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State Rep.: Outlaw transit strikes in Phila.

The day after SEPTA employees returned to work, a morning meeting of House Republicans in Harrisburg was dominated by one issue: How to stop another strike in the future.

The day after SEPTA employees returned to work, a morning meeting of House Republicans in Harrisburg was dominated by one issue: How to stop another strike in the future.

State Rep. Kate Harper, (R., Montgomery) called the strike "outrageous" and told her colleagues in the Republican caucus she would push for legislation to outlaw transit strikes in Philadelphia.

"This is a perfect example of why we need to take away the right to strike," said Harper in a phone interview after the Tuesday meeting.

"They shouldn't be able to call a strike at three in the morning and leave stranded all those nurses working on the overnight shift who couldn't get home," she said.

Forty states do not allow public employees the right to strike. Pennsylvania is among the remaining 10 that allow it for certain groups - among them, transit workers, according to Marick Masters, a labor expert at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Pennsylvania outlaws strikes for some essential public employees, including police and firefighters, as well as court employees and guards at prisons and mental hospitals. But overall, the state has "one of the most lenient" collective-bargaining laws for allowing strikes in the public sector, Masters said.

And that, he added, won't be easily changed, given the state's strong union presence.

In the aftermath of the SEPTA strike, "there's going to be the usual public stir and outcry," Masters said. But for the law to be rewritten, "the political dynamics in Pennsylvania would have to change an awful lot."

In 1970, Pennsylvania legislators gave all public-sector employees - from school teachers to city clerks - the right to organize and bargain over wages, hours and other conditions of employment.

Municipal workers in Philadelphia have been unionized since the 1930s, but collective bargaining did not take hold nationally in the public sector until the 1960s and 1970s. Only 14 states have no bargaining rights for public employees, according to AFL-CIO statistics.

Pennsylvania's law "gave us the right to withhold our labor," said Bill George, president of the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania. "No way, do I give that up."

But the six-day SEPTA strike has left a sour taste for many in Harrisburg.

While some lawmakers are calling for a ban on transit strikes, others are angry that Gov. Rendell committed economic development funds to cover signing bonuses for SEPTA workers. They question how the governor was able to find millions tucked in the cushions of the state budget to pay off strikers - at the same time that he was laying off state employees for lack of funds.

"There's more anger about the governor walking down there with $7 million in economic development money," said Rep. Michael Vereb, a Republican from Montgomery County. "People are frustrated that $7 million was handed over to resolve a strike."

Some states have broad bans on strikes by public workers. New York punishes public-sector workers who walk off the job with the threat of fines and jail time. In 2005, the head of the Transit Worker's union faced three days of jail time, while the union was fined $1 million a day, during an illegal strike in New York City.

Harper, who chairs the House subcommittee on public transportation, would put Pennsylvania's transit workers in the same category as police and firefighters. She said the services they provide are "absolutely essential" and should not be interrupted.

Harper said she would "dust off" one of the bills from previous, unsuccessful attempts to curb the rights of public transit workers to strike.

But Sen. Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat, said the legislature would be going down "a slippery slope" if it started paring back worker rights.

"The right to strike is sacred," Farnese said. "To talk about taking away that is a very, very dangerous proposition. What will then happen is we'll start moving right down the line. Who's next? Teachers?"

Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, proposes just that.

"We need an all-encompassing law for all public employees that applies across-the-board," Brouillette said. "There should be punishment when public employees go on strike when serving in the capacity of a monopoly services and people don't have alternatives."

As disruptive as the SEPTA strike was, there is no groundswell for change, said Rep. Joseph Markosek, a Democrat from the Pittsburgh area who heads the House transportation committee.

"It hasn't been on the radar screen with our committee," he said.

"The right to strike goes back many years and is part of labor-management procedure," Markosek added. "Whether that should be changed - or could be changed - would be subject to a huge and great debate."