The Wall Street Journal
Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Thursday, June 2, 1994
Union Goons' Best Friend...
By James Bovard
President Clinton's Commission on the Future of Worker-Management
Relations is expected to issue its report on labor law reform today. At
the same time, the Clinton administration and big labor are pressuring
the Senate to enact legislation banning businesses from hiring
replacements for strikers. Obviously, this measure would give more
power to the unions. But it also would give far more power to an
organization with a long history of condoning union violence -- the
National Labor Relations Board. According to the NLRB, violence by
strikers is not an unfair labor practice unless the violence becomes
In 1979, the NLRB announced: "Although an employee may have engaged
in misconduct [during a strike], he or she may not be deprived of
reinstatement rights absent a showing that the conduct was so violent .
. . as to render an employee unfit for future service." Several
decisions by the agency in recent years highlight that the NLRB has
learned nothing in the past decade and a half -- a time when there have
been thousands of violent incidents during strikes.
The NLRB sometimes does cartwheels to avoid blaming unions for
shocking rampages against nonunion companies. On Sept. 9, 1989, a
busload of members and associates of Ironworkers Local Union 783 from
Iron Mountain, Mich., arrived at an International Falls, Minn., union
hall to take part in an assault on the housing camp of a large nonunion
construction site. Over 400 people launched a premeditated attack,
burned the campsite to the ground, destroyed $2 million in property,
and seriously injured numerous people in one of the worst labor
rampages in recent years.
BE&K, the Alabama-based construction company whose property was
destroyed, filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Michigan
local. The bus was stopped by police on the way out of town and many
riders were arrested for their part in the riot. The leader of the
Michigan local sprang into action -- securing a bank loan of $30,000 to
pay for bail, fines and legal costs for the members, and spending time
in Minnesota to help get them out of jail. The local union leader did
nothing to disavow the violence even after several of the local's
members pleaded guilty to riot charges.
The NLRB examined the case last year and decided that the union could
not be accused of condoning its members' actions during the riot --
largely because the union members had not yet pleaded guilty at the
time they were bailed out by the union. The NLRB decision got swatted
down by a federal appeals court on May 12, which harshly criticized the
agency for neglecting stark evidence of the union's involvement and
condoning of the violence. The court ruled, "We construe the Board's
rationale to be that even if violent acts and rioting were the bases
for arrest of members . . . there could be no ratification or
condonation since those arrested were 'presumptively innocent' of the
The NLRB's Office of General Counsel issued a ruling in 1990
concerning violence against International Tank Service Inc., a company
repairing storage tanks at a BP Refinery in Lima, Ohio. A local union
demanded that the company sign an agreement with the union. After the
company refused, union members attacked the company's trucks with lead
pipes and rocks and physically assaulted the company's manager.
An NLRB decision on the incident noted judiciously: "It does not
appear that this property damage was extensive" and the company manager
"was not seriously injured." The NLRB's General Counsel asserted: "The
contemporaneous use of violence and other misconduct by a construction
union picketing for an 8(f) agreement [to hire only through a union
hiring hall] will not, per se, render such picketing unlawful" under
the National Labor Relations Act.
The clearest example of the NLRB's contrasting attitudes toward
companies hiring replacement workers and toward union violence comes
from the 1990-93 Greyhound strike. At midnight on March 1, 1990,
drivers -- members of the Amalgamated Council of Greyhound Local Unions
-- walked off their jobs. Many passengers were stranded. The following
day, Greyhound began hiring replacement workers and implemented the
terms of its final contract offer to the union.
Strikers began a campaign of violence. On March 11, seven passengers
were wounded as a result of shots fired at a Greyhound bus in
Jacksonville, Fla. In the early months of the strike, sniper attacks
occurred 52 times on buses carrying passengers. Bus ridership fell
two-thirds, and the company was unable to provide buses and drivers for
almost half its scheduled runs.
