Michael Pestronk rides a clanky red elevator to the top of his building. It’s a frigid winter day, and his glasses fog slightly as he steps outside and strolls over to the concrete ledge. From ten stories up, you see Philadelphia sprawling, with skyscrapers fading into suburbs. Michael isn’t enjoying the view much, though. When he looks straight down, he sees his antagonists.
The band of union protesters, clad in hoodies and Carhartt jackets, cluster outside the chain-link fence, a giant inflatable rat nearby. It’s 17 degrees out, and they look miserable, but they haven’t budged in hours. They are breaking a rare court injunction and standing much closer to the work-site boundaries than they’re supposed to.
From the very beginning of this project, Philadelphia’s powerful construction unions pressed Michael and his business partner and brother, Matthew Pestronk, to use union-only labor to build their slick downtown apartment complex — a decision that would have added around $15 million to the cost of the project, Michael says.
Once a women’s-shoes factory, the concrete structure on the corner of 12th and Wood used to be covered with scrawled graffiti, including giant letters spelling “OSAMA” — around town, it became known as “the Osama Building.” The Pestronk brothers are now transforming it into an environmentally friendly luxury apartment complex a stroll away from the trendy bars and shops of downtown Philadelphia.
It’s an ambitious project, and Post Brothers — the company derives its name from an anglicization of Pestronk — initially considered using union labor. But when the Pestronks tried to negotiate with the labor bosses, they found the unions’ demands overwhelming.
“We just have the money we have, and that’s it,” Michael says. “We can’t pay $2 for something that really only costs $1. . . . The project just wouldn’t have happened.”
The Pestronk brothers say they tried to hire union subcontractors for nearly half the project, but that wasn’t enough. Union officials forbade any unionized worker to participate in the project unless it went union-only — a decision the Pestronks say cost more than 100 union jobs. Post Brothers went with nonunion workers, paying them $35 to $45 an hour.
So began one of the nastiest labor disputes in Philadelphia’s recent history.
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Philadelphia is a longstanding hub for organized labor; its first union was formed in 1792, and the labor movement has flourished there ever since. Yet there is a dark side to the city’s union past. Philadelphia’s unions are notorious for harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and violence. They have special sway over the city’s construction sector, and anyone who crosses them does so at his own peril — as the Pestronk brothers have discovered.
“We realized it was going to be a fight when I started getting followed around wherever I went, and after the third violent incident at work,” Michael says. “This was just happening every other day.”
Each day, protesters gather outside the work site. Michael says they’re mostly unemployed construction workers who believe their union will find them work faster if they man the picket line. They arrive at 6 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m., “like clockwork — or early,” Michael says. “It’s really funny.”
He tells me the unions protested outside another Post Brothers apartment complex, but members refused to show up outside of their 6-to-1 shift. Most of the apartment-seekers wanted to schedule viewings for evenings or weekends, outside union hours. The protesters and the prospective renters missed each other entirely.
“You cannot make a generalization about the work ethic of all union contractors or nonunion contractors,” Michael adds, smirking slightly, but “generally, the guys who are out of work, standing at the picket line, are out of work often for a good reason.”
The unions haven’t stopped picketing. The Pestronks say they’ve endured months of harassment, vandalism, and violence. But while most of Philadelphia’s developers and contractors suffer in silence or yield to union demands, Post Brothers has confronted the unions directly, meticulously documenting every incident — and these have been legion.
According to Michael Pestronk, an engineer was brutally assaulted; workers have been attacked with crowbars; a security guard was hit in the face; construction equipment has been vandalized; nails welded in the shape of jacks have been scattered across entrances; tires have been stabbed with ice picks and knives; oil has been dumped in front of entrances; a doctored photo of Matthew’s wife has been distributed around the site, featuring male genitalia and the slogan “Carrie Pestronk likes to get hard with it!” Several workers at the site told me the protesters frequently make racist or sexist remarks to them.
That did not go over well with Matthew, a former college wrestler with a pugnacious nose and a vocabulary laced with swear words. He and his brother decided to stand up to the unions in a way no Philadelphia developer has done in decades.