Scranton, a modest-sized city of roughly 76,000, but nevertheless the largest in Northeastern Pennsylvania, has been struggling for decades. Scranton’s current population is barely half of what it was at the beginning of World War II, more than 25% lower than what it was in 1970, and 7% lower than it was in 1990. The city’s median household income of about $35,600 is 29% under the state average.
Elected officials who are faced with a perpetually shrinking tax base have little choice but to do everything they can to roll back expenditures, as fairly and responsibly as possible. But in Scranton and other strapped Pennsylvania cities it’s almost impossible for elected officials to act in a responsible manner, because decades-old laws enacted by state legislator in Harrisburg tie their hands.
Specifically, Pennsylvania law forces public employers, under certain conditions, to recognize the officers of a single government union as the monopoly-bargaining agents of all the front-line public servants at a government entity. And even if local elected officials refuse to acquiesce to anti-taxpayer demands made by union monopolists, Pennsylvania law mandates an arbitration through which union bosses can get all, or practically all, of what they want even without the consent of elected local officials or government managers.
Thanks to rulings by union-friendly arbitrators and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Scranton today owes $21 million to public-safety union bosses. Even though taxpayers with modest incomes were already paying through the nose for Big Labor-negotiated salaries twice or three times as high as the local average and lavish health-care and retirement benefits, arbitrators have ruled, and courts have affirmed, that taxpayers now have to pay millions and millions more to cover bonuses, pay increases, and reduced deductibles that no representative of taxpayers ever agreed to at the bargaining table.
The latest shoe to drop in the Scranton saga is a court judgment this past week, secured by union lawyers, finding that public-safety union chiefs may begin seizing the city’s assets if they don’t immediately receive the $21 million, money Scranton simply doesn’t have. (See the news story linked above for more information.)
If they have the nerve to take advantage of this judgment, union bosses now have the legal power to sell Scranton’s firetrucks and garbage trucks, and City Hall as well. And union lawyer Thomas Jennings insists he really does have the moxie to go through with such seizures:
“Do I want to take firetrucks and City Hall? Of course not. But would I do it if I have to? In a New York minute.”
Jennings has even suggested he could sell the sewer authority from under the city.
“If that’s where I’ve got to go to get the money, that’s what I’ve got to do. . . . You go for big assets first. Why would I go for ballpoint pens? Why would I not start with the most valuable assets?”
Just a couple of months after Detroit filed for bankruptcy, Scranton is offering another mind-boggling illustration of how state laws foisting union monopoly bargaining and mandatory arbitration on localities effectively deny local elected officials control over their own treasuries. And Scranton also illustrates the point that government union bosses who are effectively made co-managers of localities by state labor policies see no need to exercise their extraordinary power with any sort of prudence.