Goon City
Philadelphia construction unions aren’t big on brotherly love.

Screen shot of a union assault on an engineer at an open-shop construction site in downtown Philadelphia


Jillian Kay Melchior

“Back in the 1970s, on one job, I was shot at — not with the intention to hit, but with the intention to scare me. I think they probably would have been able to hit me if they intended to,” he says. “We had a job where there was an explosive device put into the foundation many, many years ago. We’ve had aggressive picketing with a lot of name-calling. We’ve had tacks put in the driveway. We’ve had knives put into tires. People have been followed home. Buildings have been tarred.”

“Certainly, people have the right to voice their opinion,” Reeves continues. “Free speech and picketing are fine, and if you have a disagreement, that’s okay. But the innuendo and the violence and the intimidation is something that’s been accepted in the city for too long.”

Reeves said the most recent incident was notable not only for its timing but also for its target. Just a few days before Christmas, someone vandalized a meetinghouse under construction for the Quakers in the quiet, wooded Philly suburb of Chestnut Hill.

The building was special; the Chestnut Hill Friends group had been discussing a new meetinghouse for more than 20 years. It was intended to be not only a house of worship but also a gift to the community. Designed by Philadelphia architect James Bradberry, it will feature a “skyspace” — an installation with a retractable roof, allowing those inside to see the sky above — created by the renowned Quaker artist James Turrell, whose work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Quakers intend to make the building publicly accessible.

But sometime late on December 20 or in the small hours of December 21, vandals crept up to the partially completed meetinghouse. They used acetylene torches to scythe through iron posts that formed critical structure points of the building. They loosened bolts at other important joints. And then they set the construction crane on fire. Altogether, the vandals caused about $500,000 in damage.

Philip Jones, a Quaker who has attended Chestnut Hill Friends meetings since 1987, told me he was disappointed and saddened by the vandalism. “You want to understand why someone is so angry that they do something like that,” he says. While he can’t speak officially for the Quaker community, “it hurts us to be on the receiving end. But I don’t think it was aimed at us. I think it was aimed at the contractor.”

Indeed, there is reason to believe the Quakers were just collateral victims. They had chosen E. Allen Reeves in a blind bid, where Reeves came in 23 percent lower than the lowest union-shop bid.

Rob Reeves says the vandalism was conducted in a way that would suggest expertise with construction tools and professional-level familiarity with building structures. Furthermore, he says, before the vandalism occurred, union representatives for the electricians, masons, ironworkers, and carpenters showed up on the construction site, asking about union hires.

“They try to tell you what you need to do,” Reeves says, recalling those visits. “They’re trying to take charge of the situation and get information. It’s done very adroitly — there’s usually a veiled threat and an innuendo, but if you’ve been in the industry, you know what that means. They come with a presence to take control of the situation — they rarely come alone. Innuendo can be intimidating, especially when there’s a long history of innuendo and then intimidation and then violence on job sites within the region.”

Another developer told me that representatives from some of those same unions had made explicit threats to “burn a crane” at his construction site shortly before the attack on the Quaker meetinghouse.

“It’s wrong in so many ways, whoever they did it to,” Reeves says. “But doing it to the peace-loving Quakers really adds a level of bizarreness and intensity.”

Philadelphia police lieutenant George McClay, who is investigating the vandalism, joined Reeves at the site. A big-boned man who would be intimidating himself but for his sense of humor, he tells me that he strongly suspects the unions are behind it. Then, cracking a smile and nodding his head toward the site, McClay adds, “I definitely feel it’s not a twelve-year-old girl.”

McClay says part of his struggle is to convince open-shop contractors and developers that illegal union activity will be investigated seriously. It’s an oft-repeated doubt among Philadelphia’s open-shop crowd, which notes that the police are themselves members of a public-sector union.

* * *

But more likely, open-shop businessmen are staying quiet because they are afraid.

An open-shop subcontractor talks to me from a Philadelphia construction site, asking me not to use his name or any identifying information. Nearby, a security guard sits in his car. Someone is always on guard at the site, a decision made with unions in mind.

The subcontractor tells me that standing up to unions or reporting a union incident to the police is a scary task. He adds that things have gotten worse lately. I suggest that he has nothing to lose by going public with his story.

He seems surprised, then laughs at my naïveté. “There’s been violence against people,” he points out correctly — then reminds me again not to use his name.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. This article is the first of a three-part series.