Philly union indictments rekindles debate over exemptions for stalking

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

The indictments of 10 union members in Philadelphia is prompting lawmakers in Harrisburg to take another look at a state law that can prevent prosecution of some crimes if they’re committed by individuals engaged in a labor dispute.

Under the 2002 law that defined “stalking” as a crime, a specific exemption was made for labor union members and others who might be engaged in a labor dispute. Conservatives say that’s an unfair and arbitrary loophole carved out for one of the state’s most powerful special interests, but labor unions contend the measure is necessary to ensure a broad interpretation of the stalking law so union members engaged in organizing activities don’t get dragged into court.

SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME: Labor unions and management involved in labor disputes get a pass from being prosecuted under Pennsylvania’s anti-stalking laws.

A bill to eliminate the exemption has been sitting in the House since last year, but has yet to receive a vote. In the wake of the indictments in Philadelphia, some lawmakers are hoping to make an issue of it next week when legislative session resumes.

“It sets a tone and an atmosphere that is clearly wrong,” said state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, the bill’s sponsor. “I don’t want to see anyone on the union side or the management side threatened, harassed or stalked.”

The Pennsylvania law that defined stalking “as repeated activity which causes fear of bodily injury or emotional distress in another” was passed only 12 years ago, as Act 218 of 2002. The exemption for labor disputes was contained in the original language, which was signed by then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, a Republican, in December 2002.

Pennsylvania is one of four states with that odd legal exemption on the books.

Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said the law protects both union members and management who might be engaged in a labor dispute. He said changing it would be an unnecessary move.

“They indicted the ironworkers without it, so clearly there are enough laws on the books to go after guys,” Bloomingdale said. “Let’s enforce the laws we have. That seems to be sufficient to get what you need in case there is a serious issue.”

It’s not the only loophole built into the law. Candidates or campaign workers who are collecting signatures or circulating petitions also are exempt.

Last month’s indictment details several incidents in which the defendants allegedly threatened or assaulted contractors and non-union workers at work sites around the Philadelphia area. The defendants referred to themselves as “The Helpful Union Guys” — or THUGs — and “relied on a reputation for violence and sabotage, which had been built up in the community over many years, in order to force contractors to hire union members,” according to the indictment.

The 10 members of the Ironworkers Local 401, including union business manager Joseph Dougherty, were charged with racketeering and participating in a conspiracy to commit criminal acts that included arson, extortion, the destruction of property and assault.

CROSSING THE LINE: Stalking might be creepy, but the charges leveled against 10 members of the Ironworkers Local 401 union go far beyond that. They are accused of arson, assault and other serious crimes against employers who did not hire union workers.

Among the crimes allegedly committed by the union members is the 2012 arson of a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia. Three of the defendants allegedly set fire to a construction crane at the house and cut steel beams and bolts supporting part of the structure.

The strong-arm tactics we have seen in this case are outrageous and brazen —and an unfortunate blow to the worthy intentions of unionism,” said FBI Special Agent Edward Hanko, who was part of the investigation. “The fight for workers’ rights may sometimes call for tough tactics, but violence, intimidation, arson, and sabotage are crimes which won’t be tolerated.”

The defendants haven’t commented on the charges, but the international president of the ironworkers’ union has condemned the use of violence.

Bloomingdale said violence on the picket line is never condoned, and members are told to obey the law during protests.

The alleged crimes outlined in the federal indictment go far beyond stalking and harassment, but Miller said he sees the state loophole for that type of behavior as possibly leading to more dangerous crimes.

“When you allow certain activities to occur, it’s like a gateway drug and it might lead you into harder stuff. Then it’s a short step into things that are clearly illegal,” he said.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said “many members” of the House GOP caucus are discussing Miller’s bill and further discussion is expected next week when lawmakers return to Harrisburg.

But don’t expect a lot of bipartisan support.

“The proposed bill would try to criminalize certain non-violent activities that are specifically protected under federal law,” said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. “It won’t work and is simply not needed.”

Patton said House Democrats don’t condone threats or acts of violence, but the indictments against the Philadelphia ironworkers show that prosecutors can use the current laws on the books to build a case, when necessary.

Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com.

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