Union bosses get away with things you or I wouldn't. Supreme Court should roll back special privileges

Union-only legal carve-outs harm businesses and workers alike

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The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters Local 174 to review a Washington State Supreme Court ruling that grants union officials immunity from state lawsuits over deliberate property damage perpetrated during union strike actions.

While largely under the radar, the case could be a stealth blockbuster if the Justices use the opportunity to begin a more fundamental review of the myriad of double standards that shield unions and union officials from basic legal principles that apply to every other private organization and individual.

In the case, concrete company Glacier Northwest sued the Teamsters union for an estimated $100,000 in property damage orchestrated by union officials during a 2017 strike. The Washington Supreme Court later blocked the lawsuit and sided with union bosses, finding that federal labor law releases them from liability because the damage was "inflicted through a strike as a legitimate bargaining tactic."

As flagrant as immunity from property damage lawsuits might seem, the exemption in Glacier is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to special union boss legal privileges. As the National Right to Work Foundation argued in an amicus brief, the Justices should use the opportunity to reexamine the vast landscape of union-only legal carve-outs that harm businesses and individual workers alike.


Outside United States Supreme Court on June 25

Outside United States Supreme Court on June 25 (Fox News Digital/Lisa Bennatan)

On the issue of violence, courts have let union agents off the hook for acts for which any regular citizen would be held accountable. The controversial 1973 US v. Enmons Supreme Court decision immunized union officials from the federal Hobbs Anti-Extortion Act when their extortionate violence is used "to achieve legitimate union objectives."

A high-profile example of the kind of behavior Enmons permits occurred in 2014, when Teamsters militants slashed the tires of Top Chef TV show vehicles and threatened host Padma Lakshmi that they would "bash that pretty face in" because union officials were angry members weren’t given production jobs on the show. A judge instructed jurors in the resulting case that, per Enmons, conviction should turn on whether those jobs were legitimate union objectives. The result? Not guilty.

Violence isn’t the only thing union bosses get away with legally that others would not. The most fundamental power that unions wield – the ability to force unwilling workers under their monopoly "representation" – lacks any parallel outside of labor law. Even convicted criminals can choose their own legal representative, yet union officials can deny workers the same choice in employment matters.

In the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision, Justice Samuel Alito acknowledged this, calling monopoly bargaining power in the public sector "a significant impingement on associational freedoms that would not be tolerated in other contexts."


Mark Janus sued because he didn’t want a certain fee deducted from his paycheck to go toward a union just because he worked for the state. 

Mark Janus sued because he didn’t want a certain fee deducted from his paycheck to go toward a union just because he worked for the state.  ((Reuters/Leah Millis))

In fact, Supreme Court skepticism of union officials’ government-granted power to bind workers to contracts against their will goes back much further. In the 1944 Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad case, the Supreme Court seemingly came close to striking down monopoly bargaining in the private sector. In that case, white railway union officials were using their bargaining powers to engage in blatant racial discrimination against black workers.

The Steele decision noted that organized labor has been granted "powers comparable to those of a legislative body both to create and restrict the rights of those it represents." Yet instead of striking down the federal law authorizing such powers and the resulting discrimination, the court attempted a compromise by conjuring an ambiguous "duty of fair representation" standard into the law. Purportedly, this standard means unions must act as employees’ fiduciary, but it has been weakened to the point that often it boils down to: You can mistreat individual workers, but don’t be too blatant.


Union loopholes to normal legal principles go on and on. For example, any first year law student knows that for a contract to be valid all parties must agree to its full terms. Yet, according to the National Labor Relations Board, even that isn’t necessary for a union contact to trigger a non-statutory "contract bar" doctrine that then blocks workers from voting to remove unwanted union officials for up to three years. And what other private organization can have you fired just for not paying monthly dues?

The basic principle of equality under the law goes back to the Founders. Hopefully, Glacier Northwest will be the beginning of reapplying that concept to labor law, because for too long labor officials have played by a different set of rules.