Urine Bottles, Asbestos And A Dead Dog: Philly Union Battle Gets Ugly

Post BrothersWhen young brothers Matthew and Michael Pestronk decided to become apartment developers in Philadelphia, they didn't expect to find bottles of urine littering their construction sites, or asbestos planted in the walls, or posters put up there of Mike's dead dog or of his wife with a penis superimposed on her face.

But that's reportedly been happening at their development project, after they decided to use mostly non-union labor. Some say that the city's unions haven't stretched their muscle this much in 25 years.

Thirtyfive-year-old Matthew and 31-year-old Michael have already developed five apartment buildings in the city, with little noise from Philly unions.

But their new projects, a 163-unit apartment building, where the vacant and decaying Goldtex textile factory once stood, and a massive renovation of a 300-unit-plus building in the historic Germantown neighborhood are, at $38 million and $52 million respectively, massive endeavors in Philly proper, a long-protected union turf.

They're also funded entirely by private money, so there's no legal obligation to hire union members at all.

Greed Or Good Sense?

For several months, union members have been picketing outside the Goldtex site, holding banners with slogans like "The Pestronks Are the 1 Percent. They Are Killing Our Communities" and "Post Brothers Exploits Minority Workers." The Pestronks claim that union members have tried to intimidate and threaten them, and they received a temporary injunction to keep protesters away.

Union members counter that the Pestronks have been the ones threatening them. "They hired thugs to be their bodyguards to attempt to intimidate me," said Patrick Gallespie, who heads the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council. "And I'm a 57-year-old man."

"That's laughable," says Mike Pestronk, in response to the allegation. "We would have to have a death wish and we'll leave it at that."

The Pestronks say they're not doing anything unfair. They want to hire the best workers at the best price, and offered 40 percent of the jobs to the unions. But the unions allegedly refused to let any of their workers take the jobs unless the Pestronks agreed to go union, 100 percent.

The developers have set up a website, PhillyBully.com, to make their case. The hourly billing rate of the Philadelphia Carpenters Union is $63, they say, way above the market rate. They claim to pay their workers in the $35- to $45-an-hour range, which is still higher than the hourly union rate in the more expensive city of Washington, D.C.

Playing Hardball

Gallespie says the brothers are paying more like $15 or $20 an hour to a largely immigrant workforce, while $63 an hour is an appropriate wage for a skilled carpenter. Working an average of 1,800 hours a year, that's an annual salary of $113,000, including health insurance and pension.

"It's a wage rate that has a fair middle-income life to it," he says. "So you can afford tuitions, a vacation once a year, two televisions in your house, and maybe buy your wife a car. The Pestronks are assaulting all that."

The Pestronks say there's no way to be cost effective using only union labor. "They could only make a 10 percent profit," Gallespie counters. "And they want to make a Mitt Romney profit."

Last Wednesday, the Department of Licenses and Inspections issued the Pestronks a stop-work order, after an investigation revealed that many of their workers didn't have the proper licenses. City Councilman Jim Kenney ordered the investigation, after he allegedly received complaints from workers about safety. The Pestronks' camp says that checking the paperwork of all the construction workers on a site, and issuing a stop-work order over it, is incredibly unusual.

Gallespie denies any political ties to the councilman, but admits that there are union members "posing on that job," in order to "develop relationships with the nonunion workers."

"They're being discreet," he says.

The Last Standing Union Town

Philadelphia is America's oldest, and longest-lasting union town. A group of Philadelphia shoemakers in fact came up with the idea of a union in 1794. They formed the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, after a few shoemakers realized that they could more cheaply and efficiently protect the feet of new American citizens if they employed less-skilled workers to churn out stock footwear. In 1805, the society went on strike and tried to prevent non-members from working, and ended up with a criminal conspiracy conviction and an $8 fine.

As unions across the country have buckled and broken over the past few decades, Philadelphia's unions survived, particularly the building trade unions, because that kind of work can't be outsourced to China. Philly's unions were more than a useful alliance; they were a blood brotherhood of the city's Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants.

As Matthew Teague wrote in Philadelphia magazine in 2008, unions "have entwined themselves into the material of the city, so that the very idea of introducing a free market has become almost unspeakable."

When the Philadelphia Daily News came out with its front-page headline on the Pestronks, "Developers Take On Thuggish Philly Unions," a local radio personality said, "I'm shocked at the headline I must say. You just don't talk about unions in Philadelphia like that."

Potatoes To Pee Bottles

And union fights have been ugly. At the turn of the 19th century, a potato studded with boot-nails was the weapon of choice. In 1972, after union members refused a developer's offer of 70 percent union labor, 30 percent not, they attacked his construction site with smoke bombs, firebombs and hand grenades, in a scene described by a local paper as "right out of Vietnam."

In 2004, MTV bailed on its plans for a Real World Philadelphia over disputes with unions, only to be lured back after Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell personally called the producers to apologize.

But Gallespie denies any dirty tactics this time around. It wasn't union-member urine, he says. The immigrant workers on the Germantown site regularly pee in bottles, and "throw them out the window."

And that unfortunate poster of Mike's wife? "I hope that wasn't a union member," he says. "Who in god's name would do that?"

But that doesn't mean the union members aren't playing the game. "When people assault and bully you in the construction industry," he says, "you punch back."

The unions fear that the Pestronks are setting a worrying precedent, a stab in the heart of the city's unions, which have spent centuries bargaining up the wages and benefits of workers to where they are today. The Pestronks say that they just want the best work for the best price they can get.

"They're allowed to do that," Gallespie says. "And we're allowed to protest their actions. We're allowed to tell the world they stink."

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