A new study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce finds that, when it comes to “threatening or disruptive behavior,” union members have far more rights—or, at least, far more license—than their fellow Americans. The Chamber's study, “Sabotage, Stalking, and Stealth Exemptions: Special State Laws for Labor Unions,” examines little known state laws that favor organized labor, even to the point of exempting union members from laws prohibiting “conduct that would otherwise be considered criminal activity.” 

Although none of the laws highlighted by the Chamber’s report condone violence, the report suggests that state laws facilitate or even encourage the circumstances in which a labor dispute might become violent—or even deadly. The report highlights exemptions for violations such as stalking, trespassing, and other kinds of behavior that can be intimidating or seriously disturbing.

For example, in California, “making a credible threat to cause serious bodily injury to another, and then within 30 days thereafter entering the residence or workplace of the target” is punishable with up to a year in jail. But the law also states that this prohibition "shall not apply to any person who is engaged in labor union activities." 

Another example is Wisconsin. There, the statue defining sabotage states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to impair, curtail, or destroy the rights of employees and their representatives to self-organization.”

The Pennsylvania legal code states that the prohibition on stalking “shall not apply to conduct by a party to a labor dispute.”

In Illinois, stalking laws do not apply to “controversy concerning wages, salaries, hours, working conditions or benefits.” Those same exemptions exist for trespassing laws and for laws that prohibit “willfully blocking the free movement of another person” on a bus or a subway. 

In California, the Researcher Protection Act of 2008 makes it a misdemeanor trespass crime to enter the residence of an academic researcher with the intent to interfere with their academic freedom—but the trespass crime would not apply “to any person who is lawfully engaged in labor union activities that are protected under state or federal law.”  

“Unions have rights,” says Glenn Spencer, who did research for the study and is executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative. “They have the right to picket and to protest peacefully and we recognize those things as appropriate means. But statutes that give exemption to behavior that goes beyond those means give unions an unfair advantage.”

And, as the study reveals, sometimes those advantages are “downright scary.”