a host of other things. These unions give disproportionately to Democratic candidates, so if their candidate wins – as did former Gov. Tom Wolf and Shapiro –dthe unions negotiate with the beneficiary of their multimillion-dollar gifts.

Under state law, union contracts don’t become publicly available until after they’re ratified. In 2016, Gov. Wolf signed into law Act 15, which requires the state Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) to provide cost estimates of union contracts – but again, only after they’re finalized, when it’s too late for lawmakers or the public to raise any questions.

For years, Republican lawmakers have attempted to bring transparency to these costly backroom dealings. Their proposals would require contracts to be publicly posted before they take effect, subject contract negotiations to the state’s Sunshine Act, and make union contract-negotiation records subject to Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.

Such efforts, however, regularly face fierce opposition from unions and the Democrats who benefit from the current arrangement. Both are loathe to lose a benefit that’s been paying off for decades.

Ironically, media focus on government transparency has largely ignored this vast area of opacity. Journalists have tackled the issue of transparency in lawmakers’ expenses, in government agency contracts, in Penn State’s legal feesin local government, and more.

But when it comes to union contracts that are many times costlier than these other expenses, most media outlets look the other way as government secretly negotiates with itself against taxpayers.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a strong supporter of private unions, famously said that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” In the 1950s, the Keystone State’s Democrat Gov. George Leader fended off efforts to allow public-sector collective bargaining; he, too, understood the conflict of interest. And even the first president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, said that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Ultimately, however, unions prevailed on the General Assembly to pass the Public Employe [sic] Relations Act of 1970, which granted government unions the right to bargain with politicians they elect – at taxpayers’ expense.

These same unions – increasingly flush with cash, thanks to higher union dues stemming from the fatter salaries they have negotiated – lobby to block reforms that would benefit taxpayers. For example, public-sector unions consistently oppose allowing kids to escape union-operated, under-performing public schools and vehemently resist efforts to curb their ability to use taxpayer resources for political purposes.

There’s a reason that once upon a time, Democrats and union leaders opposed collective bargaining in the public sector. They knew that being able to elect and then negotiate with the same person would lead to corruption at taxpayer expense. They obviously got over their objections once they realized the self-serving benefits of legalized corruption.

How much corruption? Answering that would require transparency that the unions and Democratic politicians oppose and most members of the media show little interest in demanding.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of Commonwealth Partners. 

* Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash