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Ryan Brown

With strikes already underway in Pennsylvania and tens of thousands more workers preparing to walk off across the country, organized labor is drawing renewed attention – including in Washington and Harrisburg.

Shifting economic conditions through the coronavirus pandemic have spurred workers in many industries to strike, in some cases blaming employers for introducing longer hours and additional shifts. In Pennsylvania, Kellogg’s cereal workers have joined an ongoing nationwide strike, while ironworkers in Erie are picketing a manufacturer.

And Monday marks the strike deadline for tens of thousands of stage and behind-the-scenes employees working in TV and movies, including many in Pennsylvania. As many as 100,000 workers could soon be on strike across the country.

“This is the capitalist system that has driven us to the brink,” AFL-CIO head Liz Shuler told The Hill this week.

Surging interest in unions and labor action have drawn attention from lawmakers.

In June, state Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, introduced a bill that would make striking workers eligible for unemployment payments. Pennsylvania workers typically get unemployment compensation only if they’re locked out by employers, but not when they strike.

“Undertaking a strike is a serious decision that a union and its members do not make lightly and usually comes after any negotiations have reached a standstill,” Williams told colleagues when she first proposed the bill, noting that neighboring states already have similar laws. “When this type of impasse is reached, I believe these striking workers should not be denied unemployment compensation, as many months can pass until a negotiation is settled.”

The bill hasn’t moved out of a GOP-controlled Senate committee.

In Washington, pro-labor legislators have fought for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, since President Joe Biden took office. The bill would make it easier to organize a union and ramp up punishments for employers that commit unfair labor practices. While the bill hasn’t reached Biden’s desk, key elements made their way into the sweeping social infrastructure bill that Biden hopes to soon pass through the Senate.

Even at the state level – where Republican control makes broad new pro-labor laws unlikely – lawmakers have pushed for local versions of the PRO Act. Earlier this year, a group of state representatives proposed a state equivalent that could make more workers eligible to form unions.

While lawmakers could see mixed success in passing pro-union legislation, the nation’s largest labor federation is celebrating this month’s wave of action.

“It’s Striketober,” the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO said last week on Twitter. “Join a picket line near you.”

GOP reps push health rules

Some Republicans in Harrisburg are pressing on with efforts to rein in the government’s pandemic response, months after voters approved measures to restrict Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers.

Lawmakers are locked in a party-line dispute over a bill that would make the state’s disease response data available to the public. The bill, proposed by Rep. Greg Staats, R-Bucks, would cover all infectious diseases – not just the coronavirus pandemic – and has support from the organization representing many Pennsylvania media outlets.

Democrats have uniformly opposed it so far, however, and Wolf’s spokespeople have cited privacy concerns. The bill passed the House this month in a party-line vote and is now set for the Senate.

Other lawmakers have gone further. Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, told colleagues this month that he plans to propose a sweeping constitutional amendment that would protect the right “to refuse any medical procedure, treatment, injection, vaccine or prophylactic.”

Another bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, and backed by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, would ensure workers fired for refusing vaccines can collect unemployment payments. The bill was moved to a Senate committee last month but has yet to get a hearing.

“We believe that the Legislature must take action to protect individuals who practice the basic human right of deciding what goes into their body,” the sponsors said.

While voters approved limits to the governor’s emergency powers in a primary-election ballot measure, they haven’t voted on more sweeping pandemic proposals. National polls have shown most voters back vaccine mandates, and federal and state data show a wide majority of Pennsylvanians are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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