Ironworkers local is stuck at an earlier evolutionary state

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House is among alleged targets. "For current day," such violence is "not normal," said an ex-prober of organized crime and illegal union activity. "But it's not shocking from a historic Philadelphia perspective."
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House is among alleged targets. "For current day," such violence is "not normal," said an ex-prober of organized crime and illegal union activity. "But it's not shocking from a historic Philadelphia perspective." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2014

The Ironworkers were such busy, industrious goons. They allegedly destroyed sites and threatened developers who dared not hire them. Their specialties were not iron and steel, according to the recent federal indictment of 10 top Ironworker Local 401 officials, but extortion, arson, intimidation. You know, the works. Nothing was immune from these thugs' wrath, from a Quaker meeting house in Chestnut Hill to a toy store in King of Prussia.

The Ironworkers actually called themselves goons, so give them credit for candor, in an indictment that reads like lost pages from On the Waterfront. They were also self-described THUGs, as in "The Helpful Union Guys."

And, boy, were these Ironworkers helpful - at least to the union - allegedly brandishing their favored implements of destruction: acetylene torches, baseball bats, knives, crowbars, bolt cutters. In an act of creative accounting, they appeared to sometimes bill the union for tools and time. Members also used extortion to be hired for the long-suspected specialty of, as the feds put it, "unwanted, unnecessary and superfluous labor."

We might have thought the city was past this. The last big labor indictment involved the Roofers in 1987. This catalog of thuggery reads like a throwback to a seemingly bygone era, but several former federal investigators shrugged at the activities.

"For current day, it's not normal," said Robert McKee, who once headed the Labor Department's local office that investigated illegal union activity and organized crime. "But it's not shocking from a historic Philadelphia perspective."

The pooh-bah

That tradition appears never to have left us. "Many of these unions have not evolved into the 21st century. They're still living in the past," another former federal law enforcement agent told me. The paucity of work, with developers increasingly choosing to hire less costly nonunion labor, is "creating internal competition, a certain cannibalism, that is going on in the ranks of many unions." The Ironworkers were particularly obsessed with the larger, more powerful Carpenters Local 8.

Among the indicted is Joseph Dougherty, 72, the 1,010-member local's grand pooh-bah, its "business manager-financial secretary-treasurer," seemingly for life. (Joseph Dougherty is no relation to the electrical workers leader and Democratic political player John Dougherty.)

Hoffaesque

The way to curry favor with Joseph Dougherty and rise in the Ironworkers' ranks, according to the indictment, was through violence and intimidation toward anyone who dared cross the union. As one sycophantic member told Dougherty, "You're always gonna be the Jimmy Hoffa of this local." The onetime Teamsters boss, you may recall, vanished in 1975.

The Roofers scandal ensnared an undistinguished bench of local judges with a noted weakness for cash-stuffed envelopes. This latest indictment suggests that Dougherty and local leadership used influence to "cultivate connections within the local and state government," without offering specifics. Pressed for details, U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said the investigation was ongoing: "You're constantly weighing what evidence you can bring before a grand jury and get an indictment."

'The greater outrage'

Some politicians immediately shredded their ties with the Ironworkers, the local now a festering corpse. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz sent her $10,000 contribution to a firefighters charity, while state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he would return his $7,500 donation.

"The greater outrage is how many of these politicians or members of the judiciary have prostituted themselves for votes," a former federal investigator said. "This is an epidemic that has never been treated because, unfortunately, there are too many politicians and other interest groups that don't have the backbone to stand up to the unions."

But the goons had no problem standing up to opponents if they thought they had been wronged. After the Carpenters landed a desired construction project, according to the indictment, Ironworkers business agent Edward Sweeney said: "You just want to get cancer and just, go there and shoot everybody. It's insane man, to have, to actually, to wish, you know you would die so that you can go down there and kill them."

It appears an advanced cancer was already growing inside the organization.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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