Congress Has Chance to End Union Violence

Members of the House of Representatives recently turned their attention to union violence, when the issue was raised during a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing on workplace security.

A witness appearing before the committee related some of the violence and intimidation committed by union members and their sympathizers during a labor dispute between the United Steel Workers of America and AK Steel at the company's plant in Mansfield, Ohio.

According to the witness, earlier this year a member of the United Auto Workers union who was sympathetic to the USWA's side of the conflict was caught, and charged with, plotting to launch homemade rockets at the plant. Throughout the dispute, pipe bombs exploded in mailboxes, gun shots were fired and many workers were physically attacked for not joining with the USWA. In one incident, union members assaulted eight security guards and temporary workers so severely, they needed to be hospitalized.

Many other workers and executives, and even the children of executives, were victims of verbal intimidation and harassment.

The testimony offered at the hearing led some committee members to suggest that it may be necessary for Congress to reexamine the Freedom from Union Violence Act. "...for those people who want to work during a strike to pay the bills, keep food on the table and roof overhead, violence in the workplace has been a sad reality," commented Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who chaired the hearing on Workplace Security. "And sadly, more and more people are becoming victims of union violence when all they want to do is earn enough money to make ends meet," Johnson said.

The violence at AK Steel is just one example of many disturbing incidents of violence directed against individuals who choose to work during a labor dispute or strike or who oppose the agenda of the union. According to the National Institute of Labor Relations Research, there have been over 9,000 reported acts of union violence since 1975. These incidents have included intimidation, sexual and racial harassment, physical violence, vandalism and even death.

Many of these acts of violence and intimidation involve hateful language directed at women and African-Americans who may not side with the unions. Of course, employing the use of racial and sexual intimidation at any time is spineless and inexcusable; but hurling such slurs against fellow workers during labor disputes to discourage employees from working is especially despicable.

In a time where every American is supposed to be given equal opportunity to earn a living and attend their jobs without suffering from intimidation and harassment, many union members aggressively threaten women and minority workers who cross picket lines. AK Steel has produced a videotape that captures union members, while marching on the picket line, using hateful language against female workers and aiming racist epitaphs at African-American workers, security guards and cameramen.

In another well-publicized incident a number of years ago, Rod Carter, an African-American UPS driver, chose to continue working during the strike by the Teamsters union. After Carter gave a television interview, he received threatening phone calls at his home. The next day, Carter was pulled from his truck by striking Teamsters who stabbed him repeatedly with an ice pick while shouting racial slurs at him.

Experts trace the this proliferation of violence to the 1973 Supreme Court decision U.S. vs. Enmons, which made it difficult to prosecute acts of violence committed during labor disputes. Legislation to correct this, called the Freedom from Union Violence Act, was first introduced in 1997 by Sen. Strom Thurmond. The bill has been re-submitted in the Senate during this Congress. Shortly after the September hearing, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., introduced a House version of the legislation.

By holding these hearings and shining light on these incidents, Congress has taken a critical step in addressing this issue and raising the profile on union violence. Now, with a new Congress coming, it is time to take the next step and pass the Freedom from Union Violence Act and close the legal loopholes that protect union violence from prosecution.

Karen Kerrigan is chairperson of the Coalition to End Union Violence, a project of the Small Business Survival Committee in Washington, D.C.