Goon City — Part 2
How federal law and Philadelphia’s political structure contribute to union abuses

Carpenters union members protest outside Milkboy Coffee in Philadelphia.


Jillian Kay Melchior

Consenza refused to answer my questions about his behavior or how long he has worked as a union leader, referring me to the Building Trades Council. When I asked him whether it was he who had hit the security guard, he hung up on me.

Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Building Trades Council, told me that “if someone breaks the law, it’s not the responsibility of the unions.” He added that if individual union members’ behavior jeopardizes organized labor’s involvement in a project, “we will intervene, to the point of shunning them, like the Amish.”

Consenza has worked for the Building Trades Council since at least 2005, according to the Center for Union Facts. A 2001 NLRB document states that in 2000, Cosenza worked as a “union organizer.” Cosenza was also appointed by the mayor of Philadelphia and the president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to sit on the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, “a non-profit, joint venture . . . [that] plans and implements real estate and financing transactions that attract jobs and tax ratables to the City of Philadelphia.”

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Contrary to what union leaders say, when an act of violence or vandalism is committed, “there’s no way it’s an individual acting on its own,” says a Philadelphia business owner. He knows what he’s talking about: A few years ago, when his business was being built, it was targeted by construction-union members.

He said that union members showed up at his site with badges, implying they were local authorities. They flashed their badges at workers, then began asking for information and intimidating the construction team. For the nonunion workers, it was scary and confusing, he added. Fearing that his business might be further targeted by unions, he spoke on the condition of anonymity. After all, there is plenty of precedent.

“It’s intimidation, harassment,” he says. Unions in Philadelphia do “anything and everything to give a developer or owner as much harassment as possible until they end up hiring a union worker. . . . The notion that it’s just individual members is sort of absurd. You’re dealing with something that has to be collaborative.”

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that all the acts of union harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and violence in Philadelphia are the work of unbalanced individuals acting with no sanction from labor leadership.

Yet existing federal law makes it nearly impossible to investigate a union as an organizational entity for conducting illegal activity.

If another type of organization were using tactics similar to those employed by Philadelphia’s unions, it could be investigated under the Federal Anti-Racketeering Act of 1934 or the Hobbs Act, which prohibits the “wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear,” and which defines extortion as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent . . . under color of official right.”

But in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Enmons that union officials cannot be prosecuted or even investigated for violence or intimidation under the Hobbs Act if they are carrying out “legitimate union business.” That ruling is “a smoking gun as to how this works,” says Mark Mix, president of National Right to Work.

“If [union officials] are trying to achieve a ‘legitimate objective’ — i.e., a pay raise or getting employers to hire more union workers — they believe that the ends justify the means. That’s basically what the Court said,” Mix explains. The Enmons ruling “gives union officials a get-out-of-jail-free card to invoke their will on independent employees, because that’s who it’s all targeted against. . . . It gives them license to intimidate, coerce, and even use violence to get their way.” 

It is left to local police to look into cases where union members have probably committed illegal acts, Mix says. And he adds, “It’s very hard for local officials to generate the money and the courage to do these investigations at the local level.”

This explains why convictions for illegal union activity are so scarce, says James Sherk, a labor expert at the Heritage Foundation.

An “individual jobsmith or thug” can be prosecuted, Sherk says, “but as it is, you can’t prosecute the union writ large for extortion. . . . I think the challenge is proving who’s done it. Everyone pretty much knows when the union has done it, but identifying which member is pretty difficult. For good reason, you don’t have guilt by association.” If it weren’t for the Enmons ruling, Sherk explains, “you’d be able to go after the union institutionally and take records and go in after who’s ordering it.”

Further complicating the issue, federal law makes it nearly impossible for owners to defend their property against unions. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 makes it very difficult for most employers to get an injunction to stop union members from trespassing onto their property or protesting immediately outside of it.

In Philadelphia, that can prove especially problematic for a business owner. Philadelphia Gas Works has a union contract that prohibits its employees from crossing a picket line except in emergencies. For MilkBoy, the carpenters’ union protests meant that it took four months to get utility meters installed.

Philadelphia’s political structure also gives unions the advantage.

Members of the Philadelphia City Council exercise “councilmanic privilege,” which essentially means that each council member gets the final say on land usage or development within his or her district, and the other council members will defer. Councilmanic privilege is not in Philadelphia’s city charter, but it was informally agreed to by the council, says a source close to the mayor. In essence, a council member can veto any project, regardless of the effect on the builder or the community.

“Couple [councilmanic privilege] with the union support of politicians and the underlying relationship there, and you can see how this creates a mess,” the source explains. Some fear that if a project doesn’t yield to unions’ hiring demands, a labor patron on the city council will stymie its progress. A recent article in The Philly Post found that in 2011 alone, unions had donated at least $327,600 to City Council members — and that report was “not meant to be exhaustive, but rather a snapshot of contributions from the groups that far and away provide some of the heftiest donations to the Council each year.”

Thus the impunity long enjoyed by Philadelphia unions has only been enhanced by federal law and the city’s political structure. As a result, Philadelphia’s business owners, developers, and contractors remain at the mercy of unions that have long shown what they’re capable of perpetrating.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. This is the second installment of a three-part article.