The Massachusetts AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor unions in the state, has come to the defense of five local Teamsters union members charged in federal court with extortion after they were accused of threatening violence during a picket to demand jobs with a television crew.
The AFL-CIO argued in a court filing attached to the case this week that the acts are typical of union picketing and that the criminalization of them under a federal extortion law would have a “chilling effect” on union members who would be dissuaded from their own picketing, out of fear they would be prosecuted in a federal court.
“The government in this case has taken misbehavior on a recognitional picket line and sought to make it a federal felony,” the union argued.
The union added: “If the government succeeds, it will change the structural foundation on which federal labor law rests and it will chill organizational activity and recognition efforts through the United States.”
The union’s court filing, as well as a previous motion to dismiss the case that was filed by lawyers for the Teamsters defendants, acknowledged that the members’ actions may have been in poor taste. But they argued that any actions that allegedly crossed the line into criminal behavior should be charged as assault or intimidation in a state court, not in a federal court, where punishments are more severe. The charge of extortion in federal court, known as Hobbs Act extortion, carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison.
“The Hobbs Act is intended to cover cases of extortion. Picketing is not extortion,” Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said in a statement, adding, “(Picketing) is a primary and protected way that workers legally exercise their rights in a democracy.”
It is not unusual for a separate, third party to file a brief expressing an interest in a certain outcome in a court matter, but such actions are typically at the appeals court level, not in advance of a criminal trial.
US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock must decide whether to accept the filing, known as an amicus curiae brief, or a “friend of the court” filing. A spokeswoman said the union “periodically files amicus briefs when an injustice has been brought to our attention.”
Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University law professor who lectures about criminal prosecutions, said third-party filings are typically made before appeals courts or before states’ and the nation’s highest court because the “stakes are higher” and the decisions have wider implications. But, he said, the union’s decision to intervene in the case now before a trial could be a strategic attempt to “stop the case in its tracks” before a jury could decide.
“They’re worried, and understandably, about a chilling effect on unions, on strikes, and picketing, and if there’s a chilling effect on strikes and picketing, that’s an impact on the labor movement,” he said.
The filing comes as federal prosecutors have increasingly targeted rogue union members for crimes such as extortion.
Last month, James Deamicis, a former member of the Teamsters Local 82 chapter – which has been merged with Local 25 – was convicted by a jury of three counts of extorting jobs from local businesses, for threatening to picket companies that did not create jobs for union workers.
Two other Teamsters members, John Perry and Joseph Burhoe, were convicted last year of the same extortion charges and for conspiring to rig elections so that Perry would be appointed to a leadership position within the union.
The Globe also reported last month that federal prosecutors are investigating whether Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria strong-armed a developer to use union workers in the conversion of an old factory into an apartment complex.
In the recent Teamsters case, the five members – including Mark Harrington, the local’s secretary treasurer – allegedly harassed and intimidated a production crew for “Top Chef’’ that hired nonunion workers in spring 2014. Union members are accused of threatening to picket the show’s filming at local restaurants and hotels, resulting in the business owners cancelling their participation in the show.
When the production crew set up at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton, the five Teamsters members allegedly intimidated crew members by using racial and homophobic slurs and by “chest-bumping” and “stomach-bumping” crew members who were trying to do their work. Authorities alleged the Teamsters also slashed the tires of at least nine cars.
At issue is whether the actions were part of a picket that constituted a crime of assault or harassment that should be prosecuted in a state court or whether they are part of a broader extortion scheme. Prosecutors allege the members were not negotiating on behalf of their union but were using threats of violence and intimidation in demanding superfluous jobs that the company had already filled with workers from out of state.
But lawyers for the members – and the AFL-CIO – argued that the members were carrying out their constitutionally protected right to picket and that their actions fall within that right. Under that definition, an assault on a crew member could be considered assault – and could be charged as assault in state court – but it could not be part of a broader federal extortion scheme.
“The severity of the chest-bumping, stomach-bumping, and the name-calling allegations in this case simply do not warrant subjecting the defendants to severe federal penalties,” Robert Goldstein, an attorney for one of the Teamsters members, argued in court records.