Pennsylvania Politicians Push Broad Privatization Agenda, But Unions Are Pushing Back—Hard

Bruce Vail

UFCW Local 1776 member Kevin Drew displays his union's distinctive anti-privatization t-shirt at a labor rally inside the Pennsylvania state house. Union members were successful this month in helping turn back the liquor store privatization bill. (Photo by Bill Epstein, UFCW Local 1776)

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Public sector unions in Pennsylvania breathed a sigh of relief last week when the state legislature recessed for the summer months. But their relief is only temporary, because the push for privatization of public services is on in Pennsylvania, and the state house is set to become ground zero for that push once again in the fall.

Up for debate is the privatization of everything from parking lots to prisons to the state lottery. And there is more to come as a special commission empaneled by Gov. Tom Corbett prepares a report that is widely seen as rigged effort to justify broader and deeper privatization efforts.

It seems like privatization now is like the political patronage of the old days. Back then, if you were a good loyal party man you got rewarded with a job. Now, if you support the party, you get rewarded with a privatization contract,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. For example, the governor’s privatization panel, Bloomingdale said, is packed with representatives of groups that were his big financial backers in the 2010 election. 

Bloomingdale has had his hands full this year, trying to beat back statewide privatization efforts aimed at state liquor stores and at nurses working in prisons. Similar efforts are taking place at the local level, too, with high profile initiatives to privatize parking meters in Pittsburgh and the city incinerator in Harrisburg.

The results are mixed. A coalition of unions joined with other forces in stopping the effort to shut down the state liquor stores, where some 5,000 jobs were at risk. Likewise, a proposal to fire all the nurses at state prisons and contract the work out to for-profit health care providers was rebuffed. But the big effort over the lottery won’t come for at least several months, and the Harrisburg incinerator sale has advanced so far that it seems unstoppable.

Corbett is committed to privatization just in general. He is philosophically allied with ALEC,” the national group of state legislators pushing smaller government everywhere in the country, said Wendell Young IV, president of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776. Based in the Philadelphia area, Local 1776 was at the forefront of the state liquor store struggle, along with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Independent State Store Union.

We are not relaxing at all” after beating back the liquor store privatization effort last week, Young said. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Turzai, has vowed to bring the measure back in the fall, and Local 1776 will be ready to fight again another day, according to the union leader.

Bloomingdale agreed that there was no reason for public sector unions to let down their guard. A former AFSCME leader himself, Bloomingdale sees these latest privatization efforts as part of a long-term trend aimed not so much as public sector unions, but as an extended raid on the public treasury. They look at the state budget and they see millions spent on something like education. And they say to themselves How can I get my hands on that money?’ They don’t really care anything about unions, they just see us as an obstacle to getting their hands on the money,” he said.

For Bloomingdale, the public debate over charter schools has little to do with quality education, for example, and everything to do with diverting public funds into private hands. We have created millionaires with charter schools and there is no evidence at all that charter schools do a better job teaching our kid[s]. It’s not about the kids, it’s about the profits,” he said.

Privatization at the state and local level is a major concern to the national AFSCME organization and the union even devotes a section of its main web site to the issue. There, union activists can find documents like the right-wing Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2011” or IBM Corp.’s IBM Global Parking Survey.” These and other documents demonstrate that efforts like the privatization of parking meters in Pittsburgh have their origins in ultra-conservative think tanks and multinational corporations.

Also evident is that the push for privatization is not rooted solely in Republican party orthodoxy of Gov. Corbett and Rep. Turzai. Bloomingdale and Young are well aware of this, as they witnessed firsthand a 2007 effort by a former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That effort was also turned back in the legislature, but some observers are expecting Corbett’s privatization panel to revive the plan. 

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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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