Union members from across Pennsylvania came to the Capitol in big numbers Tuesday morning to rally against legislation they say is aimed at chipping away at the heart of their mission: helping middle-class workers.
The proposal, outlined in separate House and Senate bills, would effectively strip public-sector unions (with the exception of those representing police and firefighters) of their ability to have members' dues deducted out of their paychecks. The measures, dubbed "paycheck protection," would also prevent workers from signing up for automatic paycheck deductions to contribute to their unions' political initiatives.
The legislation's Republican authors say it's a matter of fairness: taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill for collecting dues and political donations for a private organization, especially one with a political arm.
But opponents, which include private-sector unions with long histories of campaign giving to both Democrats and Republicans, counter that it's a thinly-veiled effort to weaken unions - an effort, they contend, that is being championed by groups associated with Charles and David H. Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankroll conservative causes. (One union member held a sign reading: "Don't be a Koch sucker").
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO who attended Tuesday's rally, said he had been told by state Republican leadership that Koch-associated representatives were in the Capitol shortly after Christmas to meet with elected officials about the bills.
"A few rich people just want to get richer," said John J. Dougherty, head of the electricians' union in Philadelphia, who was at the rally.
He said he has friends in the Republican party who "flat-out, personally told" him that Koch-related groups had met with GOP leaders in Harrisburg.
"They are part of the 85 rich people who run American," Dougherty contended. "And I say it's like high noon - we're in the middle of the street with our guns drawn, and these rich guys are hiding in the barrels, not telling us who they are. They show up at night and they leave big checks, and they leave before the people who keep the lights on, the people who clean the floors, the people who secure the [Capitol] rotunda show up for work."
There were so many union members in the Capitol for the rally, that they filled the rotunda, and spilled into hallways and stairwells around it. Many were asked by Capitol Police to wait outside in the freezing temperatures because there was no more room.
Barbara Morris, a retired teacher's aide from southwest Philadelphia, was among those in the crowd. She said she traveled to Harrisburg for the rally because she believes in the power of unions to better the lives of its workers, ensuring them fair wages and working conditions.
"This is really about eliminating unions so they have control," she said. "But the workers, we aren't pawns on a table. We are the ones that make things run. We deserve to be treated fairly."
Click here for Philly.com's politics page.