Despite the stark violence, the NLRB took the union's side. In May
1990, NLRB General Counsel Jerry Hunter sought to force the company to
provide "immediate and full reinstatement" to the strikers and to fire,
"if necessary, any and all replacements in order to provide work for
such strikers" -- as well as provide the strikers with $143 million in
back pay. The NLRB claimed that Greyhound had committed an unfair labor
practice by implementing its final contract offer without union consent
-- even after union members walked off the job and began a campaign of
violence against Greyhound buses, stations and employees.
Three months after the strike began, Greyhound filed for bankruptcy
protection. Chief Executive Officer Fred Currey declared that the
violence of the strikers -- including the bombings, the shootings and
the beatings -- was directly responsible.
In July 1990, the NLRB issued a formal ruling as to whether the bus
drivers union "violated Section 8(b)(3) of the Act by planning and
engaging in a campaign of violent strike-related misconduct while
engaged in collective bargaining with the Employer for a new labor
agreement." The NLRB officially rationalized that "although the Union's
conduct . . . was substantial and widespread, this case does not
involve a situation where the Union brought its misconduct directly
into the negotiations, by engaging in violence, threats or other
restraint and coercion aimed directly at employer bargaining
representatives." Apparently, since the strikers only shot up Greyhound
buses, and not the company's chief executive officer, the strikers'
crimes were irrelevant to federal labor law.
The NLRB tried its case against Greyhound before one of its own
administrative law judges. NLRB lawyers argued, among other curious
propositions, that Greyhound had committed an "unfair laborpractice" by
firing two strikers convicted and sentenced to prison for shooting at a
bus carrying passengers. The NLRB claimed that the workers had been
engaged in union activities during the strike, that their activities
were protected under federal labor law -- and thus that Greyhound owed
them back pay, according to Greyhound counsel (and former NLRB General
Counsel) Rosemary Collier.
Under severe pressure from the Clinton administration and the NLRB,
Greyhound settled with the striking union in April 1993, agreeing to
provide $22 million in back pay and to rehire many of the strikers who
had been engaged in violence against the company. The union was not
required to make any compensation to the shooting victims or others
injured during the strike.
The NLRB's tolerance of violence can pose a deadly threat even to
union members. In a 1991 report, the New York State Organized Crime
Task Force concluded the problem of labor racketeering in the New York
City construction industry is "all the more serious because it is so
pervasive, has so many victims, and is the catalyst for the commission
of so many other kinds of crimes." The Task Force noted that honest
union reformers may be "laid off, blacklisted, intimidated, beaten, or
even killed" and that the NLRB and other federal agencies "offer such
victims little support."
In contrast to its timidity in condemning union violence, the NLRB
routinely hits private employers with charges that would likely be
considered either goofy or demented by the average citizen.
This past March, for example, the NLRB accused Pony Express Courier
Co. of committing an unfair labor practice because it set up a national
toll-free telephone question line for its employees -- thereby
violating its obligation to have its employees deal with the company
only through the Teamsters Union. Also in March, the NLRB ruled that
Dickerson-Chapman Inc. of Jackson, Miss., committed an unfair labor
practice by, among other things, issuing new safety regulations without
first providing the union the opportunity to bargain over the
President Clinton's new head of the NLRB, former UAW attorney and
professor William Gould, is widely perceived to be pro-union; even
moderate Republicans such as Sen. Nancy Kassebaum strongly opposed his
nomination earlier this year. Though one recent study found that the
NLRB has ruled against employers in 94% of the cases involving striker
replacements since 1981, Mr. Gould (despite his personal condemnation
of strike-related violence) can be expected to tilt the playing field
still further. To ban striker replacements at the same time that the
NLRB is already heading leftward could severely destabilize labor
relations in this country for the rest of the century.
At a time when Americans are increasingly shocked by violent crime,
it makes no sense to give further privileges and powers to unions that
use terror against nonunion members and private companies. Instead of
banning striker replacements, Congress should arraign the NLRB on
charges of condoning -- and thereby fomenting -- union violence.
Mr. Bovard writes often on public policy.