Lawmakers and activists are attempting to rein in union exemptions from extortion laws after several high profile acts of suspected union sabotage in 2012.
Labor groups are immune from prosecution under the Hobbs Act, a 1946 provision that criminalized extortion and robbery using the threat or fear of force. Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) attempted to close that loophole last year with the Freedom from Union Violence Act (FUVA).
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The bill never left committee but Lee has pledged to crack down on the sabotage and violence some unions use during labor disputes.
"Union violence and intimidation are serious issues and my legislation is an effort to close the loophole that protects unions from being held accountable for their actions," Lee said. "Threatening workers and damaging property shouldn't be defended as ‘legitimate union objectives' and the law should be clear about that."
Republicans have made several attempts to bring unions under the Hobbs umbrella over the past 25 years, according to Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
"[The Hobbs exemption] is really an amazing special privilege only granted to unions," Mix said. "We are trying to clarify the provisions of the act so that picket line violence is treated the same as rioting and other forms of violence, but union influence has killed [the bills] every time."
Labor allies have prevented FUVA from advancing through either chamber of Congress but Mix said a spate of alleged union violence in 2012 has made the need for reform apparent.
An arsonist damaged a Quaker meetinghouse’s construction site in December because it employed non-union workers. The Philadelphia Police Department suspects that union members are responsible.
"I absolutely think it is a union issue," Philadelphia Police Lt. George McClay told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Additionally, American Airlines in October experienced a spike in loose airplane seats and delayed flights during contract negotiations with the pilot’s union. The union and the airline have both denied any connection between the incidents and the labor dispute.
Union workers in July allegedly exposed nursing home "residents to immediate danger and put them at risk of suffering serious harm or death" by mixing up medical records and identification tags during a labor walkout. Healthbridge Systems, which controls the five nursing homes, accused the Service Employees International Union of extortion and racketeering in connection to the strike.
Unions have enjoyed courtroom success in the battle over Hobbs Act violations. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 1973 that the "use of violence … to achieve legitimate union objectives" could not be prosecuted as extortion. The court reasoned that violent crimes could still be subjected to state law.
However, 13 states, including Lee’s Utah, subsequently granted unions further protection from prosecution, according to Mix.
"A lawsuit could help address this problem but it may not do much about these state laws. The best way forward is through Congress," he said.
The word ‘sabotage’ is in the labor movement’s DNA: It derives from the European practice of workers shoving wooden clogs called sabots into machinery to disable production during the Industrial Revolution. Dr. Steven Allen of the Capital Research Center said the tactics allegedly employed by the nursing home and airline workers represent a departure from traditional labor obstruction.
"Union guys would focus their attention on the equipment or the company itself; they wouldn’t target or endanger their customers to get the contract they want," he said. "This is unprecedented."
Not all conservative union activists are rallying behind Lee’s push, however. Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts, compared the legislation to hate crime laws and said conservatives should not push for increased sentencing just because perpetrators happen to be union members.
"We have existing laws that prosecute protect people from violence and tampering," he said.
Wilson also points out that the United States labor movement has moved beyond the violence and riotous behavior that categorized many strikes through the post-World War II era.
"[The sabotages] are isolated incidents … the union rarely authorizes this stuff—they would be idiotic to do that," he said.
Mix agrees that modern unions are calmer than their predecessors but adds that his office continues to receive numerous reports of intimidation from employees and employers alike. He also pointed to the mayhem that followed public sector labor reforms in the Midwest as evidence of a need to bring unions under the Hobbs Act.
"You only need to look at the property destruction and intimidation used in Michigan and Wisconsin to know this is a very serious issue," he said. "This is about equal protection under the law not singling out unions for punishment. Congress needs to close this loophole."