Johnny Doc reenters political fray picking a fight with NYC real estate firm

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John Dougherty, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Philadelphia, criticizes the owner of the Public Ledger Building for unsafe handling of asbestos. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

John Dougherty, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Philadelphia, criticizes the owner of the Public Ledger Building for unsafe handling of asbestos. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A coalition of labor unions packed an Independence Mall sidewalk Wednesday in protest of one of the New York City-based owners of the historic Public Ledger Building.

Led by John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the embattled leader of Philadelphia Building Trades Council, the labor advocates claimed that recently discovered asbestos in the 101 S. 6th St. building is an imminent threat to public health.

“This isn’t politics, this isn’t union-versus-non-union, this is union-versus-inhuman,” said Dougherty, who was joined by union leaders including Ryan Boyer of the Laborers and, in an unusual occurrence for a building trades rally, a vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

A spokesperson for the owner, Heights Advisors, said they have no comment on the Building Trades Council’s claims or the rally held in front of their half of the building.

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The protest came as the latest in a series of recent public appearances by Dougherty, who faces federal charges about the alleged abuse of his role in the leadership of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 98. He had turned the union into a political powerhouse, with strong alliances in City Hall and Harrisburg.

Although Dougherty was quieter than usual in the months after the January 2019 indictment, the veteran organizer has become more visible this year as he works to shore up the interests of the building trades union movement in Philadelphia.

He also joined the Steamfitters Local 420, the main union that’s been protesting the Heights project, at a rally last week in support of their workers at the shuttered Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia.

Dougherty is fighting to keep the facility open, and according to reports from the Philadelphia Inquirer, has been meeting with Trump administration officials about its fate.

On Wednesday, he sought to tie both cases together as part of a larger struggle.

“Last week, we had a rally in front of City Hall about the refinery they’re shutting down for no reason,” said Dougherty. “Now we’re here for the same reasons. The guy that owns this building is from New York City. He doesn’t have any family around here.”

The Public Ledger is carved into multiple ownership spheres, with the Brooklyn-based Heights owning the eastern tower facing Independence Hall, Wawa owning the space that contains its largest retail outlet and Baycrest Properties & Management owning the western tower of the building.

Heights plans to install condominiums and a hotel in the eastern tower and is using non-union labor for ongoing renovations. That labor choice months ago sparked the initial Building Trades campaign against the company.

Workers with Steamfitters Local 420, like Frank Shaw, have been holding vigil with enormous inflatable rats.

“We aren’t against the workers that are in there, we are against the contractors,” Shaw said. “These guys aren’t getting the proper benefits, the proper wages, things people should be getting.”

The rally on Wednesday sought to bring public attention to the discovery of asbestos during interior demolition work last month.

The city’s Asbestos Control Unit issued stop-work orders in the building because the contractors were not licensed to carry out asbestos abatement. Copies of the January violations were handed out to reporters at the rally.

A press representative for the Health Department’s Air Services Management said the city has run air quality tests in both the west and east sides of the building since the January violations. The tests showed that there isn’t a need to shut the building down, even though asbestos has been found on most floors of the structure, said James Garrow, spokesperson for the Health Department. Heights has already brought in licensed remediation workers.

“Currently, there are licensed abatement folks and air inspectors working in the building to abate the asbestos that’s been found on floors two through 12,” Garrow said. “It’s all being handled according to a plan that’s on file with Air Management Services.”

Union members crowd the sidewalks outside the Public Ledger Building on South 6th Street, where union leaders say workers and tennants are being exposed to unsafe levels of asbestos. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The building manager for the west side of the Public Ledger, Asia Wilson, said that they have performed their own air quality tests and have determined that there is no risk in their portion of the structure.

But the discovery of asbestos has unnerved many Public Ledger tenants. There are Philadelphia Police Department offices in the building, and that’s why the FOP played such a prominent role at Wednesday’s rally.

“We rarely get invited to things like this, but it’s about time we all stepped up and showed the city what we can do when we join hands together,” said Steve Weiler, vice president of Philadelphia’s police union. “It’s hard enough being a police officer in this city walking the streets, in dangerous situations, and now they’re in an even more dangerous situation inside.”

The broad labor coalition that Doughtery was able to draw to the rally also included the Laborers, which is the city’s only construction union with majority Black membership. Councilmember Bobby Henon, who also faces indictment in the same case as Dougherty, also spoke at the rally. He is IBEW Local 98’s former political director.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon joins a union rally outside the Public Ledger Building. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Dougherty mentioned the case several times, obliquely, during his speech.

“The people that [the developer] brought in were not licensed, not qualified, not from the region, probably not paying anybody anything but cash. That’s a crime,” Dougherty said. “Our friends across the street in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, if they spent one centimeter of what they spend on us, they’d lock this guy up and throw them away forever.”

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