by Pete Mazzaccaro

Yesterday, news spread that 10 leaders of the Philadelphia Ironworkers Union, Local 401, were indicted on racketeering charges by a federal grand jury for a series of intimidating and violent acts, one of which was the December 2012 attack on the construction site of the new Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse, which cost Abington contractor E. Allen Reeves $500,000.

“Attack” might seem too strong a term, but it is essentially the best way to describe the tactics employed by the union. At the meetinghouse construction site, union workers cut steel beams and torched a crane. In other parts of the world the same actions might be called a terrorist attack.

Another incident cited by press reports was that of a group of union workers at a Toys R Us construction site in King of Prussia in June of 2012 who attacked non-union worker trucks with baseball bats and hit one of the non-union workers in the face.

According to the indictment, these attacks were “ordered” by leaders of the union, who in press reports routinely denied knowledge of the violence.

For most people reading these reports, the union’s actions are likely not at all surprising. Violence and intimidation seem to go hand-in-hand with the everyday understanding of urban, blue-collar labor movements. Popular culture has decided this to be the case, from tales of Jimmy Hoffa to Season 2 of the legendary HBO show “The Wire,” in which the union representing City of Baltimore port workers is involved in everything from politics to theft to drug sales.

Clearly, unions were instrumental in establishing safe working environments for industrial workers and contractors over the last century, and unions like to point out that they built the middle class. It’s hard to argue against the claim.

But the allegations against the Ironworkers’ local stand in stark contrast to the tales of unions in their infancy that stood against and were often the victims of brutal and deadly force employed by both the U.S. government and private business groups. Take the Pinkertons, who became the stuff of folklore when they attacked striking steel workers during the Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh in 1892.

Similar tales of violent acts against unions followed through World War I, from U.S. forces putting down the Pullman railway strike of 1894 to the Everett Massacre in which “citizen deputies” engaged in a shootout with Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) in Everett, Washington.

Today, public perception of unions is at an all-time low. In addition to the violent tactics of Local 401, unions get a lot of blame for problems that are not at all their fault. Teachers unions, not known for violence, are often the target of public anger, which casts them as the sole, greedy source of rising education costs.

You could feel bad for the spot unions are in. They don’t deserve the reputation they have. But actions by members of Local 401 have to be taken into account. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality. As long as some unions choose to behave like goons, many people will see unions and their members just that way.

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