To hear the left tell it, the right is seething with hatred, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. Pro-lifers, gun owners, and Tea Partiers—a Venn diagram that encompasses more than half the country—are all sub rosa thugs. The media assist by reflexively blaming acts of political violence on conservatives, even when no such connection exists.
Last week provided a good reminder that one of the biggest sources of political violence in this country has long been and remains labor unions. The Justice Department filed racketeering and arson charges against the Ironworkers Local 401 in Philadelphia. “The defendants relied on a reputation for violence and sabotage, which had been built up in the community over many years, in order to force contractors to hire union members,” notes the FBI press release. “It is alleged that the defendants created ‘goon’ squads, composed of union members and associates, to commit assaults, -arsons, and destruction of property. One such squad referred to itself as the ‘The Helpful Union Guys,’ or THUGs.” Among the extensive charges, perhaps the most appalling is that the union burned down a church under construction. The destroyed church happened to be a Quaker meeting house, a gathering place for a sect well-known for its pacifism. If irony were a crime, the U.S. attorney would have to add it to the list of charges.
This latest incident is part of a much broader problem of union violence in the City of Brotherly Love. The National Right to Work Committee estimates that Philadelphia has averaged 45 incidents of union violence a year for over 40 years. The media, of course, downplay the problem. Only “143 Philadelphia-based incidents of union violence [were] documented in news reports between 1975 and 2009, arrests were mentioned only 38 times, and only eight convictions were noted,” according to a National Review investigation.
Philly union goons even boast of their violent reputation. “One person’s harassment is another person’s free-speech exercise,” Pat Gillespie, business manager for the AFL-CIO-affiliated Building and Trades Council, told National Review. “Life is tough in Philadelphia, as it is in any urban area. Someone shot me from a car one time. People who tippy-toe around the edges of the city and then come in for a foray to try to do something against the standards that have been established get their feelings hurt when people call them a bastard, when people call them out for what they are. To say that we’re more expressive than any other area—maybe we do it a little louder, but the point’s the same. You have to protect what’s yours and preserve the standards that have been established for our area.”
What’s disturbing is that when Gillespie equates union violence with expression, he has legal precedent on his side. Part of the reason you don’t see more sweeping takedowns of violent unions is that the burden of proof for law enforcement is unreasonably high. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Enmons that violence and property damage done for “legitimate union objectives” are exempt from the Hobbs Act—the 1946 law designed to keep commerce from being disrupted by violence or threats.
A 2012 study published in the Wall Street Journal estimates that unions spent $4.4 billion on political activity between 2005 and 2011, nearly all of it going to Democrats. So long as Democrats are cashing union checks and support federal laws that sanction destruction and intimidation, they have no standing to sermonize about political violence.