Politics & Policy

Goon City — Part 2

Carpenters union members protest outside Milkboy Coffee in Philadelphia.
How federal law and Philadelphia’s political structure contribute to union abuses

Jamie Lokoff hung up his phone and rushed downtown on a summer day in 2011. An arsonist had targeted his new bar, MilkBoy, just weeks before it was scheduled to open. The butcher paper lining the windows had caught fire, alerting a passerby to call 911.

The incident marked a sinister turn in the MilkBoy owners’ ten-month battle with the carpenters’ union over the construction of the bar and music venue in downtown Philadelphia. Though Jamie Lokoff and his partner, Tommy Joyner, had used unionized labor on much of the project, the carpenters’ union was pressing them to hire some of its workers.

#ad#At first, Lokoff and Joyner tried to cope with the union picketing with humor. Union members protested outside their coffee shop, also named MilkBoy, in the suburb of Ardmore, toting signs that said, “Shame on MilkBoy.” Lokoff and Joyner printed T-shirts that also said “Shame on MilkBoy” — complete with a cup of coffee letting off a mushroom cloud of steam — and hawked them to patrons with a sense of irony, donating the proceeds to charity. The supply of T-shirts sold out twice.

The T-shirts’ popularity led the union to change its signs, this time claiming “MilkBoy is hurting the community.” Lokoff and Joyner ordered a new batch of T-shirts, which said, “Menace to Ardmore.” Those sold out, too.

“I think the people that knew us, our good customers, knew that we’re just two guys who were trying to do right by the community, run a coffee shop, and support music and the arts,” Lokoff says. “When we pushed back — and we pushed back in a funny way, but [it] had a little bit of an edge — people responded to it.”

But the protests continued and intensified. Lokoff says he’s certain someone from the carpenters’ union started the fire.

MilkBoy was relatively lucky. The flame, begun with debris from the site, an accelerant, and a match, was started on concrete rather than the wood floor nearby. The sprinklers went off as they were supposed to, and most of the damage was from the water. Fortunately, Lokoff and Joyner hadn’t moved any furniture in yet.

Still, it was a frightening incident, Lokoff says.

“I’ve got small kids who go to school in Philadelphia,” he explains. “I live in the city. You don’t know what people are capable of. . . . We’re music guys. We’re not looking to make a statement against unions, or to stand up and be that figure. So our approach was like, ‘This is f***ed up, let’s just get this place open.’”

Lokoff and Joyner cooperated with the police, answering all questions and submitting additional information. Still, no arrests were made, and no one was ever convicted for the arson.

“We physically don’t have any proof that it’s a union,” says Lokoff, “but of course it’s what we believe. . . . And I think the unions feed off any media. Even if it’s negative, it’s a win for them. They won. They got their message out that you should hire union workers.”

* * *

Philadelphia’s unions usually get away with their many acts of harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and violence. The National Right to Work Committee’s study cited in part 1 of this article found that in 143 news reports regarding union troublemaking in Philadelphia, arrests were mentioned only 38 times, and only eight convictions were noted. It’s possible that some union members faced repercussions not mentioned in the news reports, but police and several of Philadelphia’s open-shop construction businessmen told me justice is rarely meted out in labor incidents.

Furthermore, NRTW’s study suggested that for each union incident reported in the news, at least ten similar incidents occur that never make the papers. If that’s correct, unions have caused property damage or personal injury nearly 45 times a year on average — for nearly four decades.

And there’s good reason to believe the illegal behavior is part of the institution, and that unions may protect individual members who commit crimes. In some instances, the offending member is even a part of the union leadership.

“Union violence and vandalism happen frequently enough for the union leadership to do something about it,” says Kevin Gillen, a senior research consultant with the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. “If they wanted to do something about it, they could.” #page#Most of Philadelphia’s construction unions have faced numerous allegations of illegal intimidation. Meanwhile, many union leaders have held their positions for years, becoming millionaires in the process.

