Union exemption from harassment claims raises questions

Union workers protested nonunion labor at the Post Bros. construction site at 12th and Wood Streets the site last May. A law dating from the New Deal says harassment charges cannot be successfully brought in a labor dispute.
Union workers protested nonunion labor at the Post Bros. construction site at 12th and Wood Streets the site last May. A law dating from the New Deal says harassment charges cannot be successfully brought in a labor dispute. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2014

Post Bros. executive Sarina Rose had grown used to troubles at work literally following her home.

During the day, she dodged taunts from union protesters outside the 12th and Wood Streets work site in Philadelphia, where her company was building apartments last year.

After hours, tradesmen snapped photos of her children, 8 and 11, at their bus stop in Abington. They trailed her at weekend sporting events. One union leader loudly cursed at her in front of a packed restaurant and mimicked shooting her.

And under Pennsylvania law, none of it was a crime.

"When you walk in, as a vice president of a company, to a restaurant full of union workers," Municipal Judge Charles Hayden told Rose in court last November, "you're going to hear some things that you should have expected to hear."

Thanks to a little-known provision protecting parties in labor disputes from prosecution for stalking, harassment, and terroristic threats, Rose said, she was left powerless to stop the nearly constant baiting. The men who dogged her at all hours walked free.

The indictment last week of 10 members of Philadelphia's ironworkers local on federal racketeering charges has drawn attention to the exemption, which dates to the 1930s and which critics say encourages state courts to protect the very behavior federal authorities have since condemned.

In fact, Edward Sweeney - a longtime ironworkers official whom federal prosecutors have described as one of the union's most "vocal supporters of using violence" - used the harassment exemption three months before his arrest in the federal case to fend off a Municipal Court conviction stemming from an incident with Rose.

"It's a little bit like talking about gateway drugs," said State Rep. Ron Miller (R., York), who is backing a bill to remove the harassment provision. "If you allow certain activities to be immune, it just enhances that culture of conflict that leads to more dangerous behavior."

For months before her run-in with Sweeney, Rose's company had endured siege-like conditions from building-trades unions at its Goldtex Apartments site, now nearly complete. As tradesmen protested the decision to hire a mix of union and nonunion labor to complete the job, workers were beaten, car tires slashed, and delivery trucks blocked on an almost daily basis, Rose said.

When Rose spotted Sweeney on March 14 at the nearby Jany's Restaurant, she was not surprised to see him. But as she told Hayden during a nonjury trial in November, the union leader's actions that day left her unnerved.

As she headed toward the restroom, Sweeney cursed at her, loudly and repeatedly, calling her a scab and worse, she said. When a security guard attempted to intervene, Sweeney backed her against a counter and was soon joined by union colleagues.

"We were stuck in this tight restaurant, and they were yelling and surrounding us," she recalled Wednesday. "It was definitely a bad situation."

Rose escaped. But when she left her company's work site later that morning, she noticed Sweeney in her car mirror. His hand shaped like a gun, he pointed it at her and mouthed, "Bang, bang, bang," she said.

Rose pressed charges. And unlike past instances - involving union members photographing her children - Philadelphia police and prosecutors pursued a case, arresting Sweeney on charges of stalking, harassment, and making terroristic threats.

Sweeney's lawyer, Joel Trigiani, did not return calls for comment Wednesday. At the trial last fall, the attorney described Rose's account as "a complete misperception."

Still, his argument hardly mattered. Citing the labor harassment exemption, Hayden found the union leader not guilty and chastised both parties for "wasting my time."

The verdict should have left her feeling punched in the gut, Rose said Wednesday. Instead, "I guess we had just reached a point at Goldtex where we expected it. We were desensitized," she said.

Federal prosecutors now say the kind of harassment Rose described was the least of Sweeney's tactics against contractors.

The racketeering case filed against him and nine other ironworkers last week links him to dozens of incidents, including the 2012 arson of a Quaker meetinghouse construction site in Chestnut Hill. Sweeney has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Miller describes those new allegations as consequences of the state's leniency toward union harassment. His bill would eliminate the carve-out, and apply stalking and harassment laws to all parties equally, he said.

"This measure was introduced at the height of the New Deal in the '30s," he said. "We might be the only state to still have an exception like this."

Others, including the state's nonunion builders associations, have lined up behind Miller's efforts in the wake of the federal ironworkers case.

Even the AFL-CIO has raised only a tepid defense. At a hearing in Harrisburg last August, Frank Snyder, the labor organization's secretary-treasurer, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that he worried the exemption could shield employers who harassed union employees.

"I myself have been stalked, harassed, experienced property damage . . .. and my hotel room broken into on different occasions," Snyder said Wednesday. "Both parties should be held to the same standard."

Miller's bill has languished since receiving committee approval in October. Its critics maintain that no arcane state law would prevent a court from convicting in a clearly criminal case.

"I've arrested members of a union, and we've prosecuted them in Delaware County," State Rep. Joseph T. Hackett (R., Delaware), a former county detective, said at the August hearing. "This whole law where they are immune from certain prosecutions was really a shock to me when I first saw it."

Rose and the bill's other advocates were repeatedly flummoxed during the legislative hearing, as Hackett asked for one example of the labor harassment exemption's allowing a union member to go free.

Three months later, as her case against Sweeney ended, Rose had the example she needed.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|