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Working In These Times

Friday, Jun 15, 2012, 12:03 pm

New Booze Brawl in Pennsylvania Puts 5,000 Public-Sector Workers At Risk

BY Bruce Vail

UFCW members ratified a new contract with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in early June. Here UFCW Local 1776 member Inez Hastings marks a sign-in sheet at a ratification meeting at the local's headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, Penn. (Photo courtesy of UFCW Local 1776)  

The victory by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the recall election last week means public-sector workers will continue feeling the heat in many parts of the country. In Pennsylvania this week, the political flames threatened employees of the state-owned liquor stores.

On June 11, the state House of Representatives debated a bill that would eviscerate the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, eliminating about 4,000 union jobs in the process. The debate had union representatives scrambling in Harrisburg, shoring up support among elected officials and maneuvering to prevent a quick vote on the measure.

Any vote now would likely be very close and the workers have no guarantee of victory, according to David Wanamaker, a representative of the small 700-member Independent State Store Union. The bill’s main sponsor, House Majority Leader Speaker Michael Turzai (R), had scheduled the bill for further action on June 12 and June 13, but the items were pulled from the calendar at the last moment, Wanamaker said.

“The vote count seems to change by the hour. At one time we hear that he has one vote more than needed (for passage) and then a couple of hours later we hear that he is still five votes short. It’s tight,” says Wanamaker, a former president of the union of store supervisors.

Wanamaker is allied with two other unions – the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – in trying to save the jobs of workers at some 620 state liquor stores spread out across the state. When combined with 1,000 non-union workers, a total of some 5,000 state jobs are at risk.

These jobs have been around a long time: The control board was first established in 1933 to regulate liquor sales as Prohibition was coming to an end. But proposals to close the stores and open alcohol retailing to private companies have been a political issue in the state for years.

Opponents of the stores claim privatization would yield a higher income to the state, and that consumers would welcome the new competition that privatization would bring. These opponents got a major boost in late 2010, when statewide elections produced a slim Republican majority in the House of Representatives (the state Senate already had a Republican majority), and pro-privatization Republican Tom Corbett was elected governor.

Wendell Young IV, president of UFCW Local 1776, is one of the most prominent leaders of the fight against privatization. The battle is “a hard-fought grind against determined, well-financed profiteers who will not give up easily,” Young says.

Like Wanamaker, Young is a veteran of many legislative struggles over liquor store privatization. Former Gov. Richard Thornburgh was a proponent of privatizing the store in the 1980s and Local 1776 has wrestled regularly with the issue ever since. The union has built an impressive political action network among its members, and formed coalitions with other groups interested in the issue, such as beer manufacturers and wholesalers.

Young spent much of this week walking the halls of the state House, shoring up support for the union position among legislators. He was also rallying the troops, as dozens of union members clad in the UFCW’s distinctive yellow “fighting colors” visited lawmakers and made their arguments to anyone who would listen. The workers are members of Local 1776, which represents liquor store workers in eastern Pennsylvania, and also of UFCW Local 23, representing workers in the western half of the state.

This latest fight in the legislature comes on the heels of the ratification of a new contract to cover the workers at Local 1776 and Local 23. On June 3, members of both locals ratified a new four-year contract, with about 85 percent of voting members approving the new agreement, and 15 percent opposed, according to the union.

The terms of the contract call for a wage freeze in the first year, and modest increases in the other three years, according to Young, The contract follows a pattern set by AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which have big contracts with the state in departments other than the liquor board, he said.

“Considering the economic challenges facing Pennsylvania and the way in which pubic workers have been under attack in so many places around the country, we believe that we reached an agreement that is fair to our members and fair to the state,” Young commented in a formal statement.

A new feature of the contract represents a tacit admission that the future of the state stores is in jeopardy. That feature is a clause that obligates any employer involved in liquor retailing to adopt the terms and condition of the union contract with the state. It further obligates Pennsylvania to advise any privatized liquor retailers that the contract “is binding in its entirety for the duration of its term,” the union said.

Such a successor clause is in no way ironclad, but should the privatization plan be signed into law, it gives unions members some hope of obtaining comparable new jobs after they are fired by the state. But this provision is entirely a back-up measure, and UFCW is committed to winning this fight in the state legislature, Young said. A full vote could come sometime later this month, he said, and the pro-union forces still have a fighting chance of winning.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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