HARRISBURG - A prominent anti-union Pennsylvania state lawmaker who said labor unions, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler are about "power and control" during Senate debate Wednesday drew a sharp response from the state's largest teachers' union.
In an interview, Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, said he was not comparing unions to Hitler or Putin, but was finding examples through history of the use of "power and control," including dictators Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin and Moammar Gadhafi.
"I'm not comparing the unions to Hitler and I'm not comparing them to Putin," Wagner said. "I'm talking about the concept of power and control. ... I didn't say the unions are out killing people."
Wagner made the comments amid Senate floor debate over legislation he supports to bar the state and numerous other government employers from automatically deducting union dues from members' paychecks.
During the floor debate, he said, "The unions are about power and control. And there are two things that I continue to remember about power and control. There was a gentleman by the name of Hitler, he was about power and control. There's a gentleman by the name of Putin, who's across the ocean, that's about power and control."
Other senators did not confront Wagner at the time over his reference to Putin or Hitler, and many had already left the chamber as the voting session wound down.
A House committee will hear testimony Thursday from the bill's supporters, including anti-union groups and business associations. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said he would sign the measure if passed. But Democrats staunchly oppose the bill, as do some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature, leaving it without enough support at this stage to succeed.
Pennsylvania State Education Association president Mike Crossey criticized Wagner's comments Wednesday.
"This kind of language is shocking, offensive and has no place in public discourse," Crossey said in a statement. "It is so disappointing to see a powerful elected official making such an awful comparison. What a terrible example this sets for our children."
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in an interview later that he found the remarks offensive.
"I believe those are very dangerous remarks and should be cause for concern for folks as we go forward," Costa said.
The teachers' union opposes the union dues bill, calling it an attempt "to bully middle class Pennsylvanians and silence their voices."
Wagner and other supporters of the legislation say it would strip government employee unions of influence in the Capitol.
Speaking afterward at a Capitol rally, Wagner told participants that the bill's passage is necessary for Republicans to succeed in their efforts to overhaul public employee pension systems and privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor system.
"This is the single-most important issue or we go nowhere," Wagner said.
The rally was organized by Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. Prominent Republican campaign donors also have pressed the case for months with legislative leaders.