Longtime labor boss Joseph Dougherty may spend the rest of his life in prison for running a Philadelphia ironworkers’ union like an organized-crime syndicate. A jury yesterday found him guilty on all six counts levied against him, including RICO conspiracy, extortion, and using arson.

Dougherty’s conviction may have national implications, setting an important precedent for how prosecutors can go after rogue unions. Already the Philadelphia Inquirer has dubbed it “arguably the most significant [federal case] against a construction union since the 1980s.”

Until now, few unions have faced criminal-conspiracy or extortion charges because of the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in U.S. v. Enmons, which found that labor officials carrying out “legitimate union business” can be neither investigated nor prosecuted.

But Enmons did not apply to Dougherty and his fellow Local 401 ironworkers, Philadelphia FBI agent Edward Hanko said last year, because “when you commit acts of violence, threats, intimidation, arson — that’s when you stop doing legitimate business for a union.” (Hanko could not be reached again for comment between Dougherty’s conviction and publication.)

Dougherty now faces 15 years in prison at minimum, while his maximum sentence could be as high as 110 years. Though the 73-year-old has recently suffered both a stroke and a heart attack, the federal district judge ordered him immediately detained, explaining: “I can’t have this jury come back with this verdict and allow him to go home today.”

Eleven other Philadelphia ironworkers testified against Dougherty; some had pled guilty in exchange for lighter prison sentences, while others reached immunity agreements with the federal government.

A spokesperson from the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia would not comment on Dougherty’s conviction. But a Department of Justice news release described how Ironworkers Local 401 would scout out construction sites in Philadelphia that had hired non-union workers. Union business agents would then “imply or explicitly threaten violence, destruction of property, or other criminal acts unless union members were hired,” the news release says. “The defendants created ‘goon’ squads, composed of union members and associates, to commit assaults, arsons, and destruction of property. One such squad referred to itself as ‘The Helpful Union Guys,’ [or] ‘T.H.U.G’s.’”

The Department of Justice also says that the ironworkers “relied on a reputation for violence and sabotage, which had built up in the community over many years, in order to force contractors to hire union members.”

Union control of Philadelphia’s construction sector through violence, vandalism, and intimidation was the subject of a threepart investigative series by NRO in February 2013, one year before the ironworkers’ arrest and indictment.

NRO’s earlier investigation found 143 recorded incidents of Philadelphia union violence between 1975 and 2009. However, these resulted in a mere eight convictions, highlighting how rare was the case against Ironworkers Local 401.

Because people are too intimidated to report union abuses, though, the actual number of events is almost certainly much higher. In total, Philadelphia has probably seen about 45 incidents of union violence yearly for almost 40 years, according to projections by the National Right to Work Committee.

Campaign-finance reports showed that Ironworkers Local 401 spent heavily on politics, giving more than $1.25 million to campaigns since 2004.

Meanwhile, NRO also learned last year that tens of thousands of dollars from another construction union’s PAC, as well as from union-friendly state-level candidates, had been spent at a restaurant owned by the leaders of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. While not necessarily illegal, that flow of money resembled a self-pay scheme.

Another NRO investigation into Philadelphia’s construction unions revealed that the boss of the Electrical Workers’ Local 98 had also drawn federal scrutiny for his financial dealings, though no charges have been filed against him.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.