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What you should understand about the federal indictment last week of the leadership of the Ironworkers Union is that this is not a rogue union.
These men, who reveled in the name “goons,” aren’t outliers in the fight to keep construction jobs all-union all-the-time. They are the storm troopers.
Union head Joseph Dougherty and his thugs did the dirty work. The federal indictment said they used baseball bats on non-union contractors, set fire to construction sites, used their acetylene torches to destroy the ironwork on a new Quaker Meetinghouse under construction in Chestnut Hill.
Despite their lack of subtlety, their goals are the same as the 25-plus unions in the Building and Construction Trades Council.
They want to preserve and protect their near-monopoly on all construction jobs in the city, other than the smallest residential projects. In meeting this goal, they face a serious obstacle. There is no law that requires builders to hire union workers. In fact, there are powerful economic incentives not to. Because of their wage-and-benefit structure, union workers cost up to 30 percent more than non-union.
These craft unions, which number 60,000 strong in the region, maintain a lock on building projects through a variety of devices: generous giving to politicians, cutting private deals whereby they lower their rates or make payments to contractors who hire union workers; legal picketing of non-union construction sites—and through threats, intimidation and vandalism.
The Ironworkers practiced these tactics in the extreme.
Ironworkers Local 401, the indictment states, “relied heavily on its well-earned reputation for violence and sabotage, which had been built up in the community over many years…”
If threats did not work, the union would take actions that included—again, quoting the indictment—”assaulting non-union employees with baseball bats, slashing the tires of vehicles, smashing vehicles with crowbars, cutting and changing the locks on construction sites, filling the locks with Superglue, damaging construction equipment, stealing construction materials, and otherwise sabotaging the construction site.”
The union members reveled in their reputation as tough guys. They called themselves goons—and took it as a compliment. One group labeled themselves T.H.U.G.’s, which stood for The Helpful Union Guys. Some help.
The Ironworkers were so brazen that it may seem strange that no one called them on their tactics before. On the other hand, it is perfectly understandable. Using their “considerable political influence with state and local government,” they acted under an unofficial grant of immunity from prosecution. Contractors paid tribute rather than suffer costly attacks. The indictment says that, at times, union members were hired when there was no real work for them to do. They just stood around, collecting a paycheck, a form of protection money to avoid attacks. In federal law, this is called racketeering.
Eventually, they attracted the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which put the heft of the FBI and the federal government behind its investigation. The 49-page indictment makes it clear the feds wiretapped union officials and intercepted their cell phone calls. Investigators may have turned a few minor players, who gave them details about higher ups in the unions.
Of the 10 defendants, five were officers in Local 401, including Joseph Dougherty, its $190,000-a-year business manager; Edward Sweeney ($140,000), Christopher Prophet ($139,000) and Francis Sean O’Donnell ($136,500), all of whom are listed as business agents or organizers.
The apologists for the building trades haven’t had a chance to weigh in yet. No doubt, they will downplay the indictment and characterize Dougherty and his goons as aberrant. Most unions, they will say, are peaceful and engaged in the noble cause of protecting workers’ rights.
I wish that were true. While their willingness to use baseball bats and acetylene torches was extreme, Dougherty and Co. employed the usual range of tactics other unions use: harassment, intimidation and vandalism, along with careful use of political connections.
The Ironworkers were brazen because they felt no one could stop them. They had enough clout and moxie to pull it off. They didn’t count on the feds.
If there was an edge to their actions, it is partly due to the fact that, despite their best efforts, the market for union workers has shrunk. In the suburbs, mixed union and non-union crews are common and have been since the 1970s. It’s there where unions are likely to offer cut rates and rebates to contractors. The Carpenters Union alone handed out $22 million in subsidies—often called “wage supplements” in the period between 2008 and 2012, often to suburban contractors.
The recession hit the building trades hard. Membership in the unions declined by 11 percent between 2008 and 2012, dues revenue dipped—often by double digits.
The Ironworkers, which has just under 1,000 members, was facing competition not only from non-union workers, but from other unions, who were—in the eyes of the Ironworkers—poaching on their turf.
The indictment told of several run-ins between Ironworkers and members of the Carpenters Union over jurisdictional disputes. (The Carpenters are known to take an expansive view of what constitutes carpentry.)
In short, the unions were fighting over pieces of a smaller pie.
With the recession over, the pace of building is quickening. In the suburbs, contractors will continue their practice of using mixed union and non-union workers.
In the city, though, the unions will maintain their monopoly over construction, thanks in part to a generous taxpayer subsidy in the form of the 10-year tax abatement on new construction. It’s a testament to the stranglehold the unions have on the ruling Democratic party.
In the suburbs, where there is competition, the unions pay subsidies or offer reduced rates to builders. In the city, where the unions enjoy a monopoly, the taxpayers pay subsidies to builders so they can afford an all-union work force.
Until this imbalance changes, Philadelphia will remain at a competitive disadvantage with the suburbs and most other cities.
The indictment of the Ironworkers will send a jolt through the union establishment, but the underlying power equation is unlikely to change. By hook or by crook—along with occasional application of Superglue—the unions will have their way.