Feds Move Against Union Violence
September 5, 1985
The Department of Justice may be preparing a Labor Day surprise for building tradesmen who use threats of violence to disrupt operations of nonunion contractors. The department appears to be building a test case in Illinois that applies the Hobbs Act -- a federal antiextortion law - to a labor dispute that was getting out of hand.
Last month, undercover agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 10 members of laborers' union Local 100 in East St. Louis for allegedly threatening the lives of nonunion workers on a project there.
The arrests are reportedly part of a larger grand jury probe into union violence in the area that also involves the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Illinois Division of Criminal Investigation.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce E. Reppert, the laborers were arrested and charged with Hobbs Act violations after threatening employees of American Fence Co., St. Louis, who were installing fencing at a Church's Fried Chicken jobsite. The laborers allegedly told the nonunion workers they would not survive unless they stopped working. Reppert says other threats were also made, but declines to make them public.
The federal law was invoked because local officials did not want to have anything to do with the situation. "Nobody in East St. Louis would talk to us, including the mayor," says Robert L. Watts, one of the owners of American Fence. "We started out at the bottom and ended up with the FBI."
The 1946 law makes extortion in interstate commerce a federal crime.
It defines extortion as "the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence or fear."
Labor-related arrests under the law have been rare, however, since the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the act in its 1973 Enmons decision as not applying to legitimate labor activity.
Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the majority, reasoned that Congress had intended to apply the act only "to those instances where the obtaining of the property would itself be wrongful because the extortionist has no lawful claim to the property."
Violence to achieve a legitimate union objective does not fall within the Hobbs Act, he explained, because there is no "wrongful taking" of property when union members receive wages and benefits in exchange for actual services bargained for by the employer.
Reppert says the charges against the workers have been dismissed "in contemplation of a presentation to a grand jury."
He explains that they were arrested under an exception to the Enmons decision dealing with union demands for "unwanted and superfluous employees."
Such demands, he explains, are not a legitimate labor objective under the act.
Although he admits that "this is not done very often," application of the Hobbs Act to labor disputes in such instances can be made "on a case-by-case basis . .. depending on the nature of the threats."
While Reppert would neither confirm nor deny that the arrests had been approved beforehand by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., he notes cryptically, "I don't expect to be in any difficulty over it." Justice
Department officials in Washington would not comment on the case, nor would Local 100 officials.
However, a trial attorney in the department's criminal division claims that union demands for "superfluous employees" were a primary reason for the Hobbs Act's passage by Congress in the first place.
During the 1940s, he explains, New York City teamsters stopped out-of-town truckers at the city limits and with threats and violence demanded that they use union drivers to make delivenes in the city.
Some attorneys think the new Hobbs Act approach may provide the opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to take another look at its Enmons decision.
The high court will review it if the lower courts split on the issue or if "so many exceptions are carved out [of the Enmons decision] that it doesn't mean anything anymore," says Richard Markey, general counsel of the openshop Associated Builders and Contractors. He claims the decision "was unnecessarily over broad."
As a fallback position, ABC and other court's ruling are supporting a bill that would amend the Hobbs Act.
Introduced by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) earlier this year, S. 300 would apply the act even if the "force, violence or fear of force or violence, takes place in the course of a legitimate business or labor dispute or in pursuit of a legitimate business or labor objective."