Sometimes, as Charles Dickens charitably observed through Mr. Bumble, the law is "a ass." So it is when the law, as endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court, suggests that violence, threats and intimidation may be permissible under federal law when carried out by labor unions pursuing "legitimate union goals."
With friends like that, it's no wonder unionism has fallen on hard times in this country. Yes, other factors are at work in labor's decline, but it's hard to attract decent people into the ranks when membership means the acceptance of violence, threats and intimidation.
The issue arises as part of the federal case against leaders of Local 17, Operating Engineers, in Buffalo. The indictment accuses union leaders of running a criminal enterprise that lasted nearly a decade and added millions of dollars to the cost of construction projects. Its tactics, the indictment alleges, include a death threat, a knife attack and threats of injury.
The defendants deny the allegations, which will be hashed out in court. The more troubling aspect is the suggestion by labor leaders and defense lawyers that the Supreme Court long ago ruled that union members have certain rights to use violence and vandalism in pursuit of those"legitimate union goals."
The ruling, from a 1973 case, involved the application of extortion laws against labor unions that are seeking improved terms of employment and use violence, property damage or similar coercive actions to achieve those goals.
Here's how bad it's already become: In the 1973 case, charges against three union members were dismissed even though they were accused of firing high-powered rifles at utility company transformers and blowing up a transformer substation. Their conduct, according to the court, was legal because it was committed in pursuit of legitimate union objectives.
The bottom line here is that the case against Local 17 needs to continue. It is important -- at some other point, if not this one -- for these issues to be relitigated and for the Supreme Court to have an opportunity to reconsider an egregious ruling.
Congress should also revisit this issue. If anything ever needed to be made plain, it is that financial or political goals, whether sought by a union or any other group or individual, do not give cover to criminal conduct. If unions and their leaders can't find legitimate ways to achieve legitimate goals, then let them pay the price. Behind bars.