Anyone who’s been a sentient human being since 1981 — the year that Ronald Reagan became president and promptly cut taxes for the rich while crushing a strike by air-traffic controllers — knows that America has needed some working-class heroes for a long, long time.
For the working man and woman in this country, wages have been largely stagnant since that bygone Reagan era. A whopping 5 million well-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs have vanished since the start of the 21st century — factories in the Rust Belt are overgrown with weeds, while those in big cities become fancy lofts for software designers. The loss of job options and the loss of dignity are even linked to the American death rate rising for the first time in years, amid a surge in suicide and drug overdoses.
But here in Philadelphia, it was often hard to see the giant, acid-rain-scarred forest of blue-collar decline for the trees. “Philly is a union town,” is the story that we’ve told ourselves to live, even though in reality the 14 percent of the workforce in the metro area still represented by a union is only a tad higher than the national average and way, way lower than it was in the 1950s. Lacking numbers, the union myth in Philadelphia glommed on to personalities. In a time when the American worker needed a white knight, what Philly got instead was a guy named Johnny Doc.
And so last week’s federal indictment of “Johnny Doc” — John Dougherty, longtime head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 and the city’s Building Trades Council, and Democratic Party guy-behind-the-guy-behind-the-guy — on 116 felony counts of embezzling union funds, wire fraud, falsifying records, and accepting illegal payments had a vaguely cinematic feel to it, Like the end of “On the Waterfront,” where Marlon Brando finally takes down the boss of the docks, Johnny … Friendly.
The online “hot takes” pretty much wrote themselves. It was almost too easy to make fun of the banality of the evil spelled out in the indictment, with the union dues of working people buying stuff like dog treats, chips, and baby wipes for the boss and his family. Or to rail against the low-hanging fruit of Johnny Doc’s hypocrisy of living a millionaire lifestyle with that blue-collar cash, or having a city council member — ally Bobby Henon, also indicted — at his seeming beck and call. And, yes, it’s morally impossible to justify the alleged strong-arming of a hospital for sick children.
The realities of what Johnny Doc meant for Philadelphia — and what he didn’t mean — are more complicated. It’s actually not too hard to play devil’s advocate and give the pro-Doc spin — to argue that he was indeed the working-class hero of ancient lore. (Indeed, this is exactly what you’re going to hear from Dougherty and his remaining allies as his trial approaches.)
Politics ain’t beanbag, after all, and a white-gloved supplicant for organized labor won’t get far in an America ruled by oligarchs who despise unions. Dougherty didn’t play beanbag — he wasn’t afraid to throw the high, hard-one under the batter’s chin. And the result of his hardball tactics on the picket line and influence in the cloak rooms of political power was that his electricians and their comrades in the building trades earned wages to buy a nice house and maybe even a swimming pool or a power boat, just like back in the 1960s when unions were strong all across America.
The average Philadelphia construction-worker wage, nearly $28 an hour, means bringing home about $8,000 more a year, before taxes, than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Isn’t that (remember, we’re devil’s advocating) exactly what critics of income inequality are asking for, a prosperous middle class?
And what about this? Why did the feds spend years and years lifting up every rock in Dougherty’s life — including, apparently, his grocery lists — when the Wall Street fiends who made millions crashing the global economy in 2008 with slimeball economics got off virtually scot-free? Yes, Johnny Doc allegedly got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but there’s a bank with many branches in Philadelphia that ripped off working people with bogus fees or even opening accounts without their knowledge — and our beloved basketball and hockey teams play in an arena named for them.
But eventually the whirling Tazmanian devil of advocating for John Dougherty as a man of the people runs out of steam. At the end of the day. Johnny Doc was only a working-class hero for his sliver of the Philadelphia labor market — predominately white, male and suburban, and looking nothing like a city where both the workforce and the kind of work it performs is far more diverse than when he rose to power in the early 1990s.
Dougherty’s union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get favorable candidates in office, and then never used that clout to advocate for a school system to prepared blue-collar offspring for our high-tech new millennium, or on the day-to-day issues like child care or sick leave that bedevil the new urban working class. And Dougherty’s awesome power to bend wills seemed to falter, badly, when it came to undoing the strain of racism that’s always marred trade unionism in Philadelphia.
Attorney Michael Coard, one of the loudest voices who’s been calling for more nonwhite workers on city-funded construction projects for years, told me that while Dougherty has always been personally respectful and listened to his arguments, in the end he did little to change hiring policies that Coard considers “blatantly racist.” He noted that last good numbers from the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council headed by Dougherty, from 2013, showed that about 80 percent of the key jobs such as electrician and carpenter are still held by whites, now a minority of city residents. (Dougherty has insisted that the electricians have considerably upped training of nonwhite apprentices but refused to give hard numbers about the racial composition of his union when a mayoral commission asked for them in 2009.)
The other way that Dougherty let down the city’s more diverse labor force is more subtle but just as important. When it became clear in recent years that the 20th century industrial economy wasn’t coming back and that the new American working class toiled in nonunion fast-food restaurants, nursing homes and parking garages, innovative labor leaders and allies came up with a new strategy.
Small-d democratic with a grassroots, bottom-up approach that was in many ways the opposite of Johnny Doc’s bare-fisted top-down tactics, the new movement came to industries that weren’t historically unionized — like those fast-food joints — to fight for not just a $15 minimum wage but better child care, mandatory sick time and the predictability of a fair workweek. A working class that is no longer one missed paycheck from doom would mean a broader based economy and a return to things like higher home ownership rates, which would mean work for the building trades. A visionary would have seen that. Dougherty was AWOL.
Kati Sipp, a veteran union organizer who was with the SEIU when it backed projects like The Fight for 15 and is now a consultant, told me that while Dougherty acknowledged Philadelphia’s poverty problems with some large union charitable contributions, he was “not using his political power in service of the people” who could be helped out of poverty with some of those key pieces of legislation.
In fact, as the Inquirer noted last week in this analysis, the higher cost of building with union trade workers in Philadelphia has led the city to rely heavily on the 10-year tax abatement as an incentive to builders — a bargain that works out OK for construction workers but has screwed the struggling school district out of a boatload of needed tax revenue. And it’s hard to lift Philadelphia’s working class to a better life when the public schools struggle to afford books or guidance counselors. Instead, Dougherty became an advocate for the charter-school regime that hurt traditional public schools and their unionized teachers.
The bottom line is that during 25 years when this city needed a true working class hero, Johnny Doc was not that guy. The good news is that Philadelphia’s new working class has learned that in the 21st century there are no saviors, and that you have to fight for yourselves. And they’ve been getting results, like council member Helen Gym’s Fair Workweek bill that passed in December.
Whatever happens in his upcoming trial, the fact that Dougherty was able to amass so much political power only to squander it on narrow battles, petty feuds and a bag of chips, instead of a Philadelphia that works for everybody, was arguably his greatest crime.