By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — State law says harassment, stalking and threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction are all crimes, unless the people perpetrating the offenses are involved in a labor dispute.
It’s an odd loophole that Republican lawmakers have been trying to eliminate for the past two years, arguing those nefarious activities should never be condoned. They inched closer to making it a reality Tuesday, when the state House approved a bill that would eliminate the carve-out.
CLOSE THE LOOPHOLE: State Rep. Ron Marsico, shown above, has shepherded a bill closing an odd loophole in the state’s stalking and harassment laws through the House.
“No one, management or labor, should be able to lawfully use the tactics of harassment, stalking or threatening,” Marsico said in a statement. “What starts as harassment and threats can escalate to violence and destruction of property. Our current laws perpetuate this cycle and to change the culture, we must first change the laws.”
Critics, such as state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton, painted the bill as unnecessary and argue it would unwind safeguards that protect workers and management from facing criminal charges for activity that federal law permits during labor disputes.
“Current law does not give unions carte blanche to undertake illegal activity,” Hanna said. “When unions or any individual perform illegal actions, they are always subject to arrest and prosecution.”
Strangely enough, both supporters and opponents of the legislation point to the same high-profile case of union intimidation as evidence to support their stances.
In January, a federal jury convicted the former business manager of the Ironworkers Local 401 in Philadelphia of arson, racketeering conspiracy and extortion in a plot to coerce nonunion contractors to hire union workers. Eleven other defendants pleaded guilty in the scheme.
Those crimes have only further inspired Republican lawmakers to pursue closing the loophole, with advocates of the legislation arguing state law should crack down on bad behavior before it reaches a violent level.
“The labor community in Pennsylvania includes many unions that represent their members effectively, honorably and peacefully. But there is also a dark side to the labor community that uses intimidation and threats to pursue its objectives,” Marsico said.
Critics of the bill say the Ironworkers case — though prosecuted on a federal and not a state level — shows current laws can address behavior that crosses the line.
Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, has made that argument in the past.
On Tuesday, a couple hours before the House in a mostly party-line vote passed the bill 109-84, Sirianni called the legislation a “blatant attack on labor” and a “misguided approach to correct an issue that is already covered by existing laws.”
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me that people that are so interested in constitutional rights, that they would want to take away labor’s constitutional rights,” he said.
It’s not a new proposal. The Senate and House each passed their own legislation closing the loophole in the previous legislative session, but couldn’t agree on a final version. After Tuesday’s House vote, the bill again heads to the state Senate.
Several groups representing law enforcement agencies and businesses have thrown their support behind the bill. That includes Keystone Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade organization that represents nonunion contractors.
Brent Sailhamer, government affairs director for ABC’s Keystone Chapter, said contractors who decide to use nonunion workers shouldn’t have to deal with people following their family to the grocery store, trailing them to children’s soccer games or worse.
“The problem is when they start saying things like, ‘It’d be a shame if your building burned down or someone came in and torched this building,’” Sailhamer said. “ … You can’t do anything about it until they actually burn it down.”