In corridors up and down the state Capitol, support for law enforcement is clear.
Lawmakers adorn their doors and windows with black-sashed state police emblems to honor a trooper who died and another who was wounded by an alleged sniper in September. In a hallway, a poster celebrates the Senate’s Year of the Law Enforcement Officer resolution passed in April.
But House and Senate support for police — and, as an extension, firefighters — goes beyond shared mourning and symbolic votes. It can be found in the way the Legislature protects the pensions and bargaining rights of public safety unions, often to the detriment of other unions.
“It’s absolutely not fair,” said Debbie Tretter, president of the Allentown teachers union. “We should be treated the same.”
It’s absolutely not fair,” Debbie Tretter, president of the Allentown teachers union, says of bills that propose to exclude public safety unions from pension reforms that would affect teachers and other union members. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO, THE MORNING CALL)
Republican lawmakers have exempted police and fire unions from bills aimed at reining in pensions and collective bargaining rights of unionized government workers. Democratic lawmakers, in a statement issued last month by 10 Democratic mayors across Pennsylvania, were accused of ignoring the financial plight of their municipalities. The mayors said their municipalities are saddled with unsustainable police and fire contracts and pension costs awarded through an arbitration law that is stacked against taxpayers’ interests.
Public records and interviews show public safety unions, particularly police, have an iron grip on the Legislature as they lobby to preserve the same benefits other unions relish: good pay, seniority rights, low health care co-payments and retention of guaranteed pensions. The Legislature’s preferential treatment has had a disproportionate affect on women, whose numbers are large in the teachers and other unions but small in public safety unions.
The Legislature is considering these actions that would favor public safety unions over others:
• On May 13, the Senate excluded the state’s public safety unions from an approved bill that reduces government’s share of future retirement benefits for current public school employees and state workers who are not troopers, Capitol police, park rangers or corrections officers.
• On June 2, the House will hold a public hearing on the Senate pension bill and is expected to face heavy lobbying from police unions and some senators seeking to exclude new law enforcement and corrections officers from a plan to move from guaranteed pensions for other retirement accounts.
• On May 6, the Senate approved a bill that would require local governments to publicly disclose labor agreements — with the exception of police and fire — before ratification.
• Another Senate bill would require the Legislature’s Independent Fiscal Office to do a public cost analysis of all state union contracts, except those dealing with the state’s public safety unions.
• Floating in both chambers are identical bills that would outlaw government agencies from deducting union dues from the paychecks of unionized workers, with the exception of police and firefighters.
Excluding police and firefighters from those initiatives is smart politics, said Leo Knepper, director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a Cumberland County nonprofit focused on labor and legislative reform. The public holds police and firefighters in higher regard than teachers or PennDOT employees because they work to ensure the public’s safety, he said.
“If police and fire came out against a particular piece of legislation, that would carry more weight than AFSCME [American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees],” he said.
Still, Knepper, said, “All unions should be treated fairly. There is no reason to exclude police and fire.”
Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, agreed.
“Any time, from a public policy standpoint, when we exclude any groups, there has to be an appropriate reason and there is no appropriate reason to exclude police and firefighters from any of these pieces of legislation,” Eichelberger said.
The bills’ supporters claim the reason to exclude police and fire unions is because the law already treats them differently from other unions. Public safety unions fall under collective bargaining rights outlined in the 1968 arbitration law, which prohibits their members from striking. Teachers and other unions are covered under a 1970 collective bargaining law, which allows strikes in contract stalemates.
“Bear in mind, the police and fire, and AFSCME and teachers, they are covered under different sections of the law,” said Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, a former Tamaqua police officer, who co-sponsored the paycheck deduction bill in the House.
He called the proposal “a no-brainer” in giving only public safety unions the benefit of having their members’ dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. If police and firefighters unions were added, he noted, the bill likely wouldn’t pass.
Had police and firefighters been included in the Senate’s bill that would require teachers and other unions to disclose proposed contract information before ratification, it would not have passed, said Ben Wren, chief of staff to Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, the bill’s prime sponsor.
