NEW YORK – A coalition of business interests and tax cutting groups is calling on federal lawmakers to put up strict penalties against unions whose workers commit acts of violence against fellow employees on opposite ends of labor disputes.
The Coalition to End Union Violence wants Congress to make sure big labor groups are held accountable for their members' actions.
"Even if this helps to get labor heads to repudiate violence in all its forms, if an elected official would think twice about showing up at a rally at a worksite to rally behind the union leadership there where that site has also been a place of violence" then it will be worth it, said Karen Kerrigan, chairwoman of the coalition composed of Americans for Tax Reform, the Small Business Survival Committee, Frontiers of Freedom, and the National Taxpayers Union.
Labor groups dispute the charges and say the sudden interest in union violence is nothing more than a smokescreen to swerve attention away from corporate scandals.
The campaign is "an obvious attempt to shift the focus from the corporate crime wave to unions, which have obviously been very critical of the corporate malfeasance and criminality," said Marco Trbovich, assistant to the president of the United Steel Workers of America. "It really is an egregious misuse of the Congress' time."
The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations held a hearing Thursday on the matter. Past legislative attempts by lawmakers to reduce the violence have failed.
"Union violence is increasing every time there's a strike somewhere. It seems like even without one, violence inside the workplace has increased to try to get people to be part of the union," the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, told Foxnews.com.
About 9,000 attacks against workers have been documented in recent decades, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis. And a 1973 Supreme Court decision is to blame, argue legal groups like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
NRWLDF legal director Dan Cronin said the high court's ruling on United States v. Emmons left a loophole in the law that exempted union violence from the 1946 Hobbs Act, which makes it a federal crime to obstruct interstate commerce by robbery or extortion. He said the decision did not require unions to impose rules to prevent co-worker violence and, in fact, made it harder for law enforcement authorities to enforce laws during strikes.
"So basically, the guy that throws the brick … can be arrested under the state and local laws, but the national organization who's supporting him …you can't go after them," Cronin said. "It's kind of like if you're trying got get rid of weeds and taking one out."
One such example involved Bill Hinote, a now-retired boiler worker at the American Petrofina oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. He refused to join a 1982 strike and paid severely.
"They shot me as I opened the door to my pickup truck. They hit me five times. One bullet tore into my left knee. A bullet went into my right hand. A bullet went into my right side and exited next to my navel. Two bullets went through my thigh. I felt like I was being burned with a hot poker, then I went into shock," Hinote recalled in a submission to The Freeman, a publication of The Foundation for Economic Education.
In 1986, Hinote sued the local Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union and won a $1.2 million settlement. But the violence didn't end there, says the National Taxpayers Union, which has launched a million-dollar ad campaign targeting the violence.
The coalition singles out the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Steel Workers of America and United Auto Workers for their complacency regarding member violence. But the unions say there is no proof their members have been involved in crime against fellow laborers.
"This group is a sham -- it's a corporate-backed sham," Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the Teamsters, said of the new business-friendly coalition. "We're talking about corporations who are trying to reduce worker rights. That's what this is about … this is not about union violence or picket-line violence."
Neither Trbovich nor Caldwell would acknowledge or refute charges of union violence, saying only that many cases of union violence have been thrown out of the courtroom.
Some lawmakers agreed that union violence is a non-issue.
"There is no evidence to support the insinuation that violence by union members accounts for any significant portion of workplace violence," Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., said during Thursday’s hearing. "I believe the committee’s focus today is off center."
Even if lawmakers do decide a law is needed, the political will may not be there since homeland security and a possible war on Iraq are taking center stage on Capitol Hill, Kerrigan said.
"Will it get full play by politicians in the election? I doubt it," she said. "Is it something, though, we're planning to see in the future? That's the goal."