Electricians Local 98 wasn’t quite absent when Mayor Jim Kenney addressed the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce at its yearly luncheon Thursday: The union helped pay for the business event, so its lightning-in-a-fist logo was flashed across oversize display screens at the program’s opening, as it was when President Donald Trump addressed builders and union tradesmen at the Convention Center last year — another nod to the local’s political clout.
But none of the day’s speakers addressed the week’s big news — the federal indictment of the union’s business manager, John J. Dougherty, and his principal aides on corruption charges the day before.
The chamber’s executive director, former State Sen. Rob Wonderling, reminded the packed Marriott hotel meeting room how “capitalism is hard, hard work” that creates “jobs, jobs, and more jobs.”
Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen, handing out a couple of college grants, delivered ringing support for Dougherty’s good friend Kenney, despite the indictment’s allegations that Comcast had been squeezed by the union leader.
And Kenney, gearing up for reelection, reminded the crowd that Target, Wawa and JPMorgan Chase have opened new Philly locations. He also defended his sweetened-drink tax, and bragged about police safety and job efforts, among other initiatives, without a word about the U.S. attorney’s charges.
They weren’t asking the question, so I will: Who gains from Dougherty’s indictment? Besides developers, of course, there is, for example:
Comcast. While Verizon, Peco, and other major utilities in the Philadelphia area use union crews to hook up homes and businesses, the largest corporation based in town is resolutely nonunion in its area hiring and its installation contractors, except for a relatively small unit that Local 98 organized years ago when it was part of another company, and has held onto amid difficult contract renewals that included Dougherty’s 2015 efforts to publicly embarrass Cohen.
The local hasn’t expanded that bridgehead, but it has pushed Comcast to use union construction contractors that employ IBEW members and those of allied unions, guaranteeing union working conditions, pensions, and health care.
A part of the indictment shows how Electricians leaders, from Dougherty through indicted City Councilman and Local 98 business agent Bobby Henon, delayed Comcast’s Philadelphia city service contract while the union pressured the company.
With Dougherty and his team distracted, Comcast won’t likely face the same combination of labor and political pressure over whom it hires, how much it pays them, and what it charges the public.
The Teamsters. The city’s labor unions aren’t monolithic. While Dougherty is a loyal and leading Democrat, the city’s former Carpenters leadership and key Teamsters locals backed Republicans in the early 2000s, in protest of City Hall’s support for tightening of work rules at the Convention Center. That struggle ran for years. Then, Carpenters chief Ed Coryell Sr. finally overplayed his hand in 2015 when he refused to sign a new Convention Center work agreement. The Teamsters also held out.
Convention Center leaders were grateful when Dougherty’s Electricians and three other unions signed the deal — including the Laborers local, the largest African American-led construction union. Those Dougherty allies ended up gaining jobs as the Carpenters and Teamsters were iced out.
Teamsters leaders loudly criticized Dougherty for cutting the deal at their expense. According to the indictment, Dougherty retaliated for the Teamsters' public criticism by backing Kenney’s drink tax, which the Teamsters say cost union jobs because it cut soda consumption. Dougherty’s problems make it easier for his rivals to fight the soda tax and its prime backer, Kenney.
George E. Norcross III. The New Jersey Democratic power broker and Cooper Health boss used to say he steered clear of Pennsylvania Democratic politics because politicians west of the river have a long history of being overheard by investigators while discussing favors granted for favors received — one of the surest ways to get charged with corruption.
It’s much safer, long-lasting politicians know, if you make a general habit of doing your friends favors, while letting them do you favors, without anybody crudely tying one to the other in ways that prosecutors can make a case from.
But Dougherty’s handling of the Convention Center issue made the Local 98 leader look like the kind of modern labor executive that businessmen and politicians could work with. Norcross adjusted his policy and began meeting with Dougherty to talk about mutual interests, including planning for the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Last year my colleagues Jeremy Roebuck and Andrew Seidman reported that federal investigators had been collecting Norcross' conversations about Dougherty. Norcross was able to produce an unusual confirmation that he was not the target.
If Norcross has indeed acted with care, Dougherty’s fall might position him to help friendly forces move into any resulting vacuum in Philadelphia politics.
Union members. Prosecutors in their public statements tried to separate Dougherty from his cherished position as defender of the working man. He and other union leaders illegally spent members' funds at Target and on fancy meals, the indictment said.
Prolonged embezzlement has sunk a lot of careless politicians. If Dougherty goes down, will his members and allied unions elect new effective leaders? Will the national union impose new ones? And will Dougherty’s successors keep contractors union-organized, protect wage rates, and especially maintain the guaranteed pension and health plans that nonunion construction employers tend to lack?
As it turns out, Philadelphia is a laboratory for that kind of experiment. Three years ago, the Carpenters reorganized Coryell’s old district council under leaders more compatible with their national outlook. Around the same time, the Ironworkers' national union took over the Philadelphia local, following the conviction of the Philly local’s leaders on charges of firebombing a scab-built Quaker meetinghouse.