Edward Coryell, the business manager of the Philadelphia carpenters’ union, made a total of $311,759 in 2011 for his union work, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Since Coryell first assumed the position in 1976, the carpenters’ union has been involved in numerous conflicts with businesses. During the early Eighties, members of the union stole or damaged at least $18,000 in property at construction sites, blew up a contractor’s truck, and threatened a restaurant owner with a gun and knives, according to the National Right to Work database.

“It certainly wasn’t us,” Coryell tells me.

#ad#Employers have also filed at least three cases with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that members of the carpenters’ union made “threatening statements” to them. The NLRB also has on record at least three other “various complaints” about members of the union, according to the Center for Union Facts.

The electrical workers’ union also has a long record. John Dougherty, the business manager, did not return my phone calls. But news reports say he has been in office since at least 1995, and the U.S. Department of Labor reports he earned $205,649 in 2011, the latest year on record.

The National Right to Work database shows that in 2000, members of the electrical workers’ union allegedly broke an injunction and blocked an entrance to a Verizon facility, cutting service to more than a thousand telephone lines.

The NLRB has also received complaints from businesses about the electrical workers’ union, including two instances of coercive statements, two of “denial of access” to a workplace, two of “threatening statements,” two of “harassment,” and one of “violence/assault,” according to the Center for Union Facts.

The ironworkers’ union has a similarly bad record. Its business manager, Joseph J. Dougherty, earned $207,889 in 2011. Employers have filed at least ten cases with the NLRB against this union for picketing and strike actions, among other allegations.

And in one of the rare cases that did yield arrests and convictions, ironworkers assaulted nonunion workers. Toys“R”Us was tearing down its old building and constructing a new one, using nonunion labor for some of the project. Union members regularly picketed outside the construction site, so the workers employed there would gather in a nearby parking lot, then enter the construction site together.

On June 23, 2010, some members of the ironworkers’ union showed up at the parking lot and started hitting the workers’ trucks with baseball bats. The workers fled, and the union members chased them, assaulting them with the baseball bats. One worker had to be taken to the hospital.

Two members of the union were arrested and pled guilty to simple assault. Meanwhile, police say they believe two other ironworkers were involved in the assault but went free for lack of evidence.

“We made a couple of phone calls [to the ironworkers’ union], and we didn’t get a lot of cooperation,” says James Godboy, the detective who investigated the assault.

In some cases, the union leadership appears to have participated in or led acts of violence and intimidation. The Building Trades Council, a construction-trades labor organization with 13 union affiliates, employs a business representative named Fred Cosenza, who earned $102,213 in 2011. A recent video taken at a construction site shows a white male striking a security guard. The male was identified by an eyewitness and by developer Michael Pestronk as Fred Cosenza.

Cosenza has a history of making employers feel uncomfortable. On July 13, 2000, he accompanied six other union officials to a company’s office to ask for jobs. The employees were so frightened that one of them called the police. The office manager testified, as the administrative-law judge’s decision summarizes, that Cosenza and the other union members “would not leave ‘until they got what they came for,’ that matters became tense, and that she was ‘freaked out’ and ‘scared.’”

The National Labor Relations Board examined the case, and in 2004 it affirmed the decision by the administrative-law judge stating that “even if obtaining employment was still among their purposes . . . and I doubt that it was, the organizers’ tactic of attempting to bully the Respondent into permitting them to bypass the normal [job] application procedures does not justify their refusal to leave the facility.”

A separate NLRB complaint reports Cosenza’s showing up at a job site with six other union organizers. NLRB member William Cowen wrote in his concurring decision that Cosenza and his companions “were simply at the jobsite to provoke the Respondent into not hiring them so that a spurious unfair labor practice charge could be filed.” Cowen also notes another union representative’s “offensive and disruptive behavior” during the visit.

#page#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.”

#ad#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.”

* * *

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.

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