Congress Tries Again to Protect Workers from Union Violence

For decades, union members, often with the tacit approval of union bosses, have committed vandalism, extortion, assault and even murder during a labor dispute. Too often, they have gotten away with such behavior. At least one member of Congress is trying to right this situation. On November 16, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (in photo), introduced the Freedom from Union Violence Act of 2017 (H.R. 4422) to amend an anti-racketeering statute interpreted by the Supreme Court over four decades ago as exempting unions from coverage. “Union violence is an ongoing problem, and it deserves no protection in federal law,” said King. This is hardly the first time that lawmakers have tried to close this legal loophole. And the string of disappointments has been due in no small measure to union opposition.

Unions do not necessarily play “fair” when seeking support from fellow employees or concessions from employers. If beating someone, or vandalizing the property of that person, during the course of an organizing campaign or a strike can get the desired results, labor officials, while officially decrying such acts, wither may respond by downplaying these acts or rationalizing them as well-intentioned attempts to benefit working people. A lengthy 1999 report by George Mason University’s John M. Olin Institute for Employment Practice and Policy revealed the frequency with which unions may go to intimidate those who stand in their way. Titled Union Violence: The Record and the Response by the Courts, Legislatures and the NLRB, the authors, after reviewing a database of incidents occurring during 1975-96, counted 9,785 criminal acts in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico attributable to unions. The authors, quite rightly, included threats as well as acts in their list. For intimidation, whether planned or spontaneous, by its very nature, aims to strike fear into the hearts of a chosen target. To union officials, threats are preferable to acts, as the latter can result in bad publicity or prosecution.

Union violence, as one might imagine, did not stop after the Nineties. Since the start of the last decade, the United Auto Workers (at the Kohler sink factory in Searcy, Ark.), the Laborers International Union of North America (at Asbestos & Lead Removal Corporation in Queens, N.Y.), and the United Steelworkers (at the AK Steel plant in Mansfield, Ohio) each have waged terror campaigns against an employer, nonmembers or non-striking members. In the latter case, Steelworkers goons detonated pipe bombs in mailboxes, fired off gun shots and assaulted nonunion workers. Union Corruption Update has analyzed in detail a number of assault and property destruction campaigns against nonunion workers and construction sites. Among the most flagrant violators were Laborers Local 91 (Niagara Falls, N.Y.), Laborers Local 210 (Buffalo), Operating Engineers Local 17 (Buffalo), Iron Workers Local 401 (Philadelphia), and International Longshore and Warehouse Union Locals 4 and 21 (Washington State). This past summer alone, the business manager for United Plant and Production Workers Local 175 in Long Island, N.Y. pleaded guilty in federal court to leading a shakedown crew who intimidated New York City-area business owners into hiring union members. And an elite corps of thugs from Boston’s Teamsters Local 25 stood trial for assaulting members of a nonunion production team for the Bravo Network’s Top Chef back in June 2014 attempting to set up for a scheduled episode at an area restaurant. One union member accosted female host Padma Lakshmi and actually told her: “I’ll smash your pretty little face.”

It isn’t as if the perpetrators of such campaigns haven’t been immune to prosecution. Many, in fact, have been indicted and convicted. But that does not mean that current law is sufficient to the task of bringing such criminals and their accessories to justice. Most union violence comes under the jurisdiction of state courts. And states have a limited ability to combat extortionate union rackets crossing state lines. Federal prosecutors would be better able to identify and indict the participants in such schemes by making maximum use of an anti-racketeering statute known as the Hobbs Act. Unfortunately, a loophole in that law prevents them from doing so. That legislation, enacted by Congress in 1946, was designed to thwart violence and sabotage in the course of interstate commerce.

One would think that the Hobbs Act would apply as much to unions as to businesses. But unions and their lawyers frequently have gotten around the law, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Enmons. That 1973 decision effectively allowed unions to engage in extortion if done in the name of pursuing “legitimate union objectives.” The case originated in Louisiana during a strike by a local affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. At least three strikers had conspired to fire high-powered rifles at power transformers owned by a utility company, drain oil from a transformer, and blow up a transformer substation. The evidence for prosecution appeared damning. Yet the High Court, by a 5-4 margin, with Justice Potter Stewart writing the majority opinion, concluded that the accused IBEW members did not violate the Hobbs Act because the act did not apply to unions.

It was a dreadful decision. Yet to their credit, some members of Congress have recognized the sophistry that made it possible. Starting in 1997, a succession of Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have sponsored the Freedom from Union Violence Act in hopes of closing this loophole. Each time, the effort failed to gain traction. Unions and their predominantly Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have stood in the way of reform by either downplaying union violence or playing up employer wrongdoing. Rep. King’s new bill, H.R. 4422, represents the latest attempt to right a wrong. The measure would amend Section 1951 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code to read as follows: “…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 to do so, 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, shall be fined not more than $100,000, imprisoned for a term of not more than 20 years, or both.”

Even with Republicans now holding a majority in both houses of Congress, the Freedom from Union Violence Act has a tough battle ahead – assuming there are lawmakers even willing to join Rep. King in fighting it. Thus far, no hearings have been scheduled. And the Senate has yet to sponsor a companion bill. Union bosses like it that way. For decades, they have been “keeping two sets of books,” on one hand denouncing member violence, and on the other, giving a nudge and a wink in support of it. Current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka himself, while as United Mine Workers president, rationalized rank and file crimes (including a murder) during a 1993 coal miners strike. In the recent trial of four Boston Teamsters who verbally and physically terrorized the Top Chef production crew, for example, lawyers for the defendants claimed the charges were “exaggerated.” Significantly, they invoked Enmons to justify dismissal of all charges (the jury would oblige them). Kenneth Barron, a lawyer for one of the defendants, put it this way: “The union doesn’t have to take ‘no’ for an answer.” It’s the job of Congress to tell unions – and not just the Teamsters – that they do.