Pennsylvania GOP aims to end legal exemptions for unions

Activities shielded by 1937 state law

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HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania has laws making crimes of stalking, harassment and threatening to use weapons of mass destruction. Except, that is, for parties involved in certain labor disputes.

After a recent federal indictment against iron workers in Philadelphia, House Republicans are reviving an effort to remove the exemptions from state law. Democrats and labor unions have protested, saying the clauses are needed to protect workers engaged in lawful activity such as picket lines.

House leaders plan to bring up legislation today for amendments, preparing it for a final vote Wednesday.

In February, federal authorities arrested 10 leaders of Ironworkers Local 401 in a racketeering case, alleging in one instance that members had set fire to a crane at a Quaker meetinghouse, according to reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, said the case has given momentum to his bill to remove the labor-related exemptions.

"It brought clear attention to the issue," he said. "I think people are starting to understand that what people in Philadelphia were indicted for by the federal government is truly illegal now, but it's probably just a short step from the exception for harassment and stalking."

Business groups oppose the carveouts for labor disputes. A report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in August 2012 highlighted the Pennsylvania stalking exemption, along with other instances of "union favoritism" in the laws of California and West Virginia. At the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, executive director David Taylor said the exception in the law banning threats to set off a weapon of mass destruction, for example, has fostered a "climate of intimidation."

"Because this law has been on the books in Pennsylvania for decades, it has allowed this climate of intimidation to become established," he said.

But labor officials say the exceptions protect members engaged in permitted union activity.

"They could say we're harassing people by stating our case and stating it loudly," said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council. "This exception provision gives us legal protection when you're on the picket line."

"It would criminalize members engaged in protected activity," he continued, "such as organizing drives and picket lines."

Frank Snyder, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said the exemptions protect the constitutional rights of labor and management alike. And he said union members do not engage in the conduct banned without the clauses.

"If we're in a labor dispute, I want to be able to use my First Amendment rights to be able to picket or put my message out," Mr. Snyder said. "I don't expect I should be able to stalk anybody."

The exceptions under the bans on harassment, stalking and threatening apply specifically to parties to a labor dispute as defined by the Labor Anti-Injunction Act of 1937. Employers at the time would ask the courts to order back to work employees involved in a labor dispute, said Michael Schwoyer, counsel for legislation for the House Democratic leader, Frank Dermody of Oakmont.

The 1937 law defined when the courts could issue injunctions against a company or picketers.

"One of the things where they can issue an injunction is if somebody's engaging in harassment conduct," Mr. Schwoyer said.

So an exception was put into the harassment statute so that parties in an applicable labor dispute instead had to seek an injunction.

Mr. Miller's bill as written also would remove another exception to the laws, that for "any constitutionally protected activity," but Republicans plan to amend the bill so that portion would remain. House Democrats are reviewing the amendment "to see if it addresses enough of our concerns," said Bill Patton, spokesman for the caucus. If so, he said a number of Democrats could support an amended bill.


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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