The fact that Pennsylvanians continue to have to discuss workers’ rights to form labor unions might seem remarkable to some. After all, the right to organize was guaranteed by the United Nations Charter in 1948. Of course, the United States abstained from voting, but it passed nonetheless. Nearly 80 years ago, with the New Deal fading in the rearview mirror, the U.S. was unwilling to protect workers’ rights. So, it may not be surprising that – in many states – these rights are similarly insecure.
One man who is not surprised is State Representative Nick Pisciottano. He and other Democratic members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have placed collective bargaining legislation on their to-do list.
This isn’t new for Pisciottano.
The Pittsburgh-area Democrat introduced legislation in his first term (2021) that would have removed all tax credits from businesses that actively interfere with workers’ efforts to organize. House Bill 2749 and other anti-union busting legislation failed in the last session, but the 2022 elections changed the make-up of the legislature and Pisciottano has hope.
Fresh off winning his first re-election to the 38th legislative district, Pisciottano and others have set their sights a little higher. He hopes to quit reacting to problems faced by working Pennsylvanians and permanently ensure that, “fundamental rights are enshrined” in the commonwealth’s constitution. The 32-year-old husband and father is concerned for the shocking number of his constituents – and other residents of Pennsylvania – who disproportionately live in poverty.
Statistically, the representative has the numbers to support his contention that it’s much harder to be a working family in his home state than it is in others. According to the Prosperity Scorecard published using U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 20 percent of the jobs in Pennsylvania are low wage jobs. Similarly, according to the economic think tank Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity – which compiles data from sources as far-ranging as elder advocates, AARP, conservative pundits, and the Cato Institute – 31 percent of single parent families in Pennsylvania live below the poverty line.
Pisciottano and his Democratic allies don’t see high poverty levels and low wage jobs as a coincidence. And they have an agenda they feel will put more power in the hands of the worker. When the chamber clears the hurdles posed by the rules disputes, they will be proposing legislation to support workers.
They’ll need a two-pronged strategy. First, tackle the issues that the legislature has immediate control over: like the elimination of tax cuts that he proposed last time – and raising the minimum wage.
Pisciottano promises to act swiftly. “We will unveil economic security measures and non-discrimination measures in March when the house comes to order,” he told The Bucks County Beacon.
But the representative has plans that go beyond the short-term fixes. He’s also set his sights on changing the Pennsylvania constitution – the second prong in the strategy.
Why adapt the constitution?
“It’s a fundamental American right to bargain collectively at the workplace,” Pisciottano explained during a recent interview. He wants to guarantee that – by virtue of a constitutional amendment – “collective action is both legal and encouraged.”
Pisciottano’s not alone. Advocates have long called for higher wages, safer workplaces, and better benefits. National labor radio and podcast host Rick Smith, who also happens to have been a member of the Teamsters Union for more than 30 years, welcomes the news.
“Authors of the National Labor Relations Act knew that employers have all the power and without the right to organize the employee has none,” said Smith, who welcomes the power balance a constitutional amendment to enshrine workers’ rights would bring. “It shifts the employer/worker relationship away from the master/servant situation we see now.”
And it’s not just about wages. Currently, according to data compiled from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only eight states have higher injury rates than Pennsylvania. That means 41 states are much safer places to work.
Pisciottano sees hope in a recent Illinois voter initiative that brought the workers of the Prairie State the same sort of protections he’s hoping Pennsylvanians will enjoy by the middle of the decade. That’s right – the middle of the decade at the earliest – there’s nothing quick about changing the PA Constitution.
Currently, the bill doesn’t have a name or a number because confusion over who will lead the Pennsylvania house and senate has precluded the introduction of the measure. That’s why Representative Pisciottano and his colleagues have started getting the word out about their planned amendment ahead of time. Helping the voters understand the arcane and archaic nature of the commonwealth’s amendment policy will help lower expectations in the short term.
Pisciottano explained the process, “Once the bill enshrining the right to strike [is proposed], the general assembly has to pass it in two sessions.” That means passing it this term and then again in 2025. “It will be three years before the voters can weigh in… and there’s another wrinkle, the bill in the next session has to be the exact same language.” Meaning that Pisciottano and his colleagues want to get it as close to perfect as possible.
It’s difficult to predict if the 403,600 Pennsylvanians who pay more than half their income in rent or the more than one in ten children experiences food insecurity have three or four years to wait for collective bargaining rights – but Pisciottano believes the people of Pennsylvania understand that the constitutional amendment will make a real difference.
“PA has a long and storied history of labor rights,” he added.
Certain that some of his colleagues will resist the measure, the representative is undaunted.
“We will see what their arguments are, and I hope to work with those people to get them on board. I think there is polling across the state supporting unionization,” said Pisciottano.
Meanwhile, the poll that really matters will be the vote before Pennsylvanians when this legislative process successfully ends – if it indeed makes it that far.