How Nasty Can Union Violence Get And Still Be Legal?

How nasty can union violence get and still be legal? A labor racketeering case against one of the biggest building trade unions in New York promises to clarify just how far union violence can go without becoming illegal -- if not at the polling place, at least on the work site.

In Hamburg, New York, near Buffalo, leaders of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17 stand accused of violent acts, threats of violence, and destruction of property. The defendants have denied the allegations, according to the Buffalo News.

According to court papers and to coverage by the Buffalo News, the charges against them include stabbing a knife into the neck of a construction company president, throwing hot coffee at non-union workers, pouring sand into gas tanks and transmissions of 17 construction vehicles, and threatening sexual assault against the wife of a company representative. The racketeering case was first filed in 2008.

According to court papers, the executive who was stabbed in the neck asked a union organizer what benefit he would get if he hired members of the union. "You guys slash my tires, stab me in the neck, try to beat me up," he protested. "What are the positives?"

"The positives," reportedly replied the organizer, "are that the negatives you are complaining about would go away."

At the time of the indictment, then-U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn said Local 17 had victimized construction sites large and small. "We believe they had a negative financial impact on almost every major construction project in Western New York." Today Flynn, in private practice at law firm Harris Beach, tells ABC News he still considers the case to be "a very important investigation." A dozen union officials stand accused of extortion and labor racketeering.

Calls by ABC News to attorneys representing Local 17 defendants were not returned, and a spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., said the union did not consider the case to be of national significance. Nonetheless, the AFL has tried to intervene in the case by asking permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief. That request was denied Monday by a federal judge.

AFL-CIO lawyer Jonathan D. Newman, quoted by the Buffalo News, says his union is "not condoning the allegations or arguing that union officials are completely immune from prosecution." Rather, it is trying to make sure that federal law is not being interpreted in such a way as to have a chilling effect on "legitimate union activity."

The definition of legitimate activity is one of the questions at issue.

The Supreme Court determined in 1973 that union violence up to a point is permissible. Under certain circumstances, violent acts by union members cannot be prosecuted under federal law as extortion or racketeering.

Robert Doren, managing partner of Bond Schoeneck & King, is not involved in the Local 17 case but has represented some of the construction companies involved. The outcome of the case, he believes, will be significant.

"It's one in a series of cases brought in recent years that make it loud and clear that the criminal conduct of union officials will no longer be tolerated," he says. "Only when the courts allow prosecutors to pursue these claims can we expect the free enterprise system to flourish. In many places across the U.S., mostly in the North East and West, violence by union leadership has not been uncommon."

Earlier this month union violence erupted in the West, with angry longshoremen bringing shipping to a halt in the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

At a new $200 million grain export terminal in Longview, Washington, 500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, outraged that terminal owners were using labor from a different union, stormed the terminal before sunrise on September 8. Wielding baseball bats, they smashed windows and dumped tons of grain from 72 railroad freight cars, according to local law enforcement and to accounts in the Seattle Times, the New York Times and the Journal of Commerce.

A union spokesman said ILWU leadership had not organized the actions, describing them as wildcat and unsanctioned.

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