"Drawing a line in the concrete"
Drawing a Line in the Concrete: The Other Side of a Philadelphia Labor Dispute
By Paul Williams, Jr.
Over the last few months, news outlets within Philadelphia report that violence has been erupting at a jobsite just north of Center City . These articles continue to tell the story of two young brothers and developers, Matt and Mike Pestronk and their company Post Brothers. The reports generally focus on how the Pestronk brothers are bucking the long-standing tradition of one hundred percent union building projects in the City of Brotherly Love and the their claims that local tradesmen and women and other unions from the area have committed violence and property damage at one of their job sites. But what the news outlets have been neglecting to tell the general public is the other side of this story. The story of two brothers and people they have hired have stopped at nothing to provoke, intimidate and attack the union protesters all in the name of their own selfish greed.
The job site I’m referring to is the eleven story Goldtex building located at 12th and Wood St just north of Vine St in Philadelphia , PA. This was a former factory that sat uninhabited for many years and the Pestronk (Post) Brothers bought it from a bank in 2010 with plans to turn it into apartments. The surrounding community and the local construction trades were very happy that someone was willing to repurpose this old building, especially in such touchy economic times. The job was estimated to come in around 38 million dollars.
It wasn’t until after all the bids were in and accepted by the Post Brothers Company that anyone really raised an issue. It was a sixty/forty split, where sixty percent of the contractors would be non-union and forty percent hired would be union. The local tradesmen declared a project of that size (particularly within Philadelphia ) is traditionally one hundred percent union and that they would protest the jobsite. The forty percent of union contractors on the site pulled off in solidarity. Those jobs were all rebid and non-union contractors were hired in their stead.
While the Pestronk brothers’ company (Post Bros) has the right to bid and hire non-union contractors, the local union tradespeople have the right to protest. This job would put their members, many that live in the city, to work. Instead, the large majority of the contractors are from outside of the City and State, with no stake in the community where the job site is located.
I’m sure by now some readers are asking: “Why should I care?” Labor Unions set a prevailing wage, which sets the standard and stabilizes the labor market. A contractor always knows what they’re dealing with price wise and this goes for a developer as well. This is a huge help in planning a project, since they wouldn’t be dealing with labor wage inconsistencies. The contractors that are working on this Post Bros job are paying their workers not only far less than what union workers make in Philadelphia, but also less than many of the trades’ non-union counterparts in the city and region as well. By fighting for their wages, the demonstrators are protecting everyone’s wages. Make no mistake, once union wages start dropping, others will as well and not just in construction. We’re all connected, whether some of us would like to admit it or not.
Union Construction Trades also have a stable pool of Labor to pull from who are skilled, safe-working craftsmen and women. OSHA has already fined contractors on the Goldtex site on more than one occasion because of hazardous work conditions. Furthermore, the Department of Licenses and Inspections shut down the site for roughly two weeks due to sub-contractors not having the proper business license.
Something that many don’t take into account is that Labor Unions are also protecting the tax base of the community. Since these contractors at the Goldtex site are paying their workers far less, these workers are paying much less in taxes, which in turn will cost the rest of us more. On top of State and Federal taxes, the City of Philadelphia has a wage tax for residents and non-residents that work within the city. Lower wages will mean less City tax, less State and Federal tax; which means somewhere down the line the rest of us will have to make up the difference. I don’t see the Pestronk Brothers jumping in to fill in that gap.
While regional newspapers have made the Pestronk brothers out to be the good guys or even the victims, I assure you that they are far from either. They are bullies that feel it’s ok to undercut working people so they can line their own pockets. They have their own team of hired thugs which are reminiscent of modern day Pinkertons.
Rittenhouse Hill Apartments, 633 West Rittenhouse Street , Germantown
One of the first articles that surfaced when the project began stated that the Pestronk brothers wanted to offer renters the best value, so they needed the contractor bids to come in as low as possible. They expressed that they care about their future tenants. However, the Pestronk brothers and their company Post Brothers have a dark history with tenants. Just ask the former residents of the Empirian Luxury Towers , now the Rittenhouse Hill Apartments at 633 West Rittenhouse Street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia .
