Ironworkers charged in racketeering conspiracy that includes Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse arson

Ten members of Ironworkers Local 401 have been arrested and charged with allegedly participating in “acts of extortion, arson, destruction of property and assault,” including the Dec. 2012 arson attack on the Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse

The union members are accused of conspiring to intimidate contractors on job sites that chose to employ non-union workers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which held a press conference detailing an unsealed indictment (PDF) on Tuesday.

“It is one thing to negotiate a contract, it is one thing to picket in order to get your position heard and get support, but when you cross that line and engage in violent acts, when you commit arson, when you physically assault someone, then that is a problem,” said U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger at a press conference on Tuesday.

Details of the charges

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The indictment released Tuesday morning specifies that in the Dec. 2012 arson on the site of the now-complete Quaker Meetinghouse in Chestnut Hill three union members — James Walsh, 49; William Gillin, 42; and Daniel Hennigar, 53; all of Philadelphia — cut steel beams and bolts and set a crane on fire after the building contractor decided to hire non-union ironworkers. 

The attack on the meetinghouse was one of several such jobs so-called “goon” squads were employed to handle, according to the indictment. One such group was dubbed “T.H.U.G.S,” or, “The Helpful Union Guys.”

The ‘sabotage’ leader

The indictment stated that defendant Joseph Dougherty — a 72-year-old Philadelphian who acted as the union’s business manager/financial secretary/treasurer — coordinated and directed the “sabotage” of non-union work sites. 

Under his leadership of daily operations — “both legal and illegal”  — business agents were dispatched to non-union work sites to “coerce, force and extort the contractor to hire union ironworkers,” according to the indictment.

If this did not work, actions such as “slashing the tires of vehicles, smashing vehicles with crow bars, cutting and changing the locks on construction sites, filling the locks with superglue, damaging construction equipment, stealing construction materials,” were taken.

“There is a whole lot we have to find out about this. No one condones violence and no one condones any wrong doing,” said Pat Gillespie, Business Manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council. “I’m hoping the ironworkers can explain these things.”

Reaction from Chestnut Hill

Jon Landau, co-chair of the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting’s committee on the construction project, said the group appreciates the efforts by the attorney’s office in pursuing the arrest. 

The arson caused a two-week delay in construction and $500,000 in damages. 

Landau noted the crane that was set on fire was the only such equipment in use by the subcontractor employed to work on the site. It caused “a big setback for them,” he said.

“We are happy they are being brought to justice,” said Landau, adding that the incident caused mixed emotions for many Quakers. “We believe in the right to unionize. We support the unions, but we are strongly opposed to violence of this sort.”

Beyond the arson

Other known incidents, cited in the indictment, include a June 2010 assault with baseball bats on non-union workers at a Toys “R” Us being constructed by King of Prussia Mall; the intimidation of the building contractor at a construction site on 31st and Spring Garden streets in July 2013 and the attempted arson of a construction site in Malvern, leading to the arrest of the suspects. 

The 10 defendants face anywhere from a statutory maximum of 20-to-130 years in prison and a minimum sentence of five to 35 years. 

The investigation into Ironworkers Local 401 is ongoing, according to Memeger. Calls to the union local for comment went unreturned Tuesday afternoon.

Federal investigators raided the union’s Northeast Philadelphia headquarters early Tuesday.

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