In Philadelphia construction, there is an unwritten rule: A nonunion contractor, and the people who work for one, should be prepared to accept a deal – on union terms. Otherwise, they face some rough justice. One union, at least, is learning the limits of this business model. Last Tuesday, on February 18, ten members of International Association of Iron Workers Local 401 were indicted in federal court on offenses ranging from racketeering to assault to arson as part of an ongoing campaign to persuade contractors to hire only union labor at selected construction sites. The defendants often operated as members of goon squads. “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,” stated U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger at a press conference.
Union Corruption Update last February discussed at length the systematic intimidation practiced by Philadelphia-area construction unions. The article, which summarized the findings of a three-part expose written by Alexandria, Va.-based researcher Jillian Kay Melchior and published in National Review Online (February 11-13, 2013), described how local unions long had conducted a reign of terror at nonunion construction sites. This campaign, noted the author, if anything, had intensified in recent years. And for every crime reported, there are at least 10 that aren’t. The NLPC article described at length three cases of violence and/or property destruction. And it addressed the main reasons why the situation has persisted: 1) misguided federal laws and court interpretations; 2) union bosses who shield themselves and members from accountability; and 3) pro-union city council members who effectively wield veto power over projects in their respective wards.
Iron Workers Local 401 operated an unusually ruthless racket whose participants were members and outsiders. The indictment charges these participants with RICO conspiracy, violent crime in aid of racketeering, three counts of arson, two counts of use of fire to commit a felony, and conspiracy to commit arson. Eight of the 10 individuals named in the indictment, including Local 401 financial secretary and business manager Joseph Dougherty, were charged with using Ironworkers Local 401 as a criminal enterprise. Defendants typically operated through goon squads, all the better to present a show of force at a work site. One such group, THUGs, was an acronym for “The Helpful Union Guys.” At least the union had a sense of humor. None of their targets, unfortunately, were laughing.
The racket had a division of labor. Union officials hired nonunion associates to scout city neighborhoods for ongoing nonunion construction projects, and then, issue face-to-face warnings to foremen to hire the “right” kind of workers. The FBI noted: “(B)usiness agents would approach construction foremen at those work sites and imply or explicitly threaten violence, destruction of property, or other criminal acts unless union members were hired.” Actions often followed words. Here are some specifics:
- In December 2012, three union members – William Gillin, James Walsh and Daniel Hennigar – allegedly cut steel beams and bolts of a Quaker meeting house under construction at 20 East Mermaid Lane in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill section, and then torched a crane, following the refusal of the contractor to hire union members. The vandalism and arson did an estimated $500,000 in damages.
- During May-June 2010, members of Local 401 picketed a nonunion construction site near King of Prussia, Pa. Later on, defendant Richard Ritchie and three other people assaulted nonunion workers with baseball bats.
- In July 2013, two defendants, under the direction of Joseph Dougherty, set up a picket line and threatened the contractor of an apartment complex under construction at 31st and Spring Garden Streets. The tactic succeeded. The contractor relinquished profits and turned the project over to a union construction firm.
The burning of the Quaker church site may have turned the tide of opinion against the union. This is, after all, Philadelphia. In any event, the persons who reported any and all criminal incidents to the authorities should be commended. They faced assault and possibly death. A lot more cases, in fact, could be waiting to be exposed. FBI Special Agent in Charge Edward Hanko summarized the situation: “This investigation has been wide-ranging, but it is far from over. Now that this indictment has been unsealed, we expect to hear from more victims and will aggressively pursue all other leads we receive.”
The prospect of further investigations is all to the good. Yet long-term reform, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, isn’t likely unless there are changes in the law and accompanying political leadership. Assault and property destruction are outgrowths of union legal privileges. Labor officials encourage and even partake in criminal acts because they know, on some level, the law protects them. Monopoly bargaining rights, the lack of Right to Work laws (Pennsylvania is a non-Right to Work state), and the exemption of union officials from interstate commerce anti-extortion statutes, among other factors, tacitly encourage criminal behavior. Unions will think more carefully about inflicting terror when they and their political allies no longer are able to bend the rule of law to rig the labor market in their favor.