- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The hottest political potato in Pennsylvania’s Capitol this month is a bill that has drawn a network of conservative groups and labor unions into a clash over how tens of millions of dollars in dues payments are collected from hundreds of thousand public-sector workers.

The bitter confrontation comes before any vote is even scheduled.

But it is an election year when Republicans are tasked with defending their control of the state government, and the bill’s passage could weaken labor unions’ ability to marshal campaign cash to unseat perhaps the most endangered Republican of all, Gov. Tom Corbett.

Democrats are dead-set against it. Stuck in the middle could be moderate Republican lawmakers while there is still time for a more conservative challenger to get on the ballot for the May 20 primary election. To an extent, the battle in Pennsylvania is a proxy for a wider war playing out nationally as conservative groups that often do not disclose their donors target labor unions.

On Wednesday, Corbett said he would sign the bill, and then put the onus on leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass it.

“I’m going to look to the leaders to see whether they have the votes,” Corbett told reporters.

Top House and Senate Republicans have said little about whether they will fight for the bill. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, only suggested that the bill’s aims are worthwhile and that supporters make a “compelling” case.

At issue are identical House and Senate bills that would effectively bar the state, school districts, municipalities and numerous other government employers from automatically deducting union dues or union political action committee contributions from the paychecks of unionized workers.

Firefighter and police unions are supposed to be exempt. But by preventing unions from negotiating the automatic deductions into labor contracts, it would force the unions to spend money and time collecting the contributions themselves.

“Should the government collect political money?” questioned the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. “I think the answer is and should be ‘no.’”

Conservative activists also say it is a matter of fairness: Why are public-sector workers forced to pay into a union?

Even public-sector workers who do not want to join a union are still subject to a “fair share” deduction that is supposed to pay just to negotiate labor contracts, not things like campaign contributions, lobbying or public relations campaigns.

Union leaders insist it is a union-busting bill that is being pushed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, and caution that the next step will be a similar attack on private-sector unions or a broader attack on the bargaining rights of public-sector workers.

“I think the Koch brothers heard that we’d been somewhat successful in blocking some of the crazier right-wing proposals out there and … they decided that the way to beat us in the Legislature is to defund us,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation in Pennsylvania.

Electricians, laborers, steelworkers and other largely private sector unions say they are joining the fight.

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