“There are a lot of interests when police and fire get involved,” he said, conceding that it’s a “fair point” that the public should view all contracts before they are ratified.
“A union is a union is a union,” he said.
Eichelberger has proposed a bill that would open to the public arbitration hearings involving public safety unions. His bill also would forbid arbitrators from increasing pension and post-retirement health care benefits for retirees, a measure mayors have requested to control costs.
With just six other Republican sponsors and no Democrats on board, Eichelberger’s bill remains stagnant as the Senate has not scheduled a public hearing or vote.
Over in the House, another bill aimed at leveling the playing field has garnered little support. Reps. Seth Grove, R-York, and Keith Greiner, R-Lancaster, have introduced a bill that would allow municipalities, except Philadelphia, to freeze pension contributions to current police and firefighters so they could be given less costly retirement benefits, which new hires also would get.
Their bill has the support of 14 Republicans and no Democrats. No vote on that bill is planned.
Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the pension crisis at the state and local levels cannot be solved by carving out exemptions for certain segments of the workforce.
“We audit all the municipal pensions and from an auditing standpoint, there’s no way I see where you separate one and not tackle all three,” DePasquale said. “At the statewide level, I know each one has its own unique job function but on the same token when you try to solve [the problem] system-wide then you have to look at each item of the system.”
Public safety pensions are not in better financial shape than other pensions. Out of 1,036 police and fire municipal pensions in Pennsylvania, 616 are in the red, accounting for 53 percent of the total $7.8 billion pension debt held by cities, townships and boroughs, according to the most recent data held by the Pennsylvania Employee Retirement Commission. The rest of the municipal debt is held by 823 out of 2,124 non-uniform unions.
By comparison, the state’s two pension systems combined are $50 billion in debt and most of that debt is held by the larger public school pension system. The recently approved Senate bill is expected to save those systems $18.2 billion over three decades by reducing benefits to all but public safety union members.
All workers should receive guaranteed pensions, said Les Neri, president of the Pennsylvania State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, but the right to a secure retirement is especially important for police and firefighters due to their dangerous jobs. Teachers and office employees can work until they are close to 65 years old, when Medicare starts. But police officers and firefighters often have to retire in their mid-50s because of the physical demands of the job.
“Do we want 55-, 60-, 65-year-old police out there doing today’s job, chasing bad guys?” Neri asked.
Police and firefighters also don’t have the Social Security benefits of other workers, he noted. While municipalities are required to put money into the Social Security program for each employee, they put nothing in for police and firefighters, who are not eligible to collect Social Security. In that way, police and firefighters save local governments money, Neri said. The situation, he added, underscores the need for police and firefighters to have guaranteed pensions.
“There’s a load of differences in the [pension] systems and our type of work,” Neri said.
Grove has heard the same arguments in what he described as an intense lobbying effort against his municipal pension bill. Any attempt to move police into the Society Security system has been opposed by the national FOP, he noted.
“So at the national level they say don’t put us in Social Security and at the local level they say we’re not in Social Security so you can’t change our pensions,” he said. “To me, that doesn’t add up.”
Women more affected
An undeniable fact — or unintended consequence — would occur if police and firefighters were excluded from all the bills: Women would feel the brunt of the lower retirement benefits and weakened collective bargaining rights.
Women account for nearly three-quarters of the 263,312 active teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers and others who participate in the Pennsylvania School Employee Retirement System and three-quarters of the Pennsylvania Education Association. They make up about 43 percent the 105,186 active members of the State Employee Retirement System and the female percentage would rise if male-dominated public safety workforce is excluded.
Women account for 60 percent of Pennsylvania Public Employees Council 13, an affiliate of AFSCME. By comparison, the public safety unions are 84 percent men. And 95 percent of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association’s members are men.
In the Legislature, men outnumber women nearly 4 to 1.
Asked about the disparity in light of the paycheck deduction bill he co-sponsored, Knowles said, “Hell no. It has absolutely nothing to do with men or women. And it has absolutely nothing to do with my being a policeman.”
“I never heard discussion that had anything to do with the sex of union members,” Wren added.
