A fight for stiffer curb on union violence

Cher Mungovan of Maui, Hawaii, is a fighter. She has taken her campaign to the news media and marched the corridors of Capitol Hill. Her crusade is against union violence, which she says drove her husband out of business and into the federal witness protection program.

Union violence, she argues, receives a unique and unwarranted form of immunity from punishment.

Mrs. Mungovan's voice shakes, and tears well up, when she is asked about the price she has paid: Her husband was forced into hiding, she says, after a ''contract'' was put out on his life.

''I don't want another family to go through the hell my family has been through,'' she says. ''My son has seen his father for one hour and a quarter this year - in a (US) marshal's office in a warehouse building.''

The Mungovans' plight was recounted recently before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee was considering a bill, which has been pushed unsuccessfully the past 10 years, to amend a provision of the Anti-Racketeering (Hobbs) Act of 1946. In some situations, this provision exempts unions from federal extortion laws. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the Hobbs Act (making violence and extortion a federal crime) could not be invoked where ''violence has been used to gain legitimate union objectives....''

''She provided the dramatic illustration of the problem,'' says Terry Campo, counsel for the bill's sponsor, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa. The measure's passage remains far from certain.

Union leaders object to the bill as threatening an erosion of states' rights and a step in the direction of a federal police force. It extends federal police powers into areas already protected by state and local laws.

The bill would ''transform minor acts of labor violence punishable by state law into federal felonies, thus placing the federal government in the business of policing the routine conduct of strike activity,'' said Robert A. Georgine, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO in a Senate Committee hearing statement in May.

A potential federal felony hanging over strikers' heads would have a chilling effect and would inhibit strike participation, union officials say. These officials point out that labor violence is not widespread; 98 percent of all labor contracts are settled without a strike. According to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, there were 21 ''labor related'' bombing incidents out of 1,247 reported in 1981. Those 21 incidents include acts by labor, management, and third parties.

In its 37-year history, however, the National Labor Relations Board has recorded some 300 acts of labor violence, according to a study published by the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, in 1983. The study is entitled ''Union Violence: The record and the response by courts, legislatures, and the NLRB.'' The National Right-to-Work Committee, which opposes closed-shop unionism , records 4,350 acts of union-related violence going back to 1976. (Right-to-Work has been a strong supporter of the Hobbs Act amendment.)

But labor-law expert Roger Abrams at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland argues that ''anyone who seeks to portray labor unions as rife with violence-prone individuals is painting far too broad a picture.''

The critical question, says Mr. Abrams, is ''What's wrong with existing legislation? The only way (the bill) can be justified is if it can be clearly shown that states are unwilling and unable to punish this type of activity.''

In her case, Cher Mungovan feels such a test has been met. US Attorney Daniel Bent in Honolulu, in whose jurisdiction the Mungovan case occurred, would not comment on the case specifically. But he says: ''There have been a number of occurrences where matters have been referred to us for investigation by the FBI and the grand jury that we could not reach because of the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Hobbs Act.''

He says current law ''puts people in the position of being double victims - victims of union violence and victims of those state or local people not willing to do their jobs or who do shoddy investigations because they don't want to incur the wrath of those in political power.''

Adds Rick Reed of the Honolulu prosecuting attorney's office: ''The state has laws concerning extortion and violence, but many union transgressions are overlooked - not by this administration - but historically that has been a fact.''

The Wharton study notes that a ''constantly recurring theme'' among labor negotiators and state and federal judges ''is that a certain amount of violence is to be expected in labor disputes, and that such violence, although to be decried, is thus more or less 'justified.' ''

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