After the economy tanked in 2008 and took construction work with it, a goon squad of ironworkers flexed their muscles at non-union work sites in and around Philadelphia, threatening builders, smashing beams and even burning down a Quaker meeting house days before Christmas.
They called themselves "The Helpful Union Guys." THUGS, for short.
Eight of 12 ironworkers named in the February indictment have now pleaded guilty, admitting to intimidation tactics that included slashing tires, grabbing rivals by the throat and blockading worksites as they targeted apartment buildings, an elementary school, a boutique coffeehouse and a gym.
"The defendants relied on a reputation for violence and sabotage ... to force contractors to hire union members," the FBI said in a statement after the latest guilty pleas last week.
The 49-page indictment, which references Jimmy Hoffa and reads like a throwback to another era, also illustrates the pressure union officials faced as they tried to secure work for their members in Philadelphia, a city with a long history of union power — and regular bouts of labor strife. Complaints over labor rules — down to who can plug in a computer — at the gleaming new convention center are legend, while commuters regularly pass rowdy picket lines and giant inflatable rats along city highways.
Ironworkers, like the other building trades, consider all work done in the city "their own fiefdom," the February indictment said. And as construction languished from 2008 to 2012, Ironworkers Local 401 business agent Eddie Sweeney felt the heat.
Local boss Joseph Dougherty, who authorities said "ruled with an iron fist," ridiculed Sweeney as a drunk. Sweeney feared he would lose his post if he couldn't find more jobs for the approximately 80 people who showed up at 5 a.m. each morning at the union hall. So he tapped a few friends for some nightwork — the vandalism and violence allegedly used to lean on contractors.
"There has been a long tradition of nightwork within the Ironworkers Local 401 stretching back 50 years or more," prosecutors wrote in Sweeney's plea memorandum. "The defendants in this case took (it) to a new level."
The attorney for one defendant who has pleaded guilty, James Walsh, called the dirty work a matter of survival.
"It does seem you have to do 'nightwork' to be considered for day work," defense lawyer William J. Brennan said. "It's unfortunate."
Some builders acquiesced, fearing what might otherwise ensue. That meant forking over $73 an hour, on average, for union work, far more than they typically paid.
The Quakers, with their religious tradition of justice and nonviolence, had reflected on which contractor to use for the $3.5 million project in northwest Philadelphia. Some preferred a union shop, given the labor movement's long fight for workers' rights. But that bid was $1 million over budget.
"(And), in particular, concerns were raised about a lack of racial and gender equality in union hiring, as well as reports of the use of violence by some trade union members," the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting said after the steel outline of their new building went up in flames on Dec. 20, 2012, causing $500,000 in damage.
Faced with incriminating texts and other evidence, Sweeney, 53, admitted Tuesday that he provided the torch for the 2012 meeting house fire, and also took part in a second arson and 10 extortion attempts. Sweeney's lawyer declined comment on the racketeering plea, which could bring up to 20 years in prison.
Walsh and two others have admitted their roles in the meeting house fire. However, the 73-year-old Dougherty, now retired, has vowed to fight the indictment at a trial set for early next year.
Pat Gillespie, the powerful business manager of the city's Building Trades Council, which has about 70,000 members in 36 unions, scoffed at the allegations when the indictment came out. He was more circumspect this week, amid the pleas.
"That's not the norm," said Gillespie, the front man for the city's building trades since 1983. "I'm saddened that people are in such a desperate state of mind that this kind of thing would be done."
"It's kind of ironic. Do you know how many schools and churches the trades have built pro bono? It's hard to count," he said. "And then they have a place of worship that's desecrated before it's even done? That's just sad."