The prosecutor began her storyline for the 16 jurors Wednesday morning with pictures of a Teamsters union laborer, his face busted and bloodied.
“Edward Flaherty, who was a longtime union member, had this happen to him,” Assistant US Attorney Susan G. Winkler told the stone-faced jurors in federal court in Boston, in between flashing another picture of Flaherty, this time wearing a neck brace.
“This is what happened to him, and it was [by] that man, in the back, Joseph Burhoe,” she said, pointing to one of the defendants.
The dramatic presentation was the beginning of a complex racketeering trial, one that could last two months and involves allegations that Burhoe and three codefendants ran a faction of a local Teamsters union — formerly Local 82 — like a widespread racketeering enterprise, with threats and extortion.
But to the defense team, the proceedings are nothing more than a government hijacking of a union dispute, and the assault on Flaherty was no more than a South Boston bar fight, even if he got the worst of it.
“This isn’t like some Mafia union case where people are getting killed, or maimed,” said Thomas Butters, the attorney for the alleged head of the rogue faction, Joseph Perry. “This is one fight, where the government is trying to make it an atmosphere of fear, or coercion, and it just isn’t true.”
The 62-year-old Perry and Burhoe, 46, are charged along with James Deamicis and Thomas Flaherty, both 51, of multiple counts of racketeering, extortion, and conspiracy for allegedly threatening fellow union members and demanding jobs and payments from nonunion businesses. Their union, Local 82, was disbanded in 2011 by the national Teamsters Union and merged into Teamsters Local 25 of Charlestown, based on a previous investigation into the allegations.
The trial is bound to air out the often ugly workings of labor union disputes, where threats and foul language can be the norm.
In one example, Teamsters Local 25 just over a month ago allegedly harassed a nonunion crew for the television show “Top Chef” at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton. The union members allegedly shouted racial and homophobic slurs at cast members during filming in June. A source close to the network confirmed to the Globe reports that some Teamsters slit the tires of cars parked outside the restaurant.
The Teamsters released a statement at the time saying members are allowed to exercise their rights to demonstrate and picket. Milton police have declined to comment, only saying that an investigation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, the jury in federal court is hearing similar allegations against Burhoe and his codefendants.
Roger Abrams, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law who specializes in labor law, said that the public should realize union activity, “whether it’s a strike, whether it’s talking to employers, is not necessarily a tea party and it’s not necessarily polite conversation.”
With state and federal laws allowing union members to engage in a broad range of activity, as long as the end game is a union objective, then it will be up to jurors to see the difference between legitimate union work and a federal crime, he said.
“There are lines,” Abrams said, speaking generally, and not about the case. “It seems there are legitimate differences of what involves a crime, and that is why we have a trial.”
At trial, the prosecutor, Winkler, described what she called a coordinated effort by the defendants to maintain Perry’s control over Local 82, by directing jobs to Perry’s friends and family members and boosting the union’s voter rolls with his supporters. Whenever anyone disagreed with Perry, by filing a grievance, for instance, the crew would allegedly use threats of violence to intimidate them.
Burhoe, a career criminal who has been stabbed and shot and had served time in prison for a bank robbery, was the alleged muscle man. He allegedly beat Flaherty for saying disparaging things about Perry, whom Flaherty had campaigned against in union elections.
The crew also allegedly extorted payments from nonunion businesses that were holding functions in Boston. Local 82 focused on running trade shows, at the Hynes Convention Center, for instance, and would allegedly threaten to “shut down” any event that included nonunion workers.
Eventually, Winkler said, companies would pay them strictly to avoid picket lines, sometimes without even having Teamsters do any work.
But defense lawyers argued that there was nothing wrong with threatening to picket companies to preserve union jobs, and they said the government essentially inserted itself in a labor election dispute, based on another faction’s attempt to wrestle control of the union from Perry.
“Labor unions have a right to do certain things; they have a right to picket,” said Miriam Conrad, an attorney for Burhoe.