By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A federal jury convicted a once prominent Philadelphia union official of arson, racketeering conspiracy and extortion this week, providing more fuel for lawmakers who want to close a loophole protecting individuals from prosecution of some crimes if they’re part of a labor dispute.
State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, believes the conviction of the former Ironworkers Local 401 business manager Joseph Dougherty could provide momentum to change the law pertaining to stalking, harassment and threats to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Current law includes an exemption for union members and others that might be part of a labor dispute and, Wagner said Wednesday, has led to instances of unions “harassing” business owners, their families and their neighbors.
CLOSING THE LOOPHOLE: State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, shown at podium, is joining a state representative in efforts to close a loophole that can protect individuals involved in labor disputes from prosecution of certain crimes.
“It is mafia-type behavior, and obviously it’s got to stop,” Wagner said.
Wagner, R-York, and state Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, both will sponsor bills closing the loophole, which union officials have argued protects workers from being taken to court for legal activities, such as organizing a union.
Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, said the Ironworkers situation that led to Dougherty’s conviction and 11 other guilty pleas proves existing laws already address criminal activity. That case, though, involved more serious crimes perpetrated upon contractors who did not hire union workers.
“Frank is right in so far as if they cross a certain line, there are laws in place,” said Jason High, Wagner’s chief of staff. “Clearly, arson crosses that line, and we’re seeing that play out in court. However, there are a lot of activities leading up to that line that are currently legal such as stalking, harassment and terroristic threats.”
While Sirianni supported the bill that included the language about federal law, he said he’d have to see the new legislation to know where he would stand on it. He also contended it could infringe on free-speech rights and was the product of anti-union lawmakers, a point Marsico countered by pointing to past bipartisan support.
“I don’t know how the unions can defend it,” Marsico said. “There should be no exceptions.”
Sirianni also went on the offensive. He had harsh words for Wagner, calling him a “nut case” who should be charged with “terroristic threats” for comments he made last fall.
The blunt and tough-talking Wagner told a Philadelphia radio station then he would “be sitting in the back room with a baseball bat” during the new legislative session.
“I hope he doesn’t take his baseball bat and intimidate any of the legislators. I’d hate to think that he was a thug,” Sirianni said.
High responded that “it is difficult to say with a straight face that unions should be allowed to stalk and harass employers, so it’s much easier to call Scott a ‘nut case.’” He added that plenty of other lawmakers didn’t think the legislation was a “too crazy of an idea.”
There’s truth to that. Wagner and Marsico are reviving legislation that nearly made it to former Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk last year.
That bill passed the House in March. The Senate unanimously agreed to the bill less than a month later, but added language to exempt “activity protected by the Constitution of the United States, federal law or the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”
Concerns that the words “federal law” could actually widen the loophole stalled the bill in the House, which had to sign off on the Senate’s changes before lawmakers could send the legislation to Corbett. House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said the House wants to take up the legislation again, but as it was originally passed the chamber.
“Thuggery is not acceptable,” Miskin said. “You cannot stalk, harass or intimidate people. It is not acceptable behavior under any circumstance in Pennsylvania.”