News of the indictment of 10 members of the Ironworkers Union, left many wondering “What took them so long?” As any developer or merit shop contractor will tell you, the actions that the Ironworkers are alleged to have engaged in are not solely the purview of the Ironworkers. Indeed threats, violence, and property destruction are the modus operandi for many trade unions trying to obtain work for their members.
Those cheering the news can thank the federal court for the Western District of New York for its decision in U.S. v. Larson, which was issued in September 2011. The case also explains why federal prosecutors have for a long time been hesitated to indict members of organized labor for actions that would land anyone else in jail. The case also could signal a wave of indictments against organized labor to come.
The Larson case involves the indictment of members of the International Union of Operating Engineers under the RICO law, which is the same law used to indict the Ironworkers. Like the indictment in the Ironworkers case, the indictment in that Operating Engineers case alleges that the Operating Engineers made threats, engaged in violence, and destroyed property in an effort to get merit-shop (non-union) contractors to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the union.
The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment arguing that under a under a controversial 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Enmons, which stated that act of violence by a labor union did not violate federal law, if the acts were committed in furtherance of “a legitimate union objective.” In Larson, the defendants argued that their ultimate objective, to get non-union contractors to sign collective bargaining agreements, was “a legitimate labor objective,” and, therefore, they were immune from prosecution under Enmons.
The Larson court rejected that argument and distinguished Enmons. The Larson court pointed out that the union in Enmons was in a legitimate strike with the employer. The Court pointed out that other courts had refused to extend Enmons to claims where a union uses the threat of violence to obtain a new collective bargaining agreement from an employer not previously a signatory to it. The Court also distinguished the special way federal labor laws treat construction industry employers from other industries. In doing so, the Larson Court ripped away the veil of protection Enmons had afforded to labor unions and which enabled them to escape prosecution under the RICO laws.
It took the courts 41 years to limit the Supreme Court’s holding in Enmons, which answers the question of “what took so long?” But in the wake of the Larson decision and in the wake of the Ironworkers indictment the question that organized labor should be asking is “who is next?”