Get Out of Jail Free?

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted October 1997

When Congress passed the Hobbs Anti-Extortion Act in 1946, the intention was to prevent unions from committing extortion.

Then, in 1973, the strangest thing happened.

Labor law scholar Thomas R. Haggard reports in the Nebraska Law Review (1980) that, in United States vs. Enmons, "The defendants were indicted for firing high-powered rifles at three utility company transformers, draining the oil from a company transformer, and blowing up a transformer substation owned by the company -- all done for the purpose of obtaining higher wages" and other benefits during a strike.

No problem -- the district courts threw out the indictment on the rationale that the Hobbs Act could not possibly have meant to prohibit the use of violence to obtain "legitimate" union objectives, such as higher wages ... and, in 1973, the Supreme Court upheld, 5-4!

Thus, many actions which might otherwise constitute violent felonies -- or conspiracy to commit a felony -- are now widely tolerated under federal law, providing the culprits can show a valid union card.

On New Year's Eve 1986, the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire killed nearly 100 people in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Three Teamsters were convicted of setting the blaze, which broke out minutes after the previous union contract expired. But the union bosses who -- according to sworn testimony -- ordered the arson were never tried for the crime.

On July 22, 1993, Eddie York, a 39-year-old father of three, was gunned down as he drove past a mob of union picketers stationed outside the gates of the Ruffner Mine in Lenore, West Virginia. It was his first day on the job. Although there were many witnesses, no one was ever charged.

In Florida in August, UPS driver Roderick Carter was ambushed by striking Teamsters, who inflicted multiple stab wounds from an ice pick to the former guidance counselor's chest and back. Teamsters officials declined to comment on the attack, except to announce they would seek to overturn an injunction banning further violence.

Care to bet how many of these incidents would have resulted in mass "conspiracy" trials, on the flimsiest guilt-by-association, had the culprits been known associates of "dangerous citizen militia leaders" instead of the very umbrella union that also claims to represent the vast majority of American government bureaucrats?

Now, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., has introduced the "Freedom from Union Violence Act" (S. 230).

The bill wouldn't interfere with the right to strike, Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III testified before a senate panel Sept. 3. It would merely "correct the misuse of a special protection granted to labor officials in the United States," by restoring the 50-year-old Hobbs Act.

Michael Gottesman, a law professor at Georgetown University, responded that the bill would outlaw conduct which is already illegal and punishable under state law.

That's a legitimate concern. The original constitutional intent was that most criminal matters be handled by the states, with only a few specifically delineated offenses -- counterfeiting, piracy, treason -- falling within the federal purview.

But this convenient embrace of "states' rights" seems disingenuous, at best.

Would Professor Gottesman hold that Idaho has a right to legalize heroin and unrestricted ownership of machine guns if its legislature so choose, while Montana in turn should face no federal interference should it choose to ban the use of Social Security numbers?

Certainly we have too many federal statutes on the books ... and too many "conspiracy" trials, already.

But that doesn't mean there aren't any real conspiracies. The real question here is whether federal agencies, like the Department of Labor, in effect hand "Get Out of Jail Free" cards to union organizers.

Workers should -- must -- have the right to voluntarily associate and organize, and to go out on strike ... or to continue working, as they choose ... without fear of violent reprisal from either side.

But in a free market, private employers also have the right to continue their operations, with replacement workers if they so choose, and equally free of sabotage or violent reprisal.

The National Institute for Labor Relations reports more than 8 700 incidents of union-related personal injury and property damage have been reported since 1975, but that perpetrators were convicted in fewer than 300 of the cases.

Those numbers need closer scrutiny: Are police and prosecutors merely having trouble building solid cases? Or are federal agents showing up to flash their badges and back them off, declaring "This is now a federal matter"?

The committee should find out.

But when committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch says union officials should face the same penalties as anyone else when they do incite violence, he should get no argument.

The NILRR reports 181 American have been killed by union violence since 1975, and that 445 employees, managers and business owners have been beaten or assaulted.

Government exists to protect our rights and freedoms. If government plays favorites in deciding who to prosecute for plotting violence for personal gain, then government no longer has any legitimate excuse to exist, at all.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

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