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By:  Bill Pilchak – 07/07/15

Most news media outlets reported on Saturday, June 27, 2015, that French taxi drivers went on a rampage, overturning and destroying vehicles used by Uber drivers, skirmishing with and holding them and their passengers (including Courtney Love) hostage, erecting barricades and setting fires to block traffic. CNN was one of the few who mentioned the role of the French unions (the National Union of Taxi Drivers and the FTI taxi union) in the lawlessness.

Rideshare technology is annoying unions elsewhere. Media sources say that in the UK, the creators of the ridesharing app Hailo saw their offices vandalized – the word “scabs” was written on the wall – after Hailo’s app was expanded to include private vehicles instead of just taxis. Last year, Autoblog.com wrote of physical encounters between cabbies at O’Hare airport and Uber drivers after the Chicago city council declined to require Uber drivers to have cab licenses to pick up passengers. The New York cab union has apparently sought to become active in Chicago.

These incidents point out two main problems that anyone dealing with unions knows but which most people in business cannot say out loud without being tarred with the label of “anti-union animus” in their next proceeding before the NLRB: First, that unions will fight improvements, technological or otherwise, that require change or more effort by their members and certainly if the change makes existing union jobs or their artificially high compensation obsolete. Anyone responsible for a business knows that in today’s technology-driven environment, business must change or die. When Eastman Kodak went bankrupt in 2012, Bloomberg business reported the cause as Kodak’s failure to embrace digital cameras despite having invented the technology. Bloomberg said “They were a company stuck in time.” A company might have to turn on a dime when a competitor makes a move, a customer issues a demand or a technology emerges that will cut costs. Provisions of a union contract could easily prohibit such a move. The implications of yesteryear clauses in a constantly changing environment cannot possibly be predicted in advance. If clauses block change, a company with a union might be precluded from making that change during the life of the collective bargaining agreement.  During the three years left on the cba, the customer and indeed the entire industry may have moved on.

          Second, the Uber protests illustrate that unions have historically resorted to threats, thuggery, violence and criminal behavior to achieve their ends. NLRB case law is surprisingly tolerant of such conduct. Indeed, from the beginning, the National Labor Relations Act has been interpreted to endorse violence:

“”[S]ome disorder is unfortunately quite usual in a…drawn out strike. A strike is unfortunately a battle waged with economic weapons. Engaged in it are human beings whose feelings are stirred to the depths. Rising passions call forth hot words. Hot words lead to blows…The transformation from economic to physical combat…is difficult to prevent… Violence of this nature, however much it is to be regretted, must have been in the contemplation of Congress. “

Republic Steel Corp. v NLRB, 107 F.2d 472, 479 (3rd Cir., 1939)

Accordingly, picket line assaults and vandalism frequently occurs and goes unprosecuted because local prosecutors are politically vulnerable. Other conduct that would be considered intolerable in other contexts is given protection if committed by unions to obtain their ends. Stating “Section 7 rights “may permit some leeway for impulsive behavior,” the Board has precluded discharge of union employees for calling the boss a “F**king Queer” (Webster Clothes, 222 N.L.R.B. 1262), addressing written communications to co-workers as “Dear Pussies,” leading to complaints by female workers (Fresnius USA, 2012 NLRB LEXIS 611; later vacated by D.C. Cir.) and most recently, shouting at African American replacement workers ““Go back to Africa, you… f**king losers,” “f**king monkey scabs” and “f**king ****** scabs,” even though an arbitrator upheld dismissal. (Cooper Standard, June 15, 2015)

Sometimes unions cannot rein in the criminal license the NLRA grants them. In February, 2014, ten leaders of the Ironworkers Local 401 (Philadelphia) were indicted for setting fires, starting riots, and taking crowbars to the competition in an effort to protect union jobs. The group called themselves “The Helpful Union Guys” – “THUGS” for short. At the time of the indictment, prosecutors said “violence was not just a tactic in the ironworkers’ toolbox. It is deeply ingrained in the structure of their organization.”   After most of those indicted took plea deals, the only official to go to trial was convicted in January.

My two points above, are interrelated. Just as Uber is bypassing the business model of the taxi, civilized society has moved past the days when bloodying the nose of someone we disagree with is acceptable. But unions fight change and resort to thuggery. In the same way that civilized society decries efforts by the Taliban, Al Quaeda and ISIS to drag us back to 7th century customs, 21st century America should decry union tactics that were barely tolerable in 1939.  One can only hope that younger Americans, who embrace rapid change, who take economic charge of their lives in the fashion of Uber drivers and have too much respect for their fellow human beings to call them “queers” and “n*****s,” will decry such tactics. And, indeed, maybe they are decrying union tactics. Maybe that’s one reason for plunging union membership across the country.