Legislation to Counter Union Tactics Goes to Gov. Tom Wolf for Signature

The act has been passed by the House and Senate. Would it chill the rights of organized labor?

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill this week that, if signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, will likely have an impact on organized labor in Philadelphia. House Bill 874 (see below), introduced by Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin County), would amend the state’s Crimes Code, which immunizes union members against prosecution for certain criminal actions taken during a labor dispute. In theory, this ensures the rights of workers to protest unfair labor practices. But what happens if those workers go too far? In a House Memoranda, Marsico pointed to the example of Philadelphia’s Ironworkers, a number of whom were indicted for arson, assault and racketeering. “In each case,” Marsico wrote, “the grand jury found evidence of intimidation and threats toward the property owners and non-union workers which preceded the later acts of violence, all protected by these loopholes in the Crimes Code.”

Currently, the Crimes Code sections on stalking, harassment and threat to use weapons of mass destruction do not apply “to conduct by a party to a labor dispute.” The definition of a “labor dispute” is laid out in Pennsylvania’s Labor Anti-Injunction Act:

The term ‘labor dispute’ includes any controversy concerning terms or conditions of employment, or concerning the association or representation of persons in negotiating, fixing, maintaining, changing, or seeking to arrange terms or conditions of employment or concerning employment relations or any other controversy arising out of the respective interest of employer and employe [sic], regardless of whether or not the disputants stand in the proximate relation of employer and employe [sic], and regardless of whether or not the employes [sic] are on strike with the employer.

The Labor Anti-Injunction Act also enumerates the many acts that can be undertaken by union protesters that are protected from prosecution. The act was drafted in 1937, “a much different time in the labor movement,” says construction lawyer Wally Zimolong. “At the birth of the labor movement, management had all the judges in their favor and they would literally get the police to quell strikes — the police would break strikers.” Legislation like the 1937 act were intended to protect workers from those with more power. But now, says Zimolong, things are quite different. “These laws are not being used to prevent what they were initially passed to prevent. They’re now being used as a sword to sanction criminal action.”

Pat Gillespie, the Building and Construction Trades Council’s business manager, doesn’t agree. He thinks this legislation “restricts our First Amendment rights.” As an example, Gillespie points to developer Richard Basciano, best known these days as the owner of the building that crashed on top of the Salvation Army. “People should have a right to let the world know what people are doing,” Gillespie says. “You have a developer like Basciano who runs around in New York and in our community and walks around like the pillar of the community. Meanwhile he’s a slum landlord.” Gillespie believes the bill would inhibit workers from publicizing the alleged misdeeds of someone like Basciano because the developer could claim he was being stalked or harassed. He says the bill would preclude labor from going to a restaurant where an employer or manager is eating and telling the patrons the kind of person that employer is — “the process of letting the world know what your employer’s doing.”

But, Zimilong says, “This legislation would in no way chill the rights of organized labor to vocally publicize their displeasure with a non-union employer or educate the public about the disagreement.” He believes the bill is meant instead to address criminal activity that is currently protected. Sarina Rose, vice president of development for Post Brothers, knows firsthand how these laws can work as a shield. During the 2012 construction of the Goldtex apartment building in Callowhill, the battle between the non-union Post Bros. and the building trades unions got especially vicious — and personal, according to Rose. One morning, she says, she went into a neighborhood restaurant — a place she’d been to many times to get coffee — and was confronted by members of the Ironworkers union. “They started an altercation with me, and one of the ironworkers pinned me up against the counter, saying sexual slurs. I was able to get away but later that day he pointed his finger at me and mouthed ‘bang-bang.’ They took pictures of my kids and my house.”

Frightened, Rose went to the police. The District Attorney filed charges of harassment, terroristic threats and simple assault against the Ironworkers’ business agent, Edward Sweeney, but at trial the judge told Rose and her attorneys that he was unable to take action because of the Labor Anti-Injunction Act. “He explained it that way,” she says. He also told her she shouldn’t have gone into the restaurant in the first place if she thought there’d be union members there. In April, Sweeney pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, extortion and arson and was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a federal judge.

“To me,” says Rose, “it’s embarrassing to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania that you have to wait for the feds to come.” Rose has testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill. Gillespie, on the other hand, doesn’t trust anything about the bill. “The Legislative Reference Bureau, they write the bills, I don’t think a moderate thinking lawyer is allowed to work there anymore because of the ideological bent of the leadership of the House. You have all these people who are anti-worker reactionaries.”

Zimolong is not optimistic that the governor will sign the bill given the partisan rancor on this subject. “This is very positive piece of legislation,” he says. “One would think labor would be in favor of it [since it would] indicate to the general public, ‘We’re not the goons our adversaries portray us to be.'”

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