The Law Should Not Enable Union Violence

A general contractor is approached by a representative of a local union and told he “needed to hire a certain number of his guys.” When the contractor declines, union members proceed to destroy some of his equipment, including a forklift. The contractor doesn’t bother reporting the vandalism to police stating, “I didn’t think anything would happen.” Other employers, taking the threats seriously, hire the union members, who then perform little or no work.

No, that’s not a scene from The Sopranos. On February 18, 2014, the FBI arrested 10 members of Philadelphia Ironworkers Local 401, including union leadership, for aiding racketeering and arson, and indicted them under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

For three years, union members repeatedly threatened non-union construction employers with violence unless they hired a certain amount of union members. As the indictment noted, violence was “deeply ingrained in the structure of their organization.”

This wasn’t the first time either. In 2010, prosecutors alleged that Local 401 boss Joseph Dougherty and his associates attacked non-union workers at a Toys “R” Us construction site. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, upon encountering a wall of picketers at the site, nonunion workers from Maura Buildings in Lebanon, Pa., called police while Local 401 members smashed their trucks with baseball bats and even hit a nonunion employee in the face.

So how did the union get away with this for so long? Because the law said it could. In states like Pennsylvania, where unions are exempt from federal and state extortion laws, employers and employees threatened by unions have little to no legal recourse until the union actually commits a violent crime.

For most people, engaging in extortion, threats of violence, assault, or vandalism means a trip to jail, if caught. But not for unions. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision U.S. vs. Enmons, unions are exempt from a federal anti-extortion law known as the Hobbs Act. The Act provides anyone who obtains property from someone through wrongful use of force or threatened violence shall be fined up to $10,000, face up to 20 years’ imprisonment, or both.

Under the Enmons exemption, unions may vandalize, harass, and even engage in violent acts and not be prosecuted under the Hobbs Act if those actions are done in the pursuit of “legitimate” union interests, such as higher wages. Worse, many states, like Pennsylvania, have modeled their own anti-extortion laws after the Enmons decision.

Without these exemptions, the threats and violence from groups like Local 401 would likely have never happened.

Although, Local 401 could be prosecuted for extortion under the RICO Act, states like Pennsylvania should apply anti-extortion laws to everyone equally. If the Hobbs Act applied to unions, law enforcement could have intervened when the Ironworkers first started threatening employers before any violence took place.

Violent union practices are not isolated to Pennsylvania. Since 1975, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research has collected more than 12,000 accounts of union violence reported in the media. However, the study also estimates that 80 to 90 percent of union violence reported to police is not covered by the media, which means the number of actual incidents of union violence is much higher.

Other states grant unions similar exemptions. In Illinois, Nevada, and California, unions are exempt from state stalking laws when related to a labor dispute. Even more disturbingly, in West Virginia, all individuals “have the right to be free from any violence, or intimidation by threat of violence” used against them based on ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation, but the same statue also says the law cannot be used to “impede or to interfere with any person conducting labor union or labor union organizing activities.

Fortunately, this is one exemption some Pennsylvania leaders are looking at closely. State Rep. Ron Miller (R-York) sponsored a bill to close the loophole allowing labor unions to stalk, harass, and threaten violence when a labor dispute is occurring. Such reform is long past due.

Unions have the right to collectively bargain and strike within the bounds of civil behavior, but the Enmons decision goes well beyond that, encouraging union violence and fostering a culture of intimidation. If this country is to function under the rule of law, it is time unions are governed by the the same laws that apply to everyone else. After all, aren’t we all created equal?