“Top Chef” Case Exposes Outdated Labor Laws

This op-ed column was originally published at WashingtonExaminer.com

Luka Ladan, CUF Communications Director

President Trump once proclaimed, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The Teamsters Union recently put their own version of the theory to the test, seeing how thuggishly they could behave without being convicted of a crime. And they won.

On Tuesday, a federal jury in Boston acquitted four Teamsters union members of conspiracy and extortion charges, despite their widely publicized harassment of “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi.

Back in 2014, four members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 25—one of Boston’s most aggressive unions—surrounded Lakshmi’s vehicle yelling profanities and threatening to assault her. The Teamsters hurled Islamophobic and sexist insults at the celebrity host, who admitted to being “petrified” earlier this month. In Lakshmi’s words, her unfortunate encounter with the union “felt like serious schoolyard bullying” and “drastically affected the whole production, not just that day.”

Why the union outrage? Because the popular cooking show happened to use nonunion truck drivers.

The “Top Chef” debacle exposes a serious flaw in our nation’s labor laws. Union enforcers in Boston and nationwide can get away with obvious extortion as long as they have “legitimate labor ends” in mind. Since the four Teamsters sought to secure work for union truck drivers, they could threaten Lakshmi without legal recourse.

The flawed law in question stems from the 1973 Enmons Supreme Court case, which reviewed the 1946 Hobbs Act. The Hobbs Act prohibits actual or attempted robbery and extortion affecting interstate commerce, such as the “Top Chef” segment filmed in Boston. This includes “threaten[ing] or commit[ting] physical violence to any person or property” in a way that “obstructs, delays, or affects commerce.” In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the Hobbs Act “does not apply to the use of force to achieve legitimate labor ends,” enabling union representatives to threaten employees and innocent bystanders if doing so was in the union’s best interest.

Several states have addressed the union intimidation loophole. In 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation criminalizing union stalking, harassment, and threats even when in pursuit of “legitimate labor ends.”

But federal labor laws remain outdated, letting unions off the hook when they engage in criminal activity. The Employee Rights Act (ERA), federal legislation presently co-sponsored by more than 80 members of Congress, would criminalize union threats and violence at the national level. The ERA outlaws the thuggish tactics that union officials often use against employers and employees. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of those in union households support the provision.

Labor reform is long overdue, namely because union thuggery extends far beyond the Bay State. In the last decade, hundreds of union officials have been convicted of corruption, embezzlement, racketeering, and engaging in organized crime.

Historically speaking, the Teamsters are certainly no exception. Dave Beck, who led the Teamsters from 1952 to 1957, was convicted of federal income tax evasion and state embezzlement charges. Beck’s successor, Jimmy Hoffa, was convicted of bribery and fraud, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He mysteriously disappeared in 1975 after decades of dealing with organized crime figures. Roy Williams, president of the Teamsters from 1981 to 1983, also spent time in jail. Many more lower-ranking Teamsters officials have spent time behind bars.

Unless the Employee Rights Act is passed, the Teamsters and other unions will continue taking pages out of Jimmy Hoffa’s playbook. Until then, remember to ship up to Boston in a union car.