Big Labor Aims to Widen Union-Violence Loophole

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO hierarchy admits that the extortionate threats and violence allegedly perpetrated by Boston Teamsters kingpin Mark Harrington (pictured) and his cohorts are “deeply problematic.” Nevertheless, union lawyers insist, such crimes must not be prosecuted under the federal Hobbs Anti-Extortion Act. Image: Boston Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis

No court date has yet been set. But Mark Harrington, secretary-treasurer of Local 25 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and four of his henchmen are expecting in the near future to be tried by U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodcock for alleged violations of the federal Hobbs Anti-Extortion Act and other related crimes.

According to U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Harrington and his cohorts terrorized the cast and crew of the cooking-competition Top Chef in June 2014 as they filmed an episode in Milton, a town located in Boston’s greater metropolitan area:

The indictment alleges that a group of rogue Teamsters employed old-school thug tactics to get no-work jobs from an out-of-town production company. In the course of the alleged conspiracy, they managed to chase a legitimate business out of the City of Boston and then harassed the cast and crew when they set up shop in Milton. This kind of conduct reflects poorly on our city and must be addressed for what it is — not union organizing, but criminal extortion.

The press statement in which Ortiz is quoted goes on to allege specifically:

[O]n June 10, 2014,  the defendants showed up at a restaurant in Milton where the production company was filming. The defendants entered the production area and began walking in lockstep toward the doors of the restaurant where they accosted film crew members and attempted to forcibly enter the restaurant. Throughout the morning, the defendants yelled racial and homophobic slurs at the film crew and others, threatened crew and cast members, and shouted profanities. The defendants also blocked vehicles from the entryway to the set, and used physical violence and threats of physical violence to try and prevent people from entering the set.

The federal Hobbs Act prohibits actual or attempted extortion, i.e, the obtaining of things of value through threats or force, when it affects interstate or international commerce. Nearly all Americans would agree that, if Harrington et al actually did what they are charged with having done, they should be criminally prosecuted under the Hobbs Act.

But not Steven Tolman, the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and his lieutenants.

In a friend-of-the-court brief they recently submitted to Judge Woodcock, top Bay State AFL-CIO bosses conceded that the”actions alleged to have been committed” by the Boston Teamster defendants are “deeply problematic . . . .” Nevertheless, claims the union hierarchy, “these actions may not be prosecuted under the Hobbs Act” because the defendants sought to achieve “legitimate labor ends” through their thuggery.

Unfortunately, this seemingly outlandish claim is grounded on a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Forty-three years ago, a deeply divided High Court actually did find, in U.S. v. Enmons, that threats, vandalism and violence perpetrated to secure “legitimate” union objectives are exempted from the Hobbs Act.

However, over the course of the past two decades, multiple federal courts have ruled that the Enmons loophole does not apply to the likes of the Local 25 defendants. They are accused of threatening and assaulting independent employees and nonunion business owners who aren’t legally required to negotiate with union bosses over anything. In such cases, Enmons arguably offers no protection for union goons seeking to avoid a Hobbs Act prosecution.

For example, in 2014 jurist Michael Baylson, a senior judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, refused to dismiss extortion, racketeering and conspiracy charges against officers and militants of Philadelphia-based Local 401 of the Ironworkers Union.

Their motivation when ordering and committing assaults with baseball bats and tire slashings, smashing vehicles with crowbars, damaging construction equipment, and stealing construction materials, insisted the Local 401 defendants, was to advance “legitimate union objectives.”

But Judge Baylson, while agreeing that the use of “strike-related violence” to secure “legitimate” union contract demands does “not constitute Hobbs Act extortion,” found that Enmons did not protect the Local 401 gang because their targets were nonunion.  Ultimately, former Local 401 boss Joseph Dougherty was convicted of leading a conspiracy to extort and commit violence against union-free construction employees and businesses. Eleven of his paid subordinates and militant followers pleaded guilty to resorting again and again to assault, arson and vandalism to bring independent employees and employers into line.

Big Labor was evidently alarmed by the outcome of U.S. v. Joseph Dougherty, and the brief filed by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO brass in the Top Chef extortion case represents an attempt to prevent similar rulings in future union-violence cases.

According to Tolman and his associates, the Enmons  loophole must forestall prosecutions of union threats and violence perpetrated against union-free employees as well as against nonstriking employees of unionized businesses.  By basing her prosecution of Boston Teamster toughs on the understanding of the scope of Enmons articulated by jurists such as Baylson, Ortiz is, in Tolman’s view, making a grave error that could have a “chilling effect” on union organizing activity.  (See the link below to read more about the Massachusetts AFL-CIO brief.)

If AFL-CIO bosses in Massachusetts prevail, the scope of the union-violence loophole in the Hobbs Act will be greatly widened.

Meanwhile, National Right to Work Committee members are fighting for passage of the Freedom from Union Violence Act (S.62), a pending Senate measure that would overturn Enmons and hold union bosses who orchestrate threats and violence accountable under the Hobbs Act.

Because Enmons was a matter of statutory, rather than constitutional, interpretation, Congress retains the power to reverse it legislatively. And that’s exactly what S.62, sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), would do. Committee members nationwide are working to build Capitol Hill support for this much-needed reform.

Massachusetts AFL-CIO comes to defense of five Teamsters charged …