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Pa. House Republicans threaten to stall labor bill

So much for a done deal. Builders' associations and Pennsylvania's labor lobby may have thought their fight was over regarding a bill that would rewrite state law concerning stalking and harassment in labor disputes.

So much for a done deal.

Builders' associations and Pennsylvania's labor lobby may have thought their fight was over regarding a bill that would rewrite state law concerning stalking and harassment in labor disputes.

But state House Republicans are now threatening to throw a hurdle in front of the measure's once seemingly sure path to the governor's desk.

Their concerns over changes to the bill made in the state Senate are likely to delay efforts to end a quirk in Pennsylvania law brought to light by the arrest of top leaders of a Philadelphia ironworkers' union on federal racketeering charges this year.

"Is it OK to picket a place of business? Absolutely. Is it OK to follow people on their way to dinner or as they take their kids to school? Absolutely not," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). "There's a fear that the [revised] bill basically undid the point of what was originally intended."

Republicans' concerns center on seven words inserted into the proposal by the Senate that would specifically protect activity authorized under federal law and the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Labor groups argued that the addition, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was necessary to ensure that their right to protest unfair work conditions remained intact.

Builders' associations largely shrugged, saying that the new language did nothing to change the original intent of the bill and that if it won the support of unions and their largely Democratic supporters in the General Assembly, the change was all for the better.

Now some Republicans in the House - including Rep. Ron Miller of York, the bill's original sponsor - aren't so sure.

"The Senate's exemption is a little ambiguous," he said. "There is some concerns as far as what it means, how it could be interpreted, and whether it undoes the bill altogether."

The original measure, as Miller introduced it a year ago, sought to end a little-known carve-out protecting parties to labor disputes from prosecution under the state's stalking and harassment laws.

The issue drew new attention in February when 10 members of a Philadelphia Ironworkers Local 401 were indicted on federal racketeering charges and accused of waging a years-long campaign of intimidation and sabotage against contractors who refused to hire their workers.

One of the indicted union officials - Edward Sweeney, a business manager for Local 401 - was acquitted of stalking and harassment charges in Common Pleas Court just three months before the unsealing of the federal case, in part by citing the state-law loophole in his defense.

Because of the new spotlight and the subsequent amendment in the Senate, Miller's bill won unanimous support from senators this month, weeks after an earlier version passed the Republican-held House on a largely party-line vote.

The House was expected to quickly approve the new version and move it along to Gov. Corbett, who has already signaled he intended to sign the bill.

But Miskin, Turzai's spokesman, said some members of his caucus now worried the Senate version changed the intent of the bill.

"There's a concern that this really undid the whole intent of the legislation," he said. "This is no longer a bill about labor disputes. This is now a bill that could open up the door to harassment and stalking."

As an example, Miskin suggested, union members might cite federal labor laws to justify protesting outside an employer's home - an activity Miller's bill had been designed to prevent. On the other hand, because a federal law allows some contact between employers and workers on extended medical leave, unscrupulous managers might lean on that protection to begin harassing workers at home, he said.

The House Republican caucus continues to debate whether to amend the bill again, striking the new language, and send it back to the Senate.

But for Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, a statewide labor coalition, the bill is a loser no matter which version wins. He and other critics have argued that current law has never given employers or unions carte blanche to commit what would otherwise be considered a crime.

Though the Senate amendment made the bill better, he said, unions are still unlikely to support the proposal.

"The laws already on the books work very well," Sirianni said. "If someone does something illegal like assaulting someone or destroying property, then they are arrested for it."