The Lead

Right-to-unionize amendment clears Pa. House committee

By: - May 1, 2023 4:59 pm
Josh Shapiro with health care and service industry workers outside the Smithfield United Church of Christ in Downtown Pittsburgh on Mon., Sept. 19, 2022. CP Photo: Jamie Wiggan

Josh Shapiro with health care and service industry workers outside the Smithfield United Church of Christ in Downtown Pittsburgh on Mon., Sept. 19, 2022. (Pittsburgh City Paper photo by Jamie Wiggan).

A proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would guarantee the right of workers to form unions moved toward a vote in the state House on Monday.

The House Labor and Industry Committee reported out the proposal introduced by Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, and Nick Pisciottano, D-Allegheny, with a 12-9 vote. 

Republicans, who questioned the amendment’s impact on other laws, were unanimous in opposition.

“This bill is really, really simple,” Fiedler said. “It would enshrine in the state Constitution the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, period, exclamation point.”

To amend the state Constitution, a proposed amendment must be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly in consecutive sessions. The proposal is then put before voters in a referendum. The earliest the right-to-unionize amendment could appear on the ballot would be the 2025 primary election.

But in debate before the vote, several Republican members of the committee suggested that the amendment’s language barring the passage of any law that “interferes with, negates or diminishes the right of employees,” invalidates laws against stalking, harassment, and those that protect children from abuse.

Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Cumberland, noted that the amendment is identical to a recently-enacted amendment in Illinois, where the nonprofit, nonpartisan Illinois Policy Institute found 350 state laws that would be impacted by the amendment.

“I think it’s very irresponsible to move an amendment forward without at least a preliminary review of which state laws this may impact, there could be a number of unintended consequences,” Gleim said.

Gleim said the amendment could prevent enforcement of laws that require background checks for teachers and that prevent sexual offenders from working with children or getting teaching certificates. 

“The danger comes from the language in the amendment that prohibits lawmakers from legislating any limitations on what can be put into a union contract,” Gleim said.

Rep. David Rowe, R-Union, was  critical of what he characterized as a “very truncated hearing,” on the amendment that he said featured little testimony from those in opposition. Under new House rules adopted when Democrats took control of the chamber, proposed constitutional amendments must be the subjects of public hearings.

“It’s a noble aspiration to want transparency for constitutional amendments, but it seems that we are missing the spirit of the rules when we are not able to fully flush out positions with the testifiers, the stakeholder groups,” Rowe said.

In response to colleagues’ suggestions that the amendment would make it impossible for the General Assembly to pass stronger worker protections, Rep. David Delloso, D-Delaware, said nothing in the amendment changes the way contracts are bargained.

“Anytime an employer and a union sit down to bargain there’s a deal made. There are no deals made to break the law. That is enshrined in the agreement – that laws will supersede what the bargaining gains or collective bargaining lost,” Delloso said.

Delloso urged members of the committee to support the amendment. 

“Pennsylvania is a pro-worker state and shall remain a pro-worker state. It is very important that we lead the nation in worker freedoms to join unions and develop unions,” Delloso said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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