Supreme Court justices will be putting Big Labor under a microscope during their current term. The justices will hear cases dealing with issues ranging from President Obama's abuse of his recess-appointment power to pack the National Labor Relations Board with pro-union activists, to Big Labor's attempts to pressure businesses and local governments into forcing their employees to join favored unions.
It’s good news that Chief Justice John Roberts and his eight black-robed colleagues are doing this. If anything, the justices should have been bolder because union bosses are exempt from a surprising number of laws that apply to everyone else.
One of the cases the justices have yet to hear is Ralphs Grocery Co. v. United Food and Commercial Workers. The case involves UFCW Local 8's creation of a picket line directly in front of one of the nonunion chain's stores in Sacramento. This went on, not for weeks or even months, but years.
Ordinarily, that would be trespassing, because the picket line was on Ralphs' property. That is not the case in California, though, where the anti-trespassing law has a specific carve-out for unions. This covers not just business locations but private residences, too. Nevada has a similar exemption. In Pennsylvania and Illinois, unions are exempt from state anti-stalking laws. People who follow you home and lurk in front of your door are legally protected if they can claim they are engaged in union activity.
There are even more outrageous examples than that. As the Capital Research Center recently documented, Big Labor officials have often been able to wriggle free from extortion charges, thanks to the Supreme Court's 1973 Enmons case. The case exempted most union activity from the Hobbs Act, the federal government's main anti-racketeering law.
As in the trespassing and stalking laws, the legal theory is that organizing to form a union deserves special protection, since many of the activities would otherwise fall under the criminal laws. That’s not much comfort to Matt and Mike Pestronk, contractors whose use of non-union labor attracted the ire of the Philadelphia Building Trades Union. The Pestronks have had to deal with threats, assaults on their employees and vandalism. It got so nasty that union activists covered one Pestronk building with pictures of Matt's wife and various bathroom wall obscenities.
In Buffalo last year, union lawyers, aided by the AFL-CIO, cited the Enmons ruling to ward off charges in a case where a construction company owner was stabbed in the neck, among other outrages. The National Institute for Labor Relations Research has tallied 8,799 incidents of union violence between 1975 and 2007, only 3 percent of which resulted in convictions.
There are other exemptions, too. In a 1982 case, the Supreme Court ruled that federal whistleblower protection laws do not apply to union employees. As a result, they can be legally retaliated against for uncovering serious corruption. It is hard to see how any of these exemptions serve the cause of justice or workers’ rights. The Supreme Court should take a hard look at all of them.