When John J. Dougherty, the blustery leader of organized labor in Philadelphia, was indicted on charges of embezzlement, bribery, and theft, Ted Kirsch worried what it would mean for other union officials in the area.
“I’m very upset, because I think what’s happening, or what I’m afraid is going to happen, is that labor leaders are going to be painted by a broad brush,” said Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania.
It was a reference to the stereotypes that unions have long had to fend off, due to a well-documented history of corruption as well as what some experts describe as anti-union bias in mainstream media.
“American culture has always painted unions as corrupt, as bullies, and the truth is, the large, large majority of unions are nothing like that," said Ana Avendaño, the Washington-based former assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, who now runs a partnership between the AFL-CIO and United Way.
In recent years, those attitudes have shifted, as unions are more in the news for teachers' strikes and the “Fight for $15” than for racketeering and violence. The definition of labor has widened as advocates fight for protections like predictable scheduling and paid time off, even for workers who aren’t unionized. And as more attention is paid to income inequality, many see unions as a strategy to combat inequity.
Even during the partial government shutdown, some called for Transportation Security Administration agents to go on strike, suggesting there was public support for those kinds of collective actions even if they are disruptive.
But the indictment of Dougherty, head of Electricians Local 98, flies in the face of that changing tide. What’s more, barely anyone in the labor movement will publicly discuss what Dougherty is alleged to have done.
‘He might be corrupt but he’s still looking out for us’
The stereotypes about corrupt unions date back to the 1920s and ’30s, when unions struck a “Faustian bargain” with the mob as a way to protect themselves from employers who were killing workers who wanted to organize, said Bill Fletcher, a labor expert, who wrote They’re Bankrupting Us!, a 2012 book on myths about unions. Mobsters often requested payment in the form of access to workers' health funds or pension funds. In other words, union officials would steal from their workers in order to protect them.
Sometimes the theft was small enough that workers didn’t notice; or, they did and it was tolerated because it was deemed necessary to survive.That was often the line about Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious Teamsters head, Fletcher said: He might be corrupt but he’s still looking out for us.
At the news conference announcing Dougherty’s indictment, prosecutors argued that it was Local 98 members who were the victims of his alleged crimes. It’s too soon to say how members will be affected — the national office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has yet to respond to the indictment — but reputation has been key to construction unions' landing work.
Before the indictment was announced, Dougherty, in his role as the head of the 50-union Building Trades Council, was lobbying for a Project Labor Agreement that would require Montgomery County to hire union contractors for its massive Norristown courthouse renovation, a deal that would be a coup for members of the Philly building trades. The day after Councilman Bobby Henon was indicted, he introduced a bill that would create a city contractor review board, a policy critics said would force nonunion contractors to work with unions. It’s unclear if City Council will hold a hearing on the bill.
Asked if the indictment could perpetuate union stereotypes, Local 98 spokesperson Frank Keel said, “Nonunion contractors that routinely cheat the system ... as well as national right-wing power-mongers like the Koch brothers are the ones pushing the ‘unions are corrupt’ narrative." He added: “We’ve not heard of any dissension within labor’s ranks, despite the usual fat-cat One Percenters pushing their false agenda.”
The cost of silence
When Saturday Night Live With Philly Labor, the self-described pro-labor radio show that Dougherty used to host, was broadcast on WPHT-AM (1210) days after Dougherty’s indictment was announced, the show’s hosts took just five minutes to address the news.
“We shouldn’t rush to judgment,” said Chris Woods, executive vice president of health care workers' local 1199C. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
“I believe in ‘Johnny Doc,’” said Joe Dougherty Jr. — no relation — whose father, Ironworkers head Joe Dougherty, was convicted in 2015 on charges of racketeering conspiracy, arson and extortion.
For the most part, the labor community in Philadelphia has not been willing to speak on the record about the indictment. Of more than two dozen labor officials and representatives approached, only a few would discuss anything, if they returned the call at all.
That could be explained by the insular nature of the building trades and union culture’s tendency to only let specific people talk to the media. Others cited the importance of preserving a relationship with Dougherty and the trades. (The indictment says Dougherty used his political clout to punish union foes, like the Teamsters.) In many ways, Philadelphia is a small town where locals have long-standing relationships and loyalty runs deep.
Others said it seemed inappropriate to talk negatively about a labor leader when there are already so many attacks on labor. It’s also very early in the process, not even a week after the indictment was announced, they said.
But what’s the cost of silence?
“Is there a labor leader in Philly who will stand up and say, ‘What Doc is alleged to have done — stealing from the members—is wrong’?” tweeted Kati Sipp, a longtime labor organizer who now runs a consultancy. "The theft of dues money doesn’t just harm one individual union. It is actively bad for every union member, because it makes people have less faith in their own union. And it makes nonunion workers fear that if they organize, that their dues won’t be used to build power.”
In an interview, Sipp said it’s ultimately detrimental to the movement if no one is willing to speak up about the allegations of corruption.
“I think it does send a message that people are tacitly OK with this thing, or that they’re afraid of saying something and being ostracized," she said.
Avendaño said that too often, people equate criticism with union-bashing. But, she said, “unless we address these things, I don’t think we ever move beyond them.”