United States v. Union Nacional de Trabajadores Historic Case

At a Glance

Case Description 

United States v. Union Nacional de Trabajadores is a lawsuit that grew out of National Labor Relations Board v. Union Nacional de Trabajadores. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the suit on behalf of the Puerto Rican Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT). It charged that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) wrongfully prosecuted the UNT because of the union’s militancy in representing the interests of its rank-and-file members and its support of Puerto Rican independence.

The Puerto Rican Union Nacional de Trabajadores is a militant, independent, and rank-and-file controlled union. In the 1970’s, the UNT came under attack by the National Labor Relations Board because of its pro-labor stance and its commitment to Puerto Rican independence.

When the UNT struck at a construction site operated by a North American-owned company during a labor dispute, the NLRB obtained an anti-strike injunction in federal court against the Union. Then, several weeks after the strike had been settled and civil contempt proceedings dismissed, the Board sought criminal charges against the Union and two of its officers for failing to end the strike. The NLRB claimed the Union leaders’ presence at an anti-NLRB demonstration was proof of criminal contempt.

The district court judge acquitted the President of the UNT, Arturo Grant, but convicted Secretary-General Radamés Acosta Cepeda and the Union itself. The case received wide support in Puerto Rico, and several important labor leaders were prepared to testify that the NLRB’s actions were intended to destroy the rank-and-file’s trust in the Union’s ability to represent their interests by forcing UNT leadership to call a halt to the strike.

The appeal to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, argued by CCR attorney José Antonio Lugo and CCR cooperating attorney Paul Schachter, was denied, affirming Acosta Cepeda’s three-month jail sentence. A motion to reduce his sentence was then denied by the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico.

Normally in this situation, Acosta Cepeda’s attorneys would have been notified and arrangements would then have been made for him to begin serving his sentence. However, in an effort to undercut the widespread support received by Acosta Cepeda, the Puerto Rican police “SWAT” team launched a full-scale assault on the offices of the Airport Workers Union, of which Acosta Cepeda had become president. Without any provocation, more than twenty policemen, armed with rifles and shotguns, took over the entire three-story building (which also houses the Teamsters Union) solely to arrest Acosta Cepeda.

After serving his 90-day jail term, Acosta Cepeda returned to the Airport Workers Union to continue fighting for the rights of Puerto Rican workers and against the colonial labor laws which threatened their existence.