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Will Pennsylvania Become the Next State to Weaken Unions?

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The United Steelworkers of America in Bethlehem, PA

CREDIT: Flickr/stateofplace

In Pennsylvania, six Republican lawmakers recently introduced a package of bills aimed at making it the nation’s 25th right-to-work (RTW) state. It’s currently one of four states that have both a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature without right-to-work legislation. Pennsylvania has rejected right-to-work proposals in every legislative session for the last 30 years.

Some argue that decreased unionization wouldn't compromise worker protections. This relies on the assumption that federal law provides protection against sexual harassment in the workplace and sets workplace safety regulations. However unions play a crucial role in enforcing worker-protection legislation, especially by providing accident-prevention training and education.

In 2011 Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, looked at the fatalities in the construction industry in both right-to-work and non-right-to-work states. He found higher levels of unionization correlated with lower fatality rates, and that in right-to-work states, union efforts to protect worker safety were less effective. His conclusion was that by decreasing union dues, right-to-work legislation diminishes unions’ ability to provide workplace-safety training.  

Public understanding of the role unions play in providing protection and community accountability will likely play a role in the fate of right-to-work legislation in heavily unionized states like Pennsylvania.

“Unions, more than any other institution, have a responsibility to protect their membership,” Kate Bronfenbrenner told Campus Progress. Bronfenbrenner is a professor and the director of Labor Education Research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

She spoke with Campus Progress about the effect right-to-work legislation has on female workers’ recourse against sexual harassment. Bronfenbrenner said:

Unions have played a big role in filing grievances, in educating women about their rights in the workplace. In a non-union workplace, women workers are afraid to go forward because there’s no protection, there’s no just cause—and yes, there’s legal protection under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but if it takes five years to get your job back, what good is it? If there’s a union there you’ve got a steward with you through the whole process and you know that you’re going to get your job back in three months or even earlier. And you might not get fired in the first place.

Commentators and analysts have often situated Pennsylvania in relation to Michigan, which recently became a right-to-work state despite its strong labor movement. They’ve speculated that Rust-Belt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio might be next, paving the way for right-to-work legislation in the northeast. But this comparison doesn’t take the states’ unique labor histories into account, Bronfenbrenner said.

“Michigan is a strong union state, yes, but it’s a state that has one very dominant union. Pennsylvania is a state that has many dominant unions,” she said. “In Western Pennsylvania, even if people aren’t union anymore because plants have closed, they still honor picket lines—so that when the grocery store goes on strike, people will drive an hour out of their way to not cross a picket line…Pennsylvania has incredible organizing drive against very anti-union employers."

Pauline Holdsworth is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter at @holdswo.

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