- - Friday, February 21, 2014

Burning down a church strikes most Americans, including dissenters and nonbelievers, as a crime beyond comprehension. But the FBI last week provided the evidence to charge 10 members of a Philadelphia ironworkers union with torching a Quaker church.

Calling themselves “Those Helpful Union Guys” or “THUGs,” they sabotaged a nonunion construction site two years ago at the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House.

In a scene out of “The Sopranos,” the violence against these peaceful churchgoers was designed to send a message to the neighborhood that this would happen to them, too, if they hired nonunion labor. Welcome to the city of brotherly hate.

At the request of the U.S. attorney, a grand jury indicted members of Ironworkers Local 401 for conspiracy, assault, arson and related crimes.

“While unions have the right to legally advocate on behalf of their members, my office will not tolerate the conduct of those who use violence to further union goals,” promised U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger. “Union officials and members who commit arson, destroy property, use threats of physical harm, and engage in other acts of violence to extort victims on behalf of their union need to be criminally prosecuted.”

Unfortunately, union violence is fairly commonplace but rarely prosecuted. Because of a quirk in U.S. law, those who engage in such thuggery often get away with it.

In 1946, Congress enacted the Hobbs Act to criminalize acts of violence designed to obstruct commerce. This was meant to put a stop to racketeering in labor-management disputes.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the law on its ear in United States v. Enmons, in which justices declared that violence carried out in furtherance of a labor union’s objective is not a violation of the extortion and robbery provisions of the Hobbs Act.

Union bosses took this as encouraging them to do whatever it takes to intimidate foes into submission.

The National Institute for Labor Relations Research has recorded 12,000 incidents of union violence since then, but only a few hundred convictions. With so much to gain and so little to lose, union bosses can play the role of Tony Soprano.

In Buffalo, N.Y., for example, a former union member testified that his bosses employed a “turn or burn” policy. They told business firms to go union, or expect vandalism.

Congress should close this loophole and take back the “Get Out of Jail Free” card the Supreme Court gave them. Coercive unionism, enforced with violence, is always wrong.

A bonfire of the Chestnut Hill Meeting House in Philadelphia, like a Ku Klux Klan rally in a benighted corner of the land, might make compelling television footage, but thuggery, for or against a union, never has place in a civil society.