Commentary

Workers in Pennsylvania continue to have, and use, real leverage over employers

September 4, 2023 5:00 am
The exterior of the Pennsylvania state Capitol on March 7, 2023 (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

The exterior of the Pennsylvania state Capitol. (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

Wages have kept up with inflation, and a tight labor market continues to give workers more leverage than they’ve had in decades. But divided legislative branches at the state and federal level mean progress toward other improvements for workers’ conditions often stalls, and is why there’s “zero chance of enacting a major pro-worker labor law reform,”  according to the Keystone Research Center’s yearly “State of Working Pennsylvania” report. 

The report’s authors note that there has been no reversal – at least, not yet– “of the 2021-22 federal investments in climate, infrastructure and innovation now sustaining a strong economy.” But there’s also been no increase of the minimum wage at either the state or federal level, despite some recent efforts.

Pennsylvania hit a record-low 3.5% unemployment rate in July, and for the first six months of the year, there were about 0.7 unemployed workers per job opening, meaning there are still more job openings than workers. Inflation is down to 3.2.% and between March 2022 and March 2023, Pennsylvanians saw an increase of 7.6% in their average weekly wage, a 1.7% increase after adjusting for inflation, the report notes. 

Source: Keystone Research Center based on Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey data accessed from Bureau of Labor Statistics data releases.

Union membership has also increased in Pennsylvania and nationwide, but not by a whole lot, due largely to ferocious pushback from companies. The report finds US union memberships rose by 200,000 members in 2022, and by 23,000 in Pennsylvania.

Strengthening union rights would be the most meaningful action policymakers could take toward reversing income inequality, the report’s authors write, but with divided legislatures, executive action would likely be the only way to make organizing a union easier. 

“The only way to lock in shared prosperity for a generation or two is to strengthen unions, implement higher and broad wage standards including at the sectoral level, and to create more effective and universal skill development and career supports,” the report’s authors write, “not just for professionals and college-educated managers but for the rest of the workforce.”

The  authors also encourage “a long-overdue increase in the state’s minimum wage,” which remains at $7.25 per hour. That’s equal to the federal minimum wage, but is the lowest of any state that borders Pennsylvania. The Democratic majority in the state House, plus two Republicans, passed a measure in June to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage gradually to $15 an hour by 2026. But the bill has stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate. And a bill to gradually raise Allegheny County’s minimum wage to $20 an hour is tied up in court, after a back-and-forth between the county council and outgoing county executive.

The 2023 Keystone Research Center report doesn’t touch on some of the other issues affecting workers in Pennsylvania and the U.S. There’s the trend toward weakening child labor laws in some states, and the impact of local strikes, at Wabtec in Erie –where workers just ratified a new contract– or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where a strike by union workers is approaching the one-year mark [Disclosure: I previously worked at the Post-Gazette, where I was a member of the newsroom union].

We’ve seen the impact nationally of the power of organized workers UPS reached a deal with the Teamsters in July to avoid an Aug. 1 strike, and actors and writers in Hollywood are striking for fairer treatment from studios that rake in millions while nickel-and-diming over royalties. 

The report also doesn’t touch on how the end of the pause on student loan repayments will affect younger Pennsylvanians’ spending power, which could potentially curtail any benefit from increased wages. 

All of these are the realities that workers in Pennsylvania and across the country are grappling with this Labor Day. But make no mistake: Despite the modest increases in their memberships that the numbers show, labor unions and those who seek to organize have a significant voice that policymakers disregard at their peril, especially in Pennsylvania.

It’s no wonder why President Joe Biden will deliver remarks at the Labor Day parade in Philadelphia on Monday— unions are a key demographic in a swing state that will play a huge role in 2024 and beyond. 

“When workers no longer have to worry about putting food on the table or know that if they lose their current job they can get a good union job within a clean economy, they will rally around the need to save the only planet we’ve got,” the Keystone Research Center report concludes. “Workers in Pennsylvania have waited too long. They deserve policymakers and policies that put them first.”

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly

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