Should Americans excuse violent extortion as exercising of “worker’s rights”? More than a few unions have flagrantly ignored the Hobbs Act’s prohibition on extortion and violence. For example, members of the International Union of Operating Engineer’s Local 17 of Hamburg, New York, allegedly scalded non-union workers with hot liquids, destroyed their construction equipment, and threatened to sexually assault the wife of a businessman who hired them.
Fortunately, the tide has started to turn against such thuggery. The government charged Local 17 ringleaders for their criminal acts and their trial recently started. The presiding judge rejected the AFL-CIO’s request to file a “friend of the court” brief in support of the defendants. Just a few weeks ago, following an FBI investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania indicted the secretary-treasurer and several members of the infamous Ironworkers Local 401 in Philadelphia.
According to the indictment, the union formed a goon squad that they called Those Helpful Union Guys (THUGS). THUGS engaged in “night work,” namely sabotaging non-union work sites. They certainly did not show much brotherly love during the 2012 Christmas season when they allegedly set fire to a partially constructed Quaker meeting house. The recent indictment details how the squad used intimidation and violence to extort businesses into hiring their members even when they were “unwanted, unnecessary, and superfluous.”
All of these criminal acts were performed in the service of “workers’ rights.” Of course, a worker’s right entirely depends on whether that worker carries a union card: Local 401 allegedly used baseball bats to persuade non-union workers to look for jobs elsewhere.
Unfortunately, convictions for such instances of extortion remain rare. A roadblock prevents justice from being served. In the 1973 Supreme Court decision United States vs. Enmons, the majority held that the Hobbs Act “does not reach the use of violence (which is readily punishable under state law) to achieve legitimate union objectives.” Individual members can face the wrath of the law, but the law exempts the union from prosecution for extortion—if they are seeking a legitimate objective, such as higher wages.
The FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia office, Edward Hanko, is optimistic about the case. The government alleges that the Ironworkers Local 401 wasn’t resorting to violence to further “legitimate business.” Hanko explains that this “allowed us to go forward with the RICO investigation,” a reference to charges in the indictment for alleged violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Of course, this distinction makes little sense. Why should the law allow unions to deploy groups like THUGS or to use violence and extortion to strengthen their hand in legitimate contract negotiations?
Congress should close this legal loophole by extending the Hobbs Act to cover all acts of union violence—regardless of whether or not they are committed in pursuit of legal goals. Legitimate ends should not excuse violent extortion.
Ross Marchand is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.