Wagner gets labor backing | Slag Heap

Wagner gets labor backing

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At the David Lawrence Convention Center, where the state AFL-CIO is gathering for its annual convention, state auditor general Jack Wagner picked up a series of labor endorsements in his campaign for governor this morning. 

Beneath a projection screen that unfurled promotional images for tourists -- a carousel, a jousting match at a Renaissance Festival, a cowboy busting a bronco (?!?) -- leaders from several unions backed the state auditor general.  Among them:

  • United Mineworkers Local #3
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 -- which represents employees in state liquor stores and others
  • District 3 of the American Federation of Government Employees
  • locals with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
  • the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents rank-and-file transit workers at the Port Authority of Allegheny

"I think it's powerful," Wagner said -- with a quintessential south Pittsburgh accent --  of the show of support.

None of the endorsements came as a big surprise, however. Wagner is, for example, a former member of the IBEW, as he was happy to remind the audience. And he's been a vocal supporter of Pennsylvania's state store system: Today, he characterized state store workers as "employees that have been under attack for decades," by those who wish to privatize the system.

As for the Amalgamated Transit Union, they sure weren't going to endorse Dan Onorato. (Ever ask your bus driver's opinion on the county exec? I only recommend doing so at a long red light.) And while Wagner has issued a series of audits of the agency, they have focused almost exclusively on the alleged misdeeds of management, rather than detailing the fiscal impact of labor costs. Wagner has, for example, criticized the agency for moving its headquarters out of the North Side and into Downtown ... and demanded more representatives from state government on its board. (The state, after all, pays a sizable chunk of its operating costs.)

Onorato's approach has been nearly the opposite, praising management for cutting its own costs -- including some of the excesses Wagner's audits laid out -- while demanding further concessions from workers.

But Wagner said today that "Many times, the union has been blamed [for the agency's] problems" -- when often, "the problems [began] with management." 

Unfortunately, that's not where they end. Wagner's early audits decried some sweetheart pensions for authority execs  -- does the name "Paul Skoutelas" ring any bells? -- but these days, pensions for the rank-and-file loom as a larger challenge.

When asked by reporters about how to address such problems -- or how to plug the financial hole created when the feds scuttled a plan to toll I-80 -- Wagner offered few specifics. (He did take an easy shot at the much-derided T extension beneath the Allegheny River, however.) For the most part, he touted the importance of careful oversight. "We need to get the confidence of the public in terms of how we spend public money," he said -- a message that touts his job experience as a financial watchdog, while also reinforcing the idea that workers aren't the problem; management is. 

In fact, he said, "You've never heard me threaten to lay off employees."

Thing is, in a mean-spirited year like this one, that may be exactly the kind of threat voters do want to hear.  

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