Frame-up of Philadelphia IBEW union official shows need to fight gov’t interference in our unions

By Janet Post
December 13, 2021

PHILADELPHIA — John Dougherty, longtime head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 here, resigned the day after he was convicted of “honest services wire fraud” in U.S. District Court Nov. 15. Dougherty, known as “Johnny Doc,” also headed the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council.

“Justice was not served today, and I can’t tell you how disappointed I am by the jury’s decision,” Dougherty said after the verdict.

In an anti-labor frame-up trial that began Oct. 4, prosecutors argued that Dougherty “bribed” three-term City Council member Bobby Henon, a former electrician and the union’s former political director, to win contracts providing work for 5,000 IBEW Local 98 members. They both face up to 20 years in prison. The U.S. prosecutor’s office here has a long history of meddling into local union affairs and bringing charges against union officials.

Prosecutors “said Dougherty bought himself a City Council member,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote. He continued to pay Henon his IBEW union salary while he also was a paid City Council member. Many other city councilors are paid for outside jobs. Prosecutors said Dougherty bought Henon tickets to Philadelphia Eagles games.

In exchange, prosecutors argued, Henon allowed Dougherty “to control his vote.” They tried to paint it as suspicious that two union officers might tend to see many things the same way.

During the trial, building trades unionists demonstrated outside the courthouse Nov. 8, carrying signs reading, “Stop the attack on workers” and “We are the 99%.”

Construction jobs have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Building Trades Council here reported a 60% unemployment rate for their members in April 2020.

For more than 15 years, the FBI and local and federal prosecutors have been on an unrelenting campaign to harass and weaken the union, using wiretaps and raids on the union headquarters, Dougherty’s home and Henon’s office. Local 98 said the frame-up wasn’t “a prosecution, it’s a persecution.”

“Evidence” used by prosecutors included potential union agreements with the telecommunications giant Comcast, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Verizon that the City Council took up.

“People hate Comcast,” the jury heard Dougherty tell Henon on a wiretapped phone call. Comcast “can’t believe they’re not getting their way, and they’re not just stampeding [through the council].” The union was fighting to organize Comcast jobs on city property.

Keep government out of our unions

Henon was also found guilty of bribery for accepting campaign donations from Communications Workers of America Local 13000 in 2015 in exchange for calling a public hearing on Verizon. This was while 39,000 CWA and IBEW members on the East Coast were battling against company takeback demands that led to a seven-week strike the next year.

In a similar anti-union operation here in 2015, the federal prosecutor’s office got the business manager of Ironworkers Local 401 in Philadelphia, Joseph Dougherty (no relation), convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, arson and extortion. “Joe Doc,” now 79, is serving 19 years in federal prison.

Joe Mathis, a retired member of Local 401 who supported the Ironworkers during that trial, told the Militant, “I don’t think the government should be involved in the activities of the unions. And the way they went after our union, the members are afraid of further government intervention.”

The anti-labor investigation of union officials by the government has nothing to do with prosecutors’ concern about corruption in unions or the well-being of the rank and file. The government’s aim is to weaken the unions on behalf of the bosses, and to tie up any pro-union activity in regulations and red tape.

Many of our unions have problems today, the result of decades of class collaborationism, from less and less union democracy, to corruption. One of the biggest problems is how union officials have tied workers to dependence on Democratic Party so-called friends of labor — instead of organizing the unorganized and relying on the capacity and strength of the rank and file to fight in our own interests and to champion the struggles of all those exploited and oppressed by capital.

But to change this for the better, we’ve got to keep the government’s hands off our unions. The only way to strengthen the labor movement is by the actions of the union members ourselves, including action against government interference.

Today we see signs of a shift in the labor movement, as unions take on the bosses and their drive to attack our wages, schedules and working conditions, and are standing up to fight. Warrior Met coal miners in Alabama, bakery workers at Kellogg’s and many others are saying “No!” to divisive multitier contracts, cuts in health benefits, attacks on pensions, speedup and forced overtime, and unsafe conditions.

“As we gain self-confidence and class consciousness through our struggles we can use our collective strength to form our own political party, a labor party,” Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party 2021 candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, told the Militant. The SWP campaign fought to expose the government’s frame-up against Dougherty. “A labor party will get a huge hearing among working people, and open the door to expand the labor movement.

“We need a course to take state power out of the hands of the dog-eat-dog capitalist profiteers and take it into our own hands,” Hart said. “To put in power a workers and farmers government that will reorganize production under workers control to meet human needs.”