Union leader Johnny Doc heralds ‘new era’ with song and dance about mold

Building Trades workers called out an Old City development with a fungus-inspired riff on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

John 'Johnny Doc' Dougherty speaking at a rally this winter

John 'Johnny Doc' Dougherty speaking at a rally this winter

Max Marin / Billy Penn
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Updated 3:49 p.m.

John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty is no stranger to publicity stunts, but singing about fungus is a new one, even for him.

As the leader of the city’s politically influential Building Trades unions, Dougherty has made a reputation of causing hassle for non-union job sites by shaming city officials for their failure to clamp down on code violations. His organization’s 12-foot inflatable protest rat has long been a ubiquitous part of Philly’s streetscape — and in recent years it’s gone ambulatory with the motorized rat-mobile. Two years ago, to heavy criticism, IBEW’s Local 98 even launched a fleet of drones to monitor (read: take down) construction projects that don’t use union work.

But the perennially controversial labor leader, who has been under federal investigation since 2016, said this week that “it’s a new era” for the Philadelphia Building Trades. And well…you be the judge.

On Thursday, Dougherty staged a holiday-themed call-out at 401 Race Street in Old City, where he alleged substandard construction has led to unsafe living conditions for future tenants of the 216-unit apartment complex. Flanks of union workers, some donning Grinch masks with red Santa hats, held up poster-sized photos that allegedly showed slime, sludge and gunk growing out of building’s subfloors and joists.

Then they sang a little jingle about the mold.

More accurately, two people trilled a four-verse riff on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the male-female Christmas duet that has become a cultural flashpoint for its allusions to date rape and sexual assault.

In the modified version of the song (lyrics below!), the tale was recast to highlight what Dougherty calls a cover-up of the fungus overrunning the foundation of the 211,000-square-foot development. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Licenses & Inspections said inspectors had been sent out to investigate the mold and found the contractor was remediating the issue. There are no outstanding violations against the property, according to city data.

‘$3,500 and all the mushrooms you can eat’

Dougherty claimed that throughout its construction period, 401 Race Street was largely unprotected from heavy rains and snows, and the water-drenched wood led to heavy mold. He further alleged that “his guys” on the inside — he declined to provide specifics — have witnessed substandard practices among the non-union workers, including but not limited to urinating in buckets on the job site.

“My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew that was happening in the construction industry and I had a role in changing it,” Dougherty told reporters, adding that the proposed apartments would be priced at “$3,500 a month and all the mushrooms you can eat.”

Property records show PCRP-Philadelphia Investment LLC purchased the 401 Race Street parcel in March 2017. The company’s mailing address is located in West Palm Beach, Florida. Calls to Hutter-Pioneer, the New England-based general contractor for the Race Street development, went unreturned on Thursday. The company’s website lists its contract for the development at $40 million.

The Department of Licenses & Inspections has cited the property owner for eight violations this year, including failure to display construction permits and having workers on site who hadn’t completed mandatory 10-hour OSHA training. Municipal records show these violations have since been resolved.

L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said the agency did receive a complaint about “dry rot and mold” at the property in mid-October.

“An inspector responded and found that the contractor was already remediating by replacing water damaged exterior sheeting and by dehumidifying the affected areas,” Guss told Billy Penn. “Since repairs were already in progress no violations were issued and the matter is considered closed.”

But Dougherty made additional claims that inspectors weren’t moving fast enough to catch all the problems. He claimed to have personally seen a worker at the Race Street site wearing flip-flops earlier this year. “I called OSHA,” he said.

“When I make these statements, nobody sues me,” he added. “They never want to get into a deposition process or discovery process, because I’ll tell you what: We did that, somebody inside that building would go to jail.”

Union workers hold up enlarged photos of alleged mold in the 401 Race Street development.

Union workers hold up photos of mold allegedly taken within the 401 Race Street development.

Max Marin/Billy Penn

A more family-friendly rat-mobile?

Though he’s a longtime ally of Mayor Jim Kenney, and heavily backed his 2015 mayoral campaign, Dougherty took issue with the administration’s lack of action to combat slipshod development.

“The city needs to have tougher teeth,” Dougherty said. “Nobody cares until somebody dies.”

While not alleging structural flaws at the Race Street building, the labor leader brought up the 2013 building collapse at 22nd and Market that killed six and injured more than a dozen, a tragedy he claims to have warned city officials about repeatedly before it happened.

Despite the campy press conference that attracted a throng of local reporters, Dougherty emphasized the Building Trades would be taking a “less picket lines and more lawsuits” approach in the coming year. He said Jack O’Neill, a former city prosecutor who ran an unsuccessful campaign for district attorney in 2017, would be representing the unions in upcoming litigation, though details are still unclear.

Dougherty also painted a portrait of continued protests that are more family-friendly and community-oriented.

“You’re gonna see more Grinches, more festive stuff. The rat-mobile might be reinvented a little bit,” he said. “This is the new norm for the Philadelphia Building Trades.”

He also mentioned his efforts to racially diversify his industry, whose predominantly white workforce has been a source of constant criticism. Though union leaders have regularly criticized non-union developers for bringing in out-of-town workers, a 2008 report found just 28 percent of each building trade union’s members lived in Philadelphia proper. On Thursday, Dougherty couldn’t say how many lived in the city now, though encouraged reporters to “check the tags” on the cars of members who attended the rally.

Of note, Dougherty’s new vision comes at a time when his political muscle power appears to be waning.

With millions poured into local, state and national races, Doc-backed candidates have suffered big losses in recent years, including O’Neil’s failed bid for DA in 2017. This year, Dougherty launched a super PAC that sank nearly $1 million into TV ads behind Rich Lazer’s run in a crowded congressional race. Lazer lost in the primary, but was able to return to his job as Kenney’s deputy mayor of labor.

Meanwhile, federal scrutiny into Dougherty — a probe reportedly tied to the union’s political finances, and which also ensnared City Councilman Bobby Henon — remains ongoing. Dougherty has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

Time-lapse footage of the 401 Race Street construction from March 2017 to April 2018.

Weird lyrics, in full

Behold the full version of the lyrics to “Baby, There’s Mold Inside,” courtesy of the Philadelphia Building Trades.

I really can’t stay
(Baby, there’s mold inside)
I gotta get away
(Baby, there’s mold inside)
This building has been
(Been hoping you don’t drop in)

So very damp…
(Go wash your hands, before they cramp)
My mother’s already worried
(Oh my God, the walls are furry)
My father will be scrubbing the floors
(Listen to the bacteria roar)
So really I’d better scurry
(Get out now, please do hurry!)
Look at the all the black and green spores
(I’ll throw some acid down on the floor)

The neighbors might think
(Baby, it’s bad in there)
Say, what the hell stinks?
(No air to be had in there)
I wish I knew how
(Your eyeballs are bleeding now)
To kill this smell
(Just hold your nose, and run like hell)

I ought to just go, go, go
(Oh my God, don’t run slow)
At least I didn’t curl up and die
(You’re lucky that you’re still alive)
I really can’t stay
(Baby, just get out!)
(All sing)
‘Oh Baby, there’s mold inside!

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