Let’s go back to April 1st, 2011, where a meeting was held between the tenants of Empirian and the new owners of their apartment complex, the Post Brothers. The company representative told tenants that they would honor prior lease agreements and they told tenants “we appreciate your cooperation and we want you to be a part of the Exceptional Value and Exceptional Living Post Brothers Apartments offers to our residents.” However, contrary to this pledge, on July 19th, 2011, tenants in the A building of the complex started to find letters with new lease forms on their doors. These letters stated that renovations were going to start and residents had to be moved over to B building where there weren’t enough vacant apartments to accommodate all the tenants in the A building. They were instructed to do so by August 15th or the Post Brothers will assume those tenants will vacate their apartments by September 15th. The date to respond to these letters was July 31st.
That’s only twelve days people were given to completely rearrange their lives and since the B building was first come first serve, it complicated things for the tenants even more. Many of whom were long term tenants, for 20 to 30 years, numerous elderly or disabled on fixed incomes, many with young children. Instead of honoring the leases as promised, they jacked up the rent on the people who were able to find a place over in the B building, while the rest were left scrambling to find a home. These are not the actions of men that care about community.
The Pestronk Brothers have also claimed that they are the victims in all of this. Let’s take a closer look. The Pestronk brothers and their sub-contractors claim that unprovoked acts of violence, intimidation and property damage were committed by the local union tradesmen and women at the Goldtex building. First off, in no way have the local tradespeople or the Unions that are members thereof sanctioned or condoned any retaliatory behavior. Secondly, what the Post Brothers aren’t telling the reporters and the public is that their “security team”, hired sub-contractors, and employees have been instigating this from the very beginning.
I’ve been down to the jobsite and spoke with many of the protesters, and every time I’ve gone down, there have never been any issues. The Labor Squad — the police that handle labor issues in the city — are all over the area, along with a Sheriff’s deputy that the Post Bothers pay to have there, their “Security Team,” and tons of video and recording equipment. The area is more than safe and secure and the Pestronk Brothers, their security people, and sub-contractors know it. In fact local trades unions allege there are many instances where security footage had been doctored and posted on a website the Post Brother’s own to make the protestors seem as though they were causing trouble to turn public opinion against the local trades unions. When in reality they were reacting to provocation and physical assault coming from security personnel and employees working for some of the sub-contractors on site.
Earlier in this piece I wrote about how the security people were akin to modern-day Pinkertons. From what I’ve found out, this “security team” are actually armed guards, whose mission is to agitate, intimidate, and provoke the union demonstrators to act out violently.
Before this particular group of security personnel were brought on, the Post Brothers hired members of a known street gang who were brandishing firearms to intimidate the demonstrators. The police on the scene told them to leave rather quickly. Another time, a union protester’s arm was broken by two unknown assailants wielding an ax handle. A fight broke out and the attackers were hauled off in a Police car. The local trades unions allege that these assailants were hired by the Post Brothers or someone associated with the Company.
Some examples of the security staff’s actions include: shouting at the demonstrators, flashing weapons, threatening and assaulting protesters and bystanders, and arguing with Police. I would like to highlight a few examples. A demonstrator was walking alongside the jobsite and one of the security guards started to shout at him. A police officer repeatedly told the guard to stop yelling at the passerby, but the guard refused to relent and was eventually arrested taken away in a police car for the verbal abuse.
The second has to do with the personal bodyguard of the site Superintendent, Al McVicker. One day, Mr. McVicker was leaning on a work van that didn’t belong to any of the companies associated with the Goldtex site, when the operator of that particular vehicle, who was working in the adjacent building, asked McVicker to not lean on his company van. McVicker started to shout obscenities at the worker, who then proceeded to shout back. This is when McVicker’s bodyguard stepped in and laid his hands on the worker. The man pushed back on the guard in self-defense and the bodyguard proceeded to go after the worker. Police stepped in and gave the guard a written citation, because he took it upon himself to escalate the exchange to physical violence. This man attacked was not one of those protesting, he just wanted to do his work and was accosted for asking McVicker to not lean on his work van.
There is even an account of Superintendent Al McVicker himself attempting to provoke the demonstrators with physical acts. According witnesses, McVicker snuck up on one of the protesters near the site and kicked out his legs from behind. He thought he was outside the sight of security cameras Post Brothers have in place and the Police. When the man on the line retaliated, police immediately jumped in the middle to break things up. One of the officers on the site saw everything and confirmed that Al McVicker provoked the man and landed the first blow.
