“It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
That’s what Frank Siriani, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Trades Union, recalls of finding out about the arrests of 10 Philadelphia union members accused of using violent tactics to intimidate contractors.
Siriani’s unwitting pun could be the best tagline yet for a scandal involving leaders of Ironworkers Union Local 401 who shamelessly called their goon squad “Those Helpful Union Guys,” or THUGS for short.
The men were indicted by the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office on charges of beating contractors and non-union workers with baseball bats, setting construction equipment on fire, cutting metal beams, and other counts of old-school, dockworker-style violence. They are even accused of torching a Quaker meeting house.
Ironworkers Union Local 401, the Philly chapter whose members were indicted last week, is just one of 113 affiliates in Siriani’s region. Four of Local 401’s top brass are currently facing a minimum of 35 years in prison. In some cases this amounts to a life sentence — ringleader Joseph Dougherty is 72 years old.
“I know Joe, he’s a mild mannered guy,” Siriani told VICE News, “I was shocked by the allegations.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s indictment, Local 401 guys referred to their alleged arson and kneecapping as “night work.” The allegations also claim that Local 401 sent a crew out to a Quaker meeting house where non-union construction was taking place, torching half a million dollars’ worth of materials and equipment.
Rob Reeves, president of Abington-based contractor firm E. Allen Reeves, remembers the exact day a “helpful union guy” from Local 401 visited the Quaker site: “We had four or five union reps from different unions visit the site in the last week or two, and the last one to visit was the rep from Local 401. He turned to the supervisor and told him, ‘I gotta do what I gotta do.’”
The next day, Reeves showed up to the work site to discover that everything had been destroyed. Given the timing and the fact that the vandalism occurred at night and in pouring rain, Reeves said, he had a pretty clear idea of who did it.
“There’s a long history of intimidation and violence in Philly. I’ve been in business 40 years and a variety of unions have harassed, threatened, and intimidated contractors,” said Reeves.
“I’ve talked to many politicians and people who just didn’t believe that it exists. It shouldn’t happen in this country.”
The 49-page indictment brims with quotes and detailed descriptions. When asked at a February 18 press conference whether undercover agents and wires were used in the investigation, the FBI’s responded: “Yes, it’s safe to assume that the methods generally available to the FBI were used in this case.”
The men have been released on bail of $25,000. Jeremy Roebuck of the Philadelphia Inquirer told VICE News that none of the accused have spent a night behind bars so far, as they were arrested early in the morning and released later that day. The union leaders face multiple charges of arson and several crimes under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
VICE News called the Local 401 offices several times for comment but was told they were not giving statements. Calls to Dougherty’s lawyer, Joel Trigiani, and to interim Local 401 leader Steve Sweeney were unreturned.
“A lot of these Irish union guys come from the same neighborhood in South Philly,” Philadelphia reporter Joseph Di Stefano told VICE News. According to Di Stefano, Philly union workers all know each other — and many of the Irish members of Local 401 are also members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a sort of Masons of the Irish Catholic working class.
The Ironworkers International quickly distanced itself from the local, and put New Jersey Senator Steve Sweeney as temporary administrator of Local 401. The International’s president, Walter Wise, said, “We have never and will never tolerate (unethical conduct).”
"We will not let the actions of a few tarnish our hard-earned reputation,” said Wise. “We are focused completely on regaining the trust of our business partners and the public in Philadelphia.”
Photo via Philly.com