It was a freezing January day in 2011 when Tom Corbett was sworn in as governor.
But conservatives were warmed by the great promise of the day, and the promises.
There would be school choice, liquor privatization, and pension reform; they were certain, because a Republican House, Senate and Governor now controlled the Capitol.
Three-and-a-half years later, those promises are unfulfilled, and the hope is fading.
And conservative lawmakers blame one source for the dis-union in the GOP ranks.
“The unions have far too much power in our legislature,” said Representative Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny). “They have a stranglehold on our legislature.”
“The unions still have an awful lot of political clout,” said Representative Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland). “They have more influence in this Capitol than almost any other interest group, including the taxpayers.”
“The public sector unions have too much influence up here,” said newest Senator Scott Wagner (R-York).
“The unions control this state right now,” insists Representative Dan Moul (R-Adams). “Make no mistake about that, and they do it with money.”
Public sector unions—AFSCME, UFCW, PSEA, SEIU—don’t support the conservative agenda and fund politicians that oppose it. That includes several Republicans in moderate districts who won’t vote against union interests.
“It takes a lot of courage, and we have a lot of people up here that don’t have the courage,” said Wagner. “And again, it’s on both sides. It’s here in the Senate and over in the House. Everybody wants to get reelected.”
“It amazes me,” said Saccone. “With a group so few in number in this state, but with so much money flowing in through PAC donations, can have such an influence on us.”
The unions call that nonsense. “I wish we were that powerful,” said Wendell Young IV, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. “The reality is it’s the issues that are powerful. The reality is there are some people in this building, not all but some conservatives, that spend a lot of time rallying around certain issues that they’ve just been wrong about.”
On Wednesday, when asked why his own party wasn’t supporting pension reform in the House, Governor Corbett alluded to members being swayed by “special interests.” When asked, what special interests?
“Special interests are the unions, the public sector unions,” Corbett said.
But the unions blame Corbett, and his failed leadership, for the lack of accomplishment.
“We would come to the table with a Governor Corbett if he would show up,” Young said. “But he started out this crusade years ago with a he knew it all, he understood it all and he was gonna tell us what was gonna happen.”
What’s likely to happen, conservatives now fear, is Tom Wolf, heavily backed by those unions, becoming governor and all of those conservative dreams left unfulfilled.
“Immediately after [Wolf] won the nomination, look how much money was pumped into his campaign account from the special interest unions,” Moul said. “Do you think we can get things like pension reform done when he’s here? There isn’t a chance. At least here (with Corbett), we thought we had a chance.”
According to the Department of Labor Statistics, union membership in Pennsylvania in 2013 was 12.7%. It has steadily declined since 1989, when it was 20.9% but still leads the national average of 11.3%.