Latest coal strike violence: it could bring new US law

Incidents of rock-throwing in the coalfields, on the upswing since miners rejected a proposed agreement late last month, may scuttle organized labor's efforts to block a law aimed against union violence.

A move is afoot on Capitol Hill to tighten federal laws, which would make anyone convicted of violence on a picket line or in a labor dispute subject to heavy criminal penalties.

The new antiviolence proposal, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, seeks to amend the 1946 Hobbs Act , which outlaws violence and extortion in interstate commerce.

The amendment has strong backing from GOP colleague and chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, as well as from the National Right to Work Committee, the Associated Builders and Contractors, and other "New Right" allies.

The rationale behind the move is the need, as the bill's advocates see it, for more protection against union violence.

Initially, its prospects for passage were considered about even. But now scattered violence in the United Mine Workers strike may be increasing the likehood of the bill's approval.

Labor's opposition to the proposal stems not from a love of violence, but rather from concern that passage of the bill could open the way to harassment of unions and their members engaged in "legitimate" disputes with employers.

"Almost any incident that occurs along a picket line could subject strikers or union officials to federal penalties of up to 20 years in prison and $10,000 fines," said Ray Denison, AFL-CIO legislative director, in letters to all members of the Senate and the US House of Representatives.

Labor spokesmen say that union-related violence is only an occasional problem , not epidemic, and can be handled adequately without federal involvement.

Most incidents are spontaneous -- they "just happen," Mr. Denison said. Tempers flare. But if the Hobbs Act amendment passes, he added, "the worker who throws a punch on the picket line or the striker who deflates the tires of his employer's truck would be subject to federal prosecution."

AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland told Congress, "Police powers belong in the hands of states and localities, and we think they are adequate to the task."

Acts or threats of violence related to "legitimate union objectives" were excluded from the scope of the Hobbs Act by a Supreme Court decision in 1973. The ruling, by a 5-to-4 vote, reflected court worries about overkill in linking picket-line violence to extortion in a way that could make those responsible for minor incidents liable for long prison terms and heavy fines.

The court said in its majority opinion that Congress, when it passed the Hobbs Act, did not intend for the federal government to undertake "policing the orderly conduct of strikes."

Unions and their members are subject to state and local laws concerning assaults, disorderly conduct, and property destruction. Employer groups and business lobbyists complain that police frequently ignore violence during labor disputes, unless "strong arm tactics" by one side or the other result in serious injuries, deaths, or heavy property damage.

The National Labor Relations Board has the power to go into court to enjoin violence in a labor dispute, but it uses this power in only the m ost serious situations.

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