Northwest Indiana Ironworkers Indicted for Violent Assaults

On the Indiana side of the Chicago area, showing up for work could get pretty dangerous for nonunion contractors and workers. At least two sources of that danger, for now, are out of commission. On August 16, Thomas Williamson and Jeffrey Veach, respectively, a member and the business agent/president of the Portage, Ind.-based Ironworkers Local 395, were charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana after being arrested for extortion under the Hobbs Act related to an attack in January 2016 at a construction site in Dyer, Ind. The defendants, already facing a civil suit, pleaded not guilty and were released on bond. The actions follow an investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General and the Dyer Police Department.

Violence by union workers against nonunion workers is hardly a “thing of the past.” It still happens, and with union officials spinning inventive rationalizations for such behavior. Last summer, four members of the Boston area’s International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 25 were charged with making terror threats against crew members of the Bravo TV network show Top Chef who were attempting to shoot a segment back in June 2014 at an area restaurant. A trial jury would acquit all four defendants; at least, the ringleader had pleaded guilty in September 2016. And in the New York City area, a United Plant and Production Workers local boss, Roland Bedwell, pleaded guilty last August to leading a shakedown crew that assaulted and extorted from nonunion workers at area construction sites. He was sentenced this May.

Thomas Williamson and Jeffrey Veach, respectively, now ages 67 and 55, a year and a half ago were every bit the match of these lowlife enforcers. According to a three-count indictment announced last Thursday in Hammond, Ind. federal court, the pair used threats and acts of violence against two nonunion contractors, “John Doe #1” and “John Doe #2,” with the intent of forcing them to accept a union contract. John Doe #1 owned a steelworking company; John Doe #2 owned a construction company. Apparently, they hired the wrong kind of labor for an expansion project at Plumb Creek Christian Academy, located in Dyer at U.S. 231 and Calumet Avenue, on January 7, 2016.

On the previous day, Williamson, a member of Ironworkers Local 395, approached Richard Lindner, a worker for a Cary, Ill.-based nonunion contractor, D5 Iron Works Inc., and told him he should use union workers for the project. Rebuked in this thinly veiled threat, Williamson went to Dyer Baptist Church, which owned the school, where he told one of the church’s representatives that “it was unethical to use nonunion labor.” Unable to persuade the church with this brief lesson in Christian ethics, Williamson returned to the construction site and once again tried to throw his weight around with Lindner. Again, he got the cold shoulder. At that point, Williamson shoved Lindner and announced, “I’m taking this back to old school.” He would be as good as his word. Around 3 P.M. that day, Williamson, his son Thomas Williamson, Jr., Jeffrey Veach and about 10 other union guys arrived to give the nonunion workers a lesson in persuasion. They punched several of the workers, hitting them with scrap wood and kicking them with steel-toe boots. During the assault, several attackers yelled, “This is (Local) 395 territory.” One of the victims, Scott Kudingo, suffered a broken jaw and had to be taken to a local hospital. Dyer Police Chief David Hein, upon reviewing the report of the events that day, referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In the aftermath, D5 Iron Works and five of its workers filed a civil suit in Illinois federal court against the union, seeking to enjoin Ironworkers Local 395 from blocking business relationships between D5 and its clients. The plaintiffs also asked for at least $3 million in actual damages plus an unspecified sum in punitive damages. The suit later was moved to Hammond federal court in whose jurisdiction the attack took place. This civil case is still ongoing. The parties were unable to reach a settlement at a March 22 conference hearing. A second conference is scheduled for October.

In the meantime, Williamson, Veach and several unidentified defendants are facing criminal charges. The two were arrested on August 16 and made their initial court appearance later that morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge John E. Martin. On the advice of their attorneys, they pleaded not guilty and were released on a $20,000 unsecured bond. “According to the indictment, Williamson and Veach used threats of violence and actual violence against nonunion ironworkers in the course of their extortion plot,” the release stated. Robert T. Hanlon, the lawyer representing D5 Iron Works, had stronger language for the defendants. “These guys acted like a bunch of animals,” he said. “They get what they deserve.” Hanlon added that the union members were “cowards,” who exercised their Fifth Amendment rights during depositions in the civil case.

Whether the prosecution succeeds hinges on how the court interprets the violent acts under the Hobbs Act. This 1946 federal statute bars robbery or extortion as a means of inhibiting interstate commerce. Unions, as business organizations, are covered by the law. Unfortunately, securing a conviction in union-related cases, while still possible, for more than four decades has been a good deal harder than it should be. That’s because in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Enmons, gave unions substantial leeway in justifying intimidation as an expression of furthering “legitimate” union business. There appears to be enough incriminating evidence in this case to secure a conviction. By any reasonable definition, this pack attack constituted extortion. But to discourage such crimes in the future, Congress must amend the Hobbs Act by closing the Supreme Court’s union loophole.