If Republican Doug Mastriano wins the increasingly competitive Pennsylvania governor’s race next month, the passage of aggressive anti-union legislation targeting private- and public-sector unions is virtually guaranteed.
Mastriano, a state senator who is facing Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro in the November 8 election, is well known for his Christian nationalism, his role in the January 6 assault on the Capitol, and his dalliances with neo-Nazis. Less covered this election cycle is that Mastriano and his GOP allies are preparing an unprecedented attack on the labor movement in Pennsylvania via so-called right-to-work legislation.
In April, when Mastriano was asked if he supported making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state, he said, “Clearly, I’m a supporter of that. And I can actively use my network across the state to pressure my colleagues in the general assembly to get it done.”
In the state senate, Mastriano has consistently pushed back against the interests of workers. Last year, he cosponsored legislation that would have gutted Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law, which ensures that public projects do not undercut wages in the construction industry. He was also one of just seven members of the state senate to vote against raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in November 2019.
Right-to-work legislation is designed to end “closed shop” arrangements, in which everyone in a unionized workplace is required to join the union and pay dues. Such laws open the door to a financial death spiral for unions, as they are forced to represent “free riders” without receiving revenue from them.
Mastriano’s championing of a right-to-work law is a dagger aimed right at the heart of labor in Pennsylvania, which has over 690,000 union members, the fourth-highest total of any state.
Shapiro enjoys an 8 to 10 point lead in most polls and has dwarfed Mastriano’s fundraising. But some surveys have found a far closer race, with one recent poll from a highly rated pollster showing Shapiro with just a 2 point lead. Broadly, Democrats are facing a difficult national political environment, and they have suffered years of consecutive losses in rural and western Pennsylvania, thanks to former president Donald Trump’s success in areas long dominated by Democrats.
According to Rolling Stone, Trump has also promised his allies that he plans to use the 2022 elections in Pennsylvania as a test case for contesting any result that fails to go his way in an expected 2024 run, adding extra significance to the race.
Together, these factors make the Pennsylvania governor’s race a momentous one — and an election that could ultimately spell trouble for the state’s working class.
For Denelle Korin, a registered nurse in central Pennsylvania, the race ultimately comes down to her rights on the job and her ability to advocate for her patients. She realized just how much is at stake during a recent trip to Wisconsin, which, under Republican governor Scott Walker, took away collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees in 2011 and implemented “right to work” in 2015.
“I was very used to Pennsylvania law and structure and how unions can and should run,” she said.
Seeing what the employees in Madison go through and the rights they don’t have was just astounding. It was evident how little say they have in the work they do. I met a nurse who was fired for concerted activity for the work that I do often. It made me have a deep appreciation for the rights I have as a union employee.
No Rights at Work
The concept of right to work was developed in the 1930s by businessman and conservative lobbyist Vance Muse to erode workers’ collective power.
By mandating “open shop” union-represented workplaces, where workers get the benefits of union membership without paying dues, right-to-work laws make union representation financially impossible. If a union does not have enough money to sufficiently represent workers, then more workers are likely to become dissatisfied with the union and resign their membership.
In 2018, the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME made all public-sector workplaces open shop. But the push for right to work in private workplaces is even more pernicious due to a key difference: public employees enjoy the protections of the First and Fifth Amendments in their workplaces, giving them freedom of speech and assembly as well as the protections of due process, while workers in the private sector do not.
This means that it is far more difficult for anti-union employers to discriminate against workers in the public sector on the basis of union membership than in the private sector, where, due to drastic underfunding of the National Labor Relations Board, employers nearly always get away with discriminating against workers on the basis of their activity in the union.
Starting in 2011, with the help of billionaire Charles Koch’s right-wing network, Republican governors have been using right-to-work laws to implement a massive, coordinated assault on union rights. Since that time, Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and Kentucky have adopted right-to-work laws, in addition to Wisconsin.
Today there are twenty-eight right-to-work states — and such laws have had a drastic impact on union membership and workplace safety. All of the bottom eighteen states for union density are right-to-work states, and the top sixteen states for union density are all states without right to work. A 2021 study found that right-to-work states have 50 percent more job fatalities than states that allow employers to negotiate a closed shop.
The right-wing push to expand right to work has been blocked in some states by voters. Voters overturned Missouri’s effort to pass right to work at the ballot box in 2018. Voters in Ohio overturned a suite of attacks on public-sector collective bargaining in 2011, illustrating that when labor issues are actually before voters, even in red states, Americans are likely to support union rights.
A Longtime Goal of the Pennsylvania GOP
A Mastriano victory in Pennsylvania would deliver a key victory to the Right in its war on unions. Unlike Ohio and Missouri, Pennsylvania does not allow voters to veto referendums. So if Mastriano wins, any successful anti-union law passed under his watch would be a done deal, assuming it survives legal challenges.
Pennsylvania Republicans first launched an effort to pass right to work in 2013, when they controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, but their efforts failed due to lack of support from moderate Republicans. They reprised the effort in 2017, but because Republicans had by that time lost control of the governor’s office, straightforward attack efforts would have faced the almost certain veto of Democratic governor Tom Wolf.
That’s why Republican leaders at the time instead decided to focus their energy on so-called paycheck protection legislation, designed to kneecap public-sector unions by making it harder for them to collect dues and create expensive and onerous recertification requirements to allow them to continue representing their members.
The bill passed the Pennsylvania state senate but ultimately failed due to a small group of moderate Republicans in the house, who cited police unions’ opposition to the legislation. Nearly all members of that group have either already left office or will have by the 2023 legislative session.
Mastriano’s largest donor by far is Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, who donated $900,000 to his campaign in August. Uihlein is a major funder of anti-union causes, providing key funding to foundations that backed the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case.
Mastriano’s anti-union bona fides have inspired Korin, the registered nurse in central Pennsylvania, to step up her political efforts in the lead-up to the midterms.
“I talk to nurses and health care workers in general as often as I can about the elections,” she said.
I have tried to demonstrate what I saw and observed in Wisconsin. What would it look like if you couldn’t have paid time off and paid sick leave? What would it look like if you couldn’t have bereavement leave? It’s in our union contract. Do you really think your employer would allow you to have the time you have now? Would they pay you the way they do now? That’s why I will absolutely be for candidates that stand up for nurses and health care and are absolutely 100 percent against right to work in this state.