Like other big-city unions, ironworkers' Local 401 in Philadephia found its once-unchallenged hold on the city and its suburbs compromised as nonunion contractors increased their market share.

In response, say federal prosecutors, the local's leaders carried out, over many years, a program of intimidation that stands out for its violence and audacity. 

According to a grand jury indictment opened in Philadelphia last week, business manager and local leader Joseph Dougherty and nine other officers and members regularly employed violence and threats to extort contractors, limit nonunion work and even keep union carpenters from performing work the local believed it should control.

In a Feb. 21 statement, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental & Reinforcing Iron Workers has taken over the local "and removed existing leadership," said union General President Walter W. Wise.

The international union in Washington, D.C. has tapped Stephen M. Sweeney, a regional vice president, who also is president of the New Jersey state Senate, to serve as administrator of Local 401.

Using a network of informers, the union kept tabs on which construction projects used nonunion labor. When deemed necessary, the local dispatched a group of members, known as "goon squads," to threaten contractors.

The 49-page indictment notes that one such group jokingly called itself "The Helpful Union Guys," or "T.H.U.G.S."

The goon squads were employed against non-union contractors “to force them to hire unwanted, unnecessary, and superfluous union labor,” states the indictment.

Union leaders rewarded squad members with special treatment in job assignments or appointments to positions of authority in the local, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors claim Dougherty, whose base salary in 2012 was $190,000, encouraged members to threaten and assault contractors and their employees, damage construction equipment and commit arson, including a December 2012 fire at a Quaker meeting house project in Chestnut Hill, Pa.

At a press conference announcing the indictment, U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger noted the meeting house construction project and that its Abbington, Pa.-based general contractor E. Allen Reeves Inc. would not hire Local 401 members.

In response, James Walsh, known as Local 401 "hit man," according to the indictment, and William Gillin and Daniel Henniger went to the jobsite and set a crane ablaze and cut steel beams, causing $500,000 in damage.

"It's about time. This has been going on for all of my career," Reeves President Robert N. Reeves Jr. said to the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.

Federal officials say Local 401 Business Agent Edward Sweeney ordered the attack. He is not related to the local's newly appointed administrator, Stephen Sweeney,

At the time of the attack, a Philadelphia building trades official reasoned that the Quaker meeting house vandalism could not have been done by union members. The project was too small, and the unions would not want to alienate potential employers, he claimed.

Local 401 officials declined to comment for this story.

History of Violence

There is a long history of union-related labor violence in Philadelphia. Building trades officials in Philadelphia have talked about the problems of maintaining control of the local industry.

Local 401 was founded in 1925, says the international union.

Eight of the indicted members were charged with acts meant to generate money for the union through extortion, arson, destruction of property and assault.