Unions versus Drinkers in Pennsylvania

by Sarah Leitner
To preserve a state monopoly, liquor-store workers are running ridiculous ads with misappropriated funds.

‘It only takes a little bit of greed to kill a child.” So deadpans the latest ad campaign from a government-employee union opposing liquor privatization in Pennsylvania.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has poured more than $1 million into this and other over-the-top ads in an effort to maintain the state’s ironclad monopoly over alcohol sales, which gives Pennsylvania’s 4,000 liquor-store workers coveted civil-servant status.

The latest ad features two mothers sitting on a park bench as their children play. The two begin discussing the dangers of having alcohol “where kids and teens go” — meaning in grocery and convenience stores. The ad cites an article from North Carolina saying that one child every week dies from an accident related to underage drinking — supposedly due entirely to North Carolina’s private liquor businesses.

It turns out that the UFCW’s claims are false. Pennsylvania has a higher rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths involving underage drivers than North Carolina. Pennsylvania also has higher rates of teen drinking and teen binge drinking, despite big government’s best efforts.

The state remains in the dark ages when it comes to liquor sales: A handful of grocery stores currently sell beer, but wine and spirits can be bought only in 600 state-run stores distributed sparsely across the state. (To put that in perspective, New Jersey, with less than one-fifth the area of Pennsylvania and two-thirds the population, has around 1,800 liquor stores.)

Legislation to bring Pennsylvania’s liquor business into the modern era has been a top priority for Republican governor Tom Corbett since taking office in 2011. So the UFCW has been eager to stretch the facts and voters’ credulity, and — a new investigation reveals — even the law to keep Pennsylvania under its thumb.

The union’s 2013 ad campaign was just as ridiculous:

Media outlets in Pennsylvania and across the nation have called these ads “almost comical,” “hilariously bad,” and “stomach-turning.” But what’s even more embarrassing — and concerning — is that the UFCW listed its ridiculous 2013 ad campaign under “representational activities” rather than “political activities and lobbying” on federal disclosure forms.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines “representational activities” as “the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements and the administration and enforcement of the agreements made by the labor organization,” along with contesting elections for representation or decertification and recruiting new members.

This misrepresentation might not seem like a big deal, but it stretches the law — and workers’ rights — to the breaking point. A California union got in trouble for doing the same thing a few years ago. What’s the problem? Labor unions can charge both members and non-members for “representational activities,” but they cannot legally charge non-members for “political activities and lobbying.”

Because Pennsylvania is not a right-to-work state, public-sector employees in a unionized workforce can be required to pay for the union’s collective-bargaining costs regardless of whether they want to join the union. But when a worker opts out of a union, he or she does not have to pay the portion of union dues that goes to politics. Most non-members pay 60 to 70 percent of what union members pay. Because of UFCW’s duplicity, however, even workers who have refused to join the union and do not want to fund UFCW’s political activities are still paying for these ridiculous ads.

A casual attitude toward the law has become something of a habit for UFCW president Wendell W. Young IV. Records show that he’s been lobbying legislators to defeat liquor-privatization legislation for years without ever registering with the state.

Pennsylvania’s lobbying law requires anyone who receives more than $2,500 in payment for lobbying expenses to register as a lobbyist, and Young’s salary for lobbying greatly exceeds that, by his own admission.

On UFCW’s 2013 federal disclosure form, Young claimed to spend 8 percent of his time on “political activities and lobbying.” Young makes a generous salary of $292,765, and 8 percent of that is $23,421 a year for lobbying activities — more than double the $10,000 threshold for registration.

Young’s blasé attitude toward the law should come as no surprise. Pennsylvania law contains special exemptions for government-employee unions, and these promote an attitude of entitlement. From their unique ability to use public resources to collect political money to their immunity from stalking and harassment laws during labor disputes, government-employee unions are accustomed to being treated differently from everyone else.

Legislation that would end these exemptions and bring government-employee-union executives into some semblance of political parity with taxpayers is closer than ever to passage in Pennsylvania’s state house. But, as with liquor privatization — which has been stalled in the senate since the house passed historic legislation last spring — whether the political will exists to push genuine reforms across the finish line this year remains to be seen.

— Sarah Leitner is an investigative reporter for Media Trackers Pennsylvania.