Pennsylvania Republicans Divided on Amendment to Union Violence Bill

State Rep. Ron Miller, sponsor of House Bill 1154

A Pennsylvania bill that would close a loophole excusing union violence has stalled in the House because of concerns over an amendment made in the Senate.

House Bill 1154, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Miller (R-York), would close a loophole in Pennsylvania criminal law which allows parties involved in a labor dispute to stalk, harass, and threaten the other party with weapons of mass destruction without fear of injunction.

The Senate unanimously passed House Bill 1154 after making a seemingly insignificant amendment to the bill. The amendment adds a section explicitly protecting actions allowed under federal law and the Pennsylvania Constitution. The bill had been previously amended in the House to secure Constitutionally-protected activities.

The House originally passed the bill on mostly party lines, but the Senate amendment has given House Republicans pause.

“The Senate’s exemption is a little ambiguous,” Miller told the Inquirer. “There is some concerns as far as what it means, how it could be interpreted, and whether it undoes the bill altogether.”

The concern lies with federal law, which has a union violence loophole of its own.

“My concern is it opens up a can of worms,” said Leo Knepper, Executive Director of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania (CAP). “It goes back and references federal law. By doing that you are creating a way for unions to then go out and appeal the decision based on the way the law is written.”

“By specifically ceding ground to federal law it doesn’t make a lot of sense in this context,” Knepper added. “It’s a state law issue and then you are muddying it with issues related to federal law.”

The Hobbs Act — which is the federal law in question — states “whoever in any way or degree obstructs, delays or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires so to do, or commits or threatens physical violence to any person or property in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section” has committed a federal crime.

At first glance, it might seem this law does not have a loophole, but the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Enmons that “The Hobbs Act, which makes it a federal crime to obstruct interstate commerce by robbery or extortion, does not reach the use of violence (which is readily punishable under state law) to achieve legitimate union objectives, such as higher wages in return for genuine services that the employer seeks.”

In other words, under federal law, unions may use violence in a labor dispute as long as their demands are “legitimate” and as long as state law does not forbid it.

There have been attempts to amend the Hobbs Act to explicitly forbid violence in labor disputes, most recently the Freedom From Union Violence Act of 2012. This act, however, died in committee.

The Pennsylvania business community — which has been behind House Bill 1154 since its introduction — still supports the amended version of the bill, though they are willing to try and resolve any concerns for the sake of passage.

Gene Barr, CEO and president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, stressed the importance of passing HB1154.

“This is a very important bill,” Barr told Media Trackers. “We absolutely need to end this exemption.”

Pennsylvania’s labor unions have fought against HB1154 from the very start. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder testified against it in legislative hearing, stating the current law works fine. He added that anyone who engages in violent activities during a labor dispute is arrested.

This argument was proven to be untrue, however, when Ironworkers Local 401 Business Agent Edward Sweeney was found not guilty on charges of harassment and assault, among other charges. One defense his attorney used was the loophole in Pennsylvania’s criminal law.

Ten members of Local 401 have since been arrested on federal charges of racketeering and other union violence issues, which was a driving force in the passage of HB1154 in the House and Senate.