Why Cher Mungovan says present labor-violence laws left family business helpless

After 13 years as a card-carrying union carpenter, Walter Mungovan decided to go into business for himself. In October 1979, he and his wife, Cher, started the C&W Construction Company in Maui, Hawaii.

A year later, the firm landed contracts to build three custom homes. Then a business agent from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters showed up, asking Mr. Mungovan to sign a union contract, according to testimony by the Mungovans before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mungovan refused. He said his 20 employees were earning more than union wages and he could not afford the loss in productivity that union work rules would cause. He asked the union official why he did not try to sign a larger nonunion contractor. The agent, Mrs. Mungovan testified recently, said the union would get that contractor to sign a union contract, too, ''even if we have to torch his jobs.'' From that point on, Mungovan decided to tape all conversations with union officials.

At the time, construction was in a slump. It only aggravated matters that the majority of skilled workers seemed to be those hired by nonunion contractors, such as C&W.

Soon, pickets showed up in front of Mungovan's sites. ''C&W Construction was not meeting wage standards,'' says Walter Kupau, who was then Hawaii AFL-CIO president. In a recent telephone interview, he added: ''They claimed all their workers were getting $15 an hour, but only two or three supervisors were getting that.''

Picketing against substandard wages can legally continue indefinitely as long as it is for ''informational purposes.'' But picketing intended to organize employees into a union is limited to 30 days.

Mungovan had already been told of the union's intentions and thought the 30 -day limit should apply. A vote, witnessed by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official, was held. C&W employees unanimously agreed to remain nonunion.

But picketing continued. Mungovan tried to get an injunction from the NLRB, but it was slow in coming.

In the meantime, Mrs. Mungovan testified, picketers were threatening employees and families. Suppliers delayed or stopped delivering materials. The Mungovans say they received a bomb threat and telephoned and written death threats. Local authorities were of little help, Mrs. Mungovan says. When the police were called, ''sometimes they didn't show up for an hour, if at all,'' and the police ''told the picketers not to talk to Walter because he was carrying a tape recorder.''

Mungovan continued to tape conversations with union officials. In May 1981 he took these tapes to the NLRB and then the FBI.

The US Attorney's office investigated the case and held federal grand jury hearings in July and August 1982. By late '83, two union business agents and Mr. Kupau, who was asked to step down as president of the Hawaii AFL-CIO in January, were convicted of several counts of perjury. Kupau was sentenced to serve two years in prison, five years of probation, and pay a $10,000 fine. He is free pending an appeal.

The perjury charges stemmed from sworn affidavits sent to the NLRB. These multiplied during grand jury hearings as union officials claimed the picketing was only for informational purposes.

During the perjury trials, Mrs. Mungovan says, the couple was told that a ''contract'' had been put out on Mr. Mungovan's life. Days later, Mrs. Mungovan says that two men claiming to be FBI agents knocked on her hotel door, wanting to ''take Walter downtown for questioning.'' She slammed the chained door and called the FBI. A few hours later, Mr. Mungovan went under the federal witness protection program.

''One of the reasons I didn't go on the witness program with my husband - which would have been the easiest way out - was because we have to fight for this, for our rights, what we thought were our rights under the Constitution, to live and to work in this country,'' said Mrs. Mungovan in a interview.

Mr. Kupau says the Mungovans ''invented'' the story of the hit men posing as FBI agents, and he offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the alleged impostors. He says the whole affair is part of a union-busting effort by the Reagan administration.

''The Hobbs Act has nothing to do with this case,'' Kupau charges.

Union officials have filed several civil suits, and the Mungovans have countered with one of their own: ''We've spent over $100,000 in legal fees to defend ourselves. That's one of the reasons that I'm working on the legislation, and also trying to raise funds to help us continue this battle....''

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