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Union chief Dougherty gets an air force, sparks controversy

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 is a labor and political juggernaut known for doling out campaign cash, tormenting nonunion workers, and swinging elections - and, occasionally, their fists.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 is a labor and political juggernaut known for doling out campaign cash, tormenting nonunion workers, and swinging elections - and, occasionally, their fists.

Under the leadership of John Dougherty, the union has all but conquered Philadelphia with a sophisticated ground game and hardball tactics.

Now, it's going airborne.

Dougherty, known as "Johnny Doc" to friends and foes alike, recently complemented his army of Local 98 electricians with a small fleet of drones to hover over disputed work sites with high-definition video cameras.

The union announced the aerial strategy last month in a YouTube video. It features crystal-clear drone footage of a protest at 13th and Spruce Streets, set to Rockwell's 1984 hit "Somebody's Watching Me."

"It's plane ingenious," Local 98 posted under the video, which shows Dougherty standing by the drone as it lifts off.

But the drone program - Dougherty's brainchild - has drawn sharp criticism. And Local 98 may have already violated federal airspace regulations.

Nonunion contractors call the surveillance plan next-generation union intimidation and advocates for immigrants say it could lead to racial profiling.

Last month, a Local 98 spokesman said the union planned to use the handheld aircraft to "identify unlicensed workers and, in some instances, undocumented workers" - and send the video footage to labor and immigration agencies.

The plan was quickly denounced.

Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a social-justice group for Latino immigrants, called it a "disgrace."

"These must be some advanced drones that can determine somebody's immigration status based on them being brown," Almiron said. "It looks like pure racial profiling."

"What, did they follow them across the border?" asked Marc Furman, a labor lawyer who represents construction companies and contractors.

Last week, in response to questions from the Inquirer, Local 98 spokesman Frank Keel retracted his earlier statement about targeting undocumented workers, saying he had erred in saying video of such workers would be turned over to immigration officials.

"I meant to state that the drones could detect unlicensed workers only," Keel said in a statement.

Keel said the drones would zoom in on work vehicles used by electrical contractors and subcontractors. Local 98 could then check with the Department of Licenses and Inspections to determine if the companies have valid licenses, or if they have any violations.

"It's conceivable that, had drones been deployed to the demolition site at 22nd and Market in 2013, video evidence of safety violations could have been provided to L&I and that terrible tragedy may have been averted," Keel said.

Local 98 also plans to film its own picket lines and protests to prove that it is not breaking any laws, he said.

Keel said Local 98 has purchased three drones - the Inspire 1 V2.0, made by DJI - at a cost of about $3,400 each, and the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, which Dougherty heads, plans to buy at least one more.

But the drones may have already created problems with the Federal Aviation Administration, which strictly regulates the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, particularly in big cities.

FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said anyone operating a drone for reasons other than recreational purposes must get permission from the FAA. Keel said Local 98 was "working to come into compliance" with that requirement and has not flown the drones since the filming of the YouTube video.

Larry Bossone, a photographer and registered drone operator from Berwyn, called the Local 98 YouTube video "totally irresponsible" and said he believed the union had already violated FAA regulations.

"As soon as they leave the ground they're in violation," Bossone said. "They're actually flouting the laws."

In the video, Bossone said, the union drone was flying much closer to people than regulations allow. Operators of drones for commercial purposes also must obtain a pilot's license.

"They are giving us [drone operators] a bad rep," Bossone said of Local 98. "It's like the Wild West out there and these are rogue cowboys." Bossone, who said Local 98 could face FAA fines, called it ironic that an electricians' union would be operating drones without a license.

"How would they feel if I advertised myself as an electrician and I was doing wiring in buildings?" he asked. "They're doing my work and doing it very irresponsibly."

Keel said he did not believe the drones' video surveillance would violate the National Labor Relations Act, but said the union was "doing all due diligence to ensure that the use of the drones complies with all federal, state, and city regulations."

Among other things, Local 98 hopes aerial video could help the union defend itself against allegations of violence or intimidation.

"Far too often, the union is the victim of maliciously false allegations of harassment leveled by developers and other business entities who do not comply with established area wages and standards," Keel said.

Dougherty and his associates have clashed with nonunion contractors in recent months.

In January, he and three union members got into a fistfight with a nonunion electrical contractor - and broke his nose - at a construction site at Third and Reed. That work site was also the scene of a brawl in May 2014 in which Dougherty and several union members got into a dispute with nonunion bricklayers and Dougherty was hit with a brick.

Kristene Unsworth, an information science professor and surveillance expert at Drexel University, said she was not surprised that union officials on the front lines of labor disputes would want to use aerial surveillance to document events.

"I would think they're being foolish not to," she said.

Unsworth noted that protesters routinely use smartphones to record clashes with police. Drones, she said, are a natural progression. They can reach wider vantage points - capturing images above and beyond the walls of a partially constructed building, for example.

But they can also reach places where people may have a reasonable expectation of privacy, Unsworth said.

"Is it the same as if you or I were standing across the street and saw someone throw a punch?" she asked. "I guess it adds another eyewitness, or type of an eyewitness, but how is that going to be held through the court system is the question that is still open."