Labor Union Fights Liquor Store Privatization in Pennsylvania

How organized labor is resisting efforts to privatize the state-owned liquor monopoly.


The labor union that forms the backbone of opposition to Republican plans to privatize Pennsylvania's liquor store system gave more than $140,000 to state-level candidates in 2012, including plenty of campaign cash to some high-ranking Republicans.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which counts about 3,000 state liquor store employees among its members, is the most visible and vocal opponent of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai's (R-Allegheny) call to privatize the state-owned liquor monopoly.

And with Gov. Tom Corbett in support of privatization and the GOP in control of both chambers of the General Assembly, the union must rely on more than just Democratic support to keep privatization proposals at bay.

A review of campaign finance records by PA Independent found the union gave more than $12,000 to Republican candidates in 2012—much of it targeted at key figures in the state House.  As expected, the union gives more heavily to Democrats, who collectively received more than $40,000 in contributions.

Wendell Young IV, president of UFCW Local 1776, said Thursday that his union is not a single issue entity, but acknowledged that the privatization of the liquor stores is their top issue.

He said the union follows general guidelines published by the AFL-CIO, a conglomerate of many smaller trade unions, to determine which candidates to support.

"We look at pro-labor votes and their support of workers' issues," Young said. "Democrats more often score better than Republicans, but we support candidates on both sides."

State Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) received $2,700 from the UFCW this year—all of it during the primary cycle, when he did not have an opponent.

Vereb is one of the House Republicans' top fundraisers and made no bones about the support he receives from the UFCW, but he said contributions from any source do not dictate his views on policymaking.

"People are allowed to have different views and money does not determine those views," he said Thursday. "Taking contributions from anyone doesn't determine my vote."

When it comes to liquor issues, Vereb said he favors increasing access for his constituents and all resident of the state. What form that takes—public or private—will be the subject of discussions with House leaders and other public officials, he said.

But there is another connection between Young and Vereb that helps explain the high level of contributions to the Republican representative: Young lives in Vereb's district.

In interviews, both men acknowledged a mutual respect that dates back to Vereb's time as his days on the West Norriton Board of Supervisors.

"Mike's got a good record," Young said.

Behind Vereb, the top GOP recipient of campaign cash from the UFCW was state Rep. John Taylor (R-Philadelphia), chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee. It's not hard to figure out why he would be targeted by the union.

Three other Republicans in the General Assembly received more than $1,000 from the UFCW this year: Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson); state Rep. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe); and state Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill).

All told, 15 Republicans took a combined total of $12,000 from the union during 2012. By comparison, 74 Democratic candidates for office got $43,000 from the UFCW during the year, with nine of them receiving more than $1,000 each.

Top Democratic recipients were state Sen. Christina Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia), Auditor General Jack Wagner, and former state Reps. Kevin Murphy (D-Lackawanna), and Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia), who both lost in the primary election last April.

The remainder of the unions' contributions went to political action committees and get-out-the-vote efforts.

It's no secret that unions are among the most powerful forces in Pennsylvania politics.

During the 2012 election cycle, private-sector unions in Pennsylvania gave more than $2.8 million to candidates and political action committees at the state level, according to data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks political spending.

Public-sector unions in the state contributed another $1.6 million, according to the same data.

All told, the unions' grand total of $4.4 million made them the most powerful political voice in the state in terms of dollars spent on the election.

The UFCW's contributions account for only about 3 percent of that total, far behind heavier hitters like the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teachers' union, which gave more than $662,000 during 2012, easily the highest total from any single union in the state.

But with liquor privatization a hot button topic in Harrisburg, scrutiny of UFCW contributions is bound to take place.
Matt Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg that supports privatization of the liquor stores, said he was not surprised the union was spending on both Democrats and Republicans.

"Republicans hold the keys to the government unions' monopoly power over our wine and spirit purchases," Brouillette said. "They win while the taxpayers lose. And they will keep spending on politics to keep it that way."

If the liquor stores were privatized, the union would lose about 3,000 members and the dues payments that go with them. Those dues help fund the political activities of the union.

But Young said the real reason the liquor stores have not been privatized is because lawmakers—including many Republican lawmakers—realize it will not be a profitable move for the state.

This article originally appeared at Pennsylvania Independent.