PITTSBURGH ― Republican Rick Saccone defended so-called “right-to-work” laws three days before a special election in a Western Pennsylvania district with a high rate of union membership.
Saccone, the GOP nominee in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, took reporters’ questions at a small campaign event in the offices of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County on Friday evening.
Asked whether he would support a national right-to-work law, Saccone would not answer directly.
However, he justified right-to-work legislation, arguing that it would not be a hindrance to unions if they were “willing to compete.”
“The right-to-work thing is always a tricky thing, because look, when I talk to union members, they tell me they’re willing to compete,” Saccone said. “The leadership doesn’t like right-to-work because they don’t want to compete.”
“But every union member I know, they’re not afraid to compete,” he continued. “They’ve got a lot to sell, and I’m their biggest salesman.”
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Saccone went on to deliver a lengthy paean to the quality of union work, specifically when it comes to construction.
“It costs a little more to hire a union person sometimes,” he said. “But you know what, when you want quality, you pay a little more.”
Asked again at the end of his answer whether that meant that he in fact supported a national right-to-work law, Saccone called on another reporter.
Right-to-work legislation bars unions from mandating any form of dues payment from workers they represent in collective bargaining. Advocates of right-to-work laws argue that they protect workers’ right to refuse to contribute to an organization against their will.
But the laws enable workers who have benefited from the union’s representation and resources to effectively freeload by shirking dues payments. Labor unions bitterly fight attempts to implement right-to-work laws at the state level, deriding them as “right to work for less” and “freedom to freeload.”
Despite unions’ best efforts, however, big business and conservative interest groups have successfully used right-to-work laws at the state level to diminish the power of unions by eroding their sources of funding. Since the Tea Party wave of 2010, longtime union strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia have all become right-to-work states.
A knock-on effect of weaker unions is poorer Democratic Party performance, since unions often contribute to Democratic candidates and encourage their members to vote for them. After the passage of right-to-work laws, the Democratic share of votes in presidential elections declines by 3.5 percentage points, according to a January study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Saccone, 60, a staunch fiscal conservative, is already on record in support of right-to-work legislation, having picked up the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Right to Work PAC in 2014.
But his refusal to state his position on a national right-to-work law and willingness to speak about the policy’s merits so soon before Tuesday’s election illustrates a major challenge he faces in a district with a high rate of union membership.
Although the voters of Pennsylvania’s 18th District voted for President Donald Trump by nearly 20 percentage points, it is not an economically right-wing district. More than one-fifth of the district’s residents are active or retired members of unions, including the United Steelworkers and United Mine Workers of America.
Saccone’s opponent, Conor Lamb, 33, has campaigned as a champion of unions and foe of right-to-work legislation. He has benefited from the unified support of the region’s unions and their sophisticated voter education and turnout operations.
Lamb has defied dour political projections to amass a small lead against Saccone, according to a recent Emerson College poll.
If he manages to win on Tuesday, it will be in no small part due to the contrast he has created on the issue of labor union rights.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.