What John Dougherty’s guilty verdict may mean for his powerful local and his future in the labor movement
With Dougherty's Monday conviction, it's almost certain that he will lose his $297,661 a year position at IBEW Local 98.
With the Monday conviction of John Dougherty in his federal bribery trial, it’s almost certain that he will lose his $297,661-a-year position at IBEW Local 98, where he made himself into arguably Philadelphia’s most high-profile, politically influential labor leader.
Federal law prohibits anyone who is convicted of bribery, among other crimes, from holding union office for 13 years, or after a prison sentence ends — whichever is longer. The maximum penalty for most of the counts on which he was convicted is 20 years.
According to the law, this ban on holding union office begins immediately, regardless of any appeals. But it’s unclear if the Department of Labor will take action to enforce the ban right away.
Dougherty will be sentenced in February. Legal and labor experts said typically the federal judge decides on the ban and for how long. If he’s sentenced to prison, they said, he will certainly have to resign.
Dougherty is “evaluating his next steps,” said his spokesperson, Frank Keel. “He absolutely will be appealing today’s decision. The membership continues to stand firmly by him.”
Asked about the federal law prohibiting those convicted of certain crimes from holding union office, Keel did not respond.
Bill Fletcher Jr., a former senior staffer at the national AFL-CIO and author of three books about labor, said when union officials are convicted of a disqualifying crime, “the face-saving thing would be to resign, not to wait to be removed.”
The Department of Labor declined to comment last week when asked whether a guilty verdict in Dougherty’s trial would result in a ban from union office or if it would enforce such a ban. It did not immediately respond to comment Monday afternoon.
Dougherty’s conviction is a blow to the Philadelphia labor movement at large, reinforcing long-held negative stereotypes of unions.
“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.
His conviction comes at a time when perception of unions has been shifting. A majority of Americans say they believe the decline in union membership is bad. The pandemic has shined a light on labor struggles of all kinds, resulting in more public support for workers. And the so-called Great Resignation and Striketober — the wave of strikes in the United States last month — are signs of a growing labor consciousness.
The loss of Dougherty’s leadership at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 would mean that “the public face of the union would change,” said Tony Wigglesworth, who runs the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Group. “They’d be less present.”
During his tenure, Dougherty reinvented a middling union into a political powerhouse, the largest independent source of campaign money in Pennsylvania. Wages and benefits have tripled under Dougherty’s nearly three decades of leadership, Local 98 assistant business manager Jim Foy testified last week.
According to its latest required federal disclosures, Local 98 took in $33.6 million in revenue, and has assets of $78 million and 4,654 members.
Both Wigglesworth and Philadelphia AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding predicted that if Dougherty were to no longer lead the local, there would not be a cataclysmic shift, as Dougherty has worked to groom leaders to succeed him. At least one of those officials is also facing charges: Brian Burrows, Local 98′s president, was accused of embezzlement in the federal indictment.
Even as he groomed possible successors, Dougherty remained the face of the union, building “a very, very noticeable political power,” Eiding said. Any replacement will have to build their own public profile.
Dougherty is also the leader of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, an advocacy group for building trade unions. If Dougherty were to step down or be removed from office, a possible replacement would be Ryan Boyer, the leader of the Laborers District Council and president of the Building and Construction Trades Council.
“There are two or three people who could replace me if I walked away,” Dougherty said last summer of his role in the Building & Construction Trades Council. “He’s one of them.”
Boyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some cheered the guilty verdicts, including Charles Battle, a Local 98 member who alleges that Dougherty threatened him upon learning Battle was considering a run for Local 98 office. Battle’s complaint led to an ongoing Department of Labor lawsuit against the union.
“This is a proud day for Local 98 and the labor movement in Philadelphia,” Battle said in a statement through his lawyer, Clifford Haines. “I hope the international [union] will now come in so we can rebuild the great labor union we had.”
The international union, based in D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The IBEW international has its own process around taking control of a union it deems unfit to govern itself. It’s too early to say what action, if any, the international will take.
Fletcher, the labor expert, said it becomes a question of credibility for an international union. If a union official is found guilty of a crime and the international does not act, the question becomes: “Does the union look like it’s protecting criminals?”
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers bylaws state that if a union official is removed from office, the executive board will fill the vacancy until the next election, unless the role is filled by the international president, Lonnie Stephenson.
The next election for the Philadelphia-based local is slated for 2023, though if the Department of Labor is successful in its suit against the union, Local 98 will have to redo its 2020 election of officers.
Dougherty has at least two more trials in the coming months, facing charges of embezzlement and extortion.