The Post Brothers have also alleged in the past that the local trades Unions had thrown bottles filled with urine and asbestos insulation into the building, although none of that was caught on camera. An alternative scenario is that the Post Brothers were illegally removing asbestos and lack sufficient bathroom facilities. If in fact they were removing asbestos without the proper safeguards in place, they not only put everyone on that site at risk, they place the neighbors that live there at risk as well.
It is very unfortunate that some demonstrators have had to resort to violence. Many of them are frustrated with how the economic downturn has affected the construction industry, both union and non-union, and have been out of work for some time. When someone gets in your face, throws an elbow or even spits on you, things can come to a boil rather quickly. There have even been instances where union protesters were hit by vehicles of sub-contractors. In one case, a couple of tradesmen were almost crushed by a large construction vehicle.
Recently, on the evening of August 14th, Mike Pestronk spoke to the Temple University Area Property Association (TAPA), who are rental property owners in the Temple University area of Philadelphia . A TAPA member who asked to not be identified gave me a detailed account of that meeting and what Mike Pestronk had to say. First off, he didn’t seem phased by what has been going on down at 12th and Wood St at all. When asked about the trouble at the site, he seemed to shrug and said, “There’s been minor property damage…nothing that bad.” He goes on to say, “Nothing that’s been costly.” My source said they really didn’t get the impression that any of it was much of a big deal to Mike Pestronk. Which is not what the Post Brothers have been telling the press.
At one point during the meeting, Mr. Pestronk was telling the group how to tell if a worker is good or not. He said with non-union workers it was easy, you could just tell by looking at them if they knew what they were doing or not. He went as far as to say that it’s easy determining someone’s work ability by what they drive. “If they have a cruddy pickup” for example. Mike also commented on union workers, “I would have to say that there are lots of good ones. The union people to avoid are the unemployed.” He went on to say, “They often have bad attitudes.” To assume someone in the construction industry is a bad worker or has a bad attitude because they’re unemployed is just another example of the Pestronk Brothers’ hubris and disparaging views of people who work with their hands for a living, union or non-union.
Mr. Pestronk also stated during the meeting that they hadn’t had much help with any of the city’s elected officials, but they found great help with some of the appointed officials, he specifically cited L&I (Department of Licenses & Inspections). This would explain something very curious that happened a couple of weeks ago. The Post Brothers were able to apply for and acquire a permit on a Friday at 4pm to shut down two blocks for a crane lift the next day at the Goldtex site. I’ve been told that this is unheard of in the construction industry in Philadelphia, in fact the owner of one of the largest crane companies in the region, who admits to having quite a bit of pull with the city stated that he couldn’t even pull something like that off. When a company that has been doing business in the city for decades has to jump through hoops to get the same sort of permit these newcomers on the building and construction scene received practically on the spot should make the average taxpayer wonder what precisely is going on at L&I.
Post Brothers say they care about community, yet treated past tenants at the Rittenhouse Hill Apartments who were poor, elderly and disabled like they were less than worthy to live in the building they had called home for decades. They say they want to give their renters the best value and that is why they must pay cut-rate prices on labor. But the facts just don’t support that claim. They bought the property from a bank where most likely they paid significantly less than the market value. Furthermore, the Post Brothers act as their own General Contractor, so they’re saving quite a bit more on top of the property price. Why do they need to cut costs on labor? Why do they feel working people’s skill and time are worth less? That doesn’t help the community. Plus the possibility that they hired someone who didn’t take the proper safeguards when abating asbestos, they also put the general public at risk.
The Post Brothers claim to be the victims in all this to the press, but Mike Pestronk seemed to shrug the whole thing off like it is no big deal. They have hired people who provoke, commit property damage, verbally abuse, spit on and physically assault the union demonstrators. And when the people on the line who have been kicked when they’re already down react to these actions, they and the organizations they belong to are demonized in the press and the court of public opinion without any care to fully research and tell both sides of the story.
So here it all is, the story of two brothers who are developing in the City of Philadelphia . They come across at first glance as the good guys and the victims, but you scratch the surface and you find their squeaky clean exterior is more than a bit tarnished.
Paul Williams, Jr. | Freelance writer and Philadelphia Resident