Union Violence, Threats, Intimidation Now Permissible Under Federal Law?
They’re charged with pouring sand into the engines of construction vehicles and stabbing a company executive in the neck.
They’re also accused of tossing hot coffee at non-union workers and threatening to sexually assault the wife of a company representative.
But in the eyes of organized labor — and maybe the U.S. Supreme Court, as well — the alleged violence, threats and intimidation by leaders of Local 17, Operating Engineers, in Buffalo may be permissible under federal law.
And that’s why the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, sought to intervene in the federal court case against the local.
“We’re not condoning the allegations or arguing that union officials are completely immune from prosecution,” said Jonathan D. Newman, a lawyer for the AFL-CIO. “Instead, we simply want to make sure that the [federal law] is not interpreted in a way that could have a chilling effect on legitimate union activity.”
A federal judge Monday denied the AFL-CIO’s request to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
To hear labor leaders and defense lawyers talk, the nation’s highest court long ago gave union members certain rights to use violence and vandalism in the pursuit of “legitimate union goals.”
The case was United States v. Emmons, and, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that labor unions seeking improved terms and conditions of employment cannot be charged with extortion even if their efforts are accompanied by violence, property damage or similar coercive actions.
“The Supreme Court put a lid on this 35 years ago,” said Mark J. Mahoney, a lawyer for one of the defendants in the Local 17 case.
The court’s ruling was based on the indictment of three union members involved in a strike in Louisiana. The three men were accused of firing high-powered rifles at utility company transformers and blowing up a transformer substation.
“Their actions were more extreme than what is alleged in the Local 17 case,” said Catherine Creighton, a lawyer for Local 17.
In Louisiana, charges against the three union members were dismissed in U.S. District Court. In the context of a strike, their conduct was legal, according to the court, because it was done in the pursuit of “legitimate” union objectives.
The Supreme Court later upheld that decision. Read more by Phil Fairbanks of the BuffaloNews.com here.