A former union boss went on trial Monday in a labor intimidation case notable for the Christmas week arson of a Quaker meeting house being built by nonunion shops.
Federal prosecutors told a jury that local ironworkers leader Joseph Dougherty, 73, had goon squads threaten builders, smash beams and burn down jobsites if they refused to hire union help.
Continue Reading Below
"A lot of these union members faced a very stark choice. Join the goon squad ... or get in the back of the line (for work)," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Livermore said in opening statements Monday.
The violence intensified after the Great Recession as construction work dried up and the local membership dropped from about 1,000 members to 700, prosecutors said. Business agents for the union scrambled to find work for those who remained. Members feared losing not just their paychecks but also their health insurance and perhaps their homes, Livermore said.
The rogue members who agreed to do "night work" — wielding baseball bats or torches — moved up in line for day work, according to the indictment. They called themselves THUGS: "The Helpful Union Guys."
Eleven men have pleaded guilty, admitting they set fire to the new Quaker house of worship in 2012; damaged schools, stores and restaurants under construction; brawled over work with rival carpenters' union members; or otherwise extorted or sabotaged nonunion contractors.
Dougherty alone rejected plea offers in favor of a trial. He faces a long prison term if convicted of racketeering, extortion and other charges.
Dougherty had spent nearly half a century with Ironworkers Local 401 before he retired amid the indictment last year.
"In Philadelphia, for decades and decades and decades, this town has been a strong and proud union town," defense lawyer Fortunato Perri Jr. told jurors.
He said his client didn't invent "night work" and shouldn't be held responsible for his co-defendants' crimes.
But prosecutors said Dougherty "ruled with an iron fist" and took union mischief to new heights.
"There has been a long tradition of night work within the Ironworkers Local 401 stretching back 50 years or more," prosecutors said in one plea memo filed in the case. "(But) the defendants in this case took (it) to a new level."