Goon City — Part 3
Two courageous developers may be game-changers in Philadelphia construction

Matthew (left) and Michael Pestronk


Jillian Kay Melchior

“They’re f***ing organized criminals,” Matthew tells me. “They’re repulsive, they’re disgusting, and their tactics are intolerable. They just picked a fight with the wrong people. They wanted to make an example of us because we’re in our thirties, and we’re doing major projects; there’s a whole generation of people our age who are doing smaller projects, so they thought they’d teach us a lesson. They grossly underestimated us. . . . If they escalate it, we’re going to destroy them. We’re going to launch the most nasty, multifaceted legal defense that anyone has ever done. If they want escalate it, they’re going to lose, and they’re going to lose bad. We have substantial resources, just as they do, and we also have a major advantage: We’re in the right. And that’s worth a lot, when you’re actually right.”

* * *

It has been 40 years since anyone has stood up to the unions like Michael and Matthew Pestronk. Then also it was explosive, literally as well as figuratively.

In the early 1970s, a young contractor named J. Leon Altemose began building a hotel-and-movie-theater complex near Valley Forge. As they have done with the Pestronk brothers, the unions insisted that Altemose hire only union workers. Altemose tried to compromise, offering to hire up to 60 percent union workers, but the labor leaders wouldn’t budge. But neither would Altemose, to the unions’ fury.

The situation escalated, and on June 5, 1972, the unions carried out what Harper’s Magazine later called “virtually a military assault.” Hundreds of men arrived at the site in buses chartered by the Building Trades Council, a labor organization that works with various construction-trades-union affiliates. The men rushed the site, igniting firebombs and vandalizing vehicles and other equipment. Overall, they destroyed as much as $400,000 worth of property, and, according to a circuit-court judge, “violence was prevented only through the combined efforts of state and local police.” Though an estimated 1,000 men participated in the attack, only 16 were convicted, and only 11 of those spent time behind bars.

Nor were the unions finished with Altemose. He and his employees began carrying weapons, concerned for their safety — a justified fear, it would later prove. Meanwhile, unions began picketing his other sites. As the tense summer drew to a close, Altemose tried to photograph union protesters outside Philadelphia National Bank, which he was financing. The union members beat him.

The destruction at Valley Forge and the subsequent assault on Altemose made him famous. In 1973 the Engineering News-Record named him Man of the Year. He appeared on 60 Minutes and was lauded in Harper’s. And, for a time, his stand against unions emboldened other contractors and developers in the region. Altemose died in 2008, but in Philadelphia, he has become a sort of folk hero among the open-shop crowd. He is known as the only guy who took on the unions — and won.

* * *

So when people call the Pestronk brothers the new incarnation of J. Leon Altemose, it’s significant.

Rob Reeves, the contractor for the Quaker meetinghouse discussed in part 1 of this article, tells me he thinks the Pestronks’ stand is a potential game-changer for the Philadelphia construction industry.

“The unions have bullied people for years, and they feel that’s a legitimate tactic in getting what they want,” he says. “Why do they feel like they can do it? Because pretty much, they’ve gotten away with it. . . . Post Brothers [is] doing something significant. . . . Fear is one of the biggest motivators. You have to overcome it, and I’ll give them a lot of credit for it.”

So far, the Pestronk brothers have spent $1 million on lawyers and an expensive security system, including 24-hour video surveillance of the site. They post video and photo evidence to their website regularly, a move that has had a major impact on public opinion in Philadelphia, Michael says.

“My thought was, this is an incredibly obvious thing to do,” Michael tells me. “Our stuff is getting vandalized, so we put up security cameras. Our guy gets beat up. We’ve got it on camera; of course we’re going to post that on YouTube.”

The unions have countered with a campaign of their own. Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Building Trades Council, tells me that “more than acrimony has occurred.”

Gillespie says the videos the Pestronks post to YouTube are “only convenient video — and I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve heard they go antagonize people, and then people react to that antagonism on camera.” And he claims the Pestronks have hired people to intimidate him, “guys with a lot of tattoos and that stuff.”