The male-dominated leadership of state teachers and AFSCME unions also do not believe gender has played any role in the Legislature advancing bills that favor public safety unions.
“I’m not sure if we see any gender issues but what we do see is an attack on the middle class,” state teachers union spokesman David Broderic said.
Intentional or not, the gender disparity could become an issue.
The Legislature’s affinity for police officers and firefighters does not erase the gender disparity that would make the bills ripe for a legal challenge should any become law, said Dave Fillman, Council 13 president.
“It’s an issue of possible discrimination,” he said.
The bills are following traditional and national attitudes about unions, said David Bensman, a professor of American labor history and education reform at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations.
The public, especially white people, tends to see police and firefighters as “our defenders,” and does not view their unions as political special interest groups, he said. That is not true with the teaching profession. Parents may like their child’s individual teacher, he said, but see teachers unions as special interest groups out to protect their members and not society.
There’s a difference in politics, too.
“The cops and firemen tend to be allied with the Republican Party, while the teachers unions, along with AFSCME … tend to be allied with the Democratic Party,” Bensman noted.
That was mostly true in recent elections.
In the 2014 gubernatorial and legislative elections, the political action committees of seven teachers unions spent $3.3 million and the majority of that money went to Democrats, state campaign finance data shows. By comparison, the PACs of 21 police, fire and corrections unions spent $772,519 and most of that went to Republicans.
“Police and firefighters are popular and have popularity within the Republican caucus,” said Eichelberger, who is part of the Senate’s Republican majority. The party also makes up the majority of the House.
All governmental unions were united in their opposition of one-term incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Teachers, state workers and public safety unions gave $2.2 million to Democrats in the primary and general elections. Corbett got just $25,000 from the troopers union, which also gave the same amount to Wolf, the eventual winner.
Their collective ire was based in part on Corbett’s 2013 legislative stance to change pension benefits. Corbett, a former state attorney general, lost the endorsement of the 40,000-member state FOP over his pension proposals.
In endorsing Wolf over Corbett, state FOP Vice President Roosevelt Poplar, a Philadelphia police officer, wrote: “Our organization is facing serious assaults on both our ability to collectively bargain as well as our pensions.”
The 2014 election shows all unions stand for the same employment rights, said Tretter, the Allentown teachers union chief. But lawmakers side with police unions because doing otherwise might make them appear soft on public safety.
“They can’t go after firemen and police because that would not be politically correct,” she said, adding that teachers and other state workers are easier targets.
Troopers union President Joe Koval said he has never used soft-on-crime threats as a bargaining chip with the Legislature.
A number of mayors have risked being labeled soft to address the pension issue, which has reached crisis proportions for a number of municipalities.
Last month, Democratic mayors, including those in the Lehigh Valley’s three cities, issued a joint news release blasting Democratic lawmakers for not supporting bills that address police and firefighters’ pensions. Despite their best lobbying efforts, the mayors wrote, Democratic lawmakers, who tend to represent urban areas, have done nothing to help lower the cost of municipal pensions that threaten the fiscal stability of cities.
“Fiscal uncertainty will continue to cast a shadow over the future of Pennsylvania municipalities, with the larger urban centers on the front lines, unless and until Democratic state representatives and senators in Harrisburg show political courage and bi-partisanship,” the April 10 news release states.
The letter came four months after York city police agreed to pension concessions to stave off the loss of 33 jobs under Mayor Kim Bracey’s budget.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and City Council took a different approach in 2013 when they decided to lease the city’s water and sewer systems in a deal that would net $211.3 million and shore up an unfunded pension liability that had reached about $160 million, largely because of generous police and fire department contracts.
If the Legislature and governor are serious about tackling local and state pension problems and averting public safety issues, then all unions need to be treated equally in the bills, said Grove, who co-sponsored the municipal pension bill in the House. If not, Scranton and possibly York will be the first municipalities to go bankrupt, forcing state taxpayers to bail them out.
“We are at a point where we are past the emotional [argument] of what police do and don’t do,” Grove said. “We are at the mathematical numbers of the cost side of police and fire protection.”