By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to close a loophole in state law that exempts individuals engaged in a labor dispute from being charged with the crime of stalking.
The bill needs another vote from the state House before it can move to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.
An odd exemption in 2002 Pennsylvania law prevents members of labor unions from being charged with stalking.
Conservatives and business groups have pushed for the legislation, arguing the exemption gives labor unions a free pass to engage in activities that would otherwise be unlawful. The bill gained considerable momentum in Harrisburg after the indictment in February of several members of the Ironworkers 401 union in Philadelphia for crimes including arson and assault.
“We believe the existing loophole encouraged even more lawlessness,” said Kevin Shivers, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses. “There has been testimony by NFIB small business owners with open shop companies who’ve not only been harassed or had their children stalked.”
Unions say the exemption works both ways — it protects employers and workers — and say it’s necessary to ensure workers aren’t dragged into court when engaged in completely legal activities like organizing a union at a new workplace.
But the unanimous state Senate vote gives some indication unions don’t view the issue as a major priority.
The bill passed the state House with a vote of 115-74 in March, but because the state Senate made changes to the language, it will have to be voted on a second time by the House before it reaches Corbett’s desk.
The exemption for individuals engaged in a labor dispute was included in the 2002 state law that defined stalking as a crime for the first time. Other exemptions in the law protect “constitutionally protected activities,” such as circulating petitions to run for office.
The House version of the bill left those other exemptions in place, and the state Senate added language to include “activity protected by the Constitution of the United States, federal law or the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”
The state House needs to sign off on those changes, but the words “federal law” might cause some problems.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said some members have concerns about elevating federal law above state law on labor issues, potentially widening the very loophole that was supposed to be shut.
“It raises concern that it could immunize even more activity from prosecution,” Miskin said Tuesday. “Members have brought up concerns, so the labor committee is going to take a look.”
He said there is no timeline for a final vote in the state House.
Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Eric@PAIndy.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.