Gillespie tells me that conflict between the union members and the Pestronks’ workers “doesn’t amount to anything more than pushing and shoving matches. [The Pestronks] don’t like to be called out for what they are: a couple of bottom-feeders who are trying to profiteer at the expense of people who work for their money.”
Gillespie says that unions have “a blemish, an indelible mark on our record here, with the developer out in the Valley Forge area.”
But Altemose “was a crusader, too,” Gillespie adds: “He went around and antagonized, too. . . . He came into town and was very aggressive to some people. Someone punched him in the nose, punched him in the eye, he had a black eye. You could see the makeup ring they put under his eye to make it stand out. . . . The developer became a national hero for the right wing.”
Gillespie adds that he hopes Matthew and Michael Pestronk don’t follow in Altemose’s footsteps.
The Pestronks’ stand is being regarded with interest even outside the open-shop community. Anthony Wigglesworth, the executive director of the Philadelphia Area Labor-Management Committee, works with unions, developers, and others in the construction sector. Basically, he’s a peacekeeper in the best of times.
What has happened at the Pestronks’ apartment complex and the Quaker meetinghouse reflects that “we’ve all failed in upholding our community standards,” Wigglesworth says.
“It’s bad for union construction, it’s bad for the unions involved, it’s bad for construction [in general], and it’s just as bad for the owners,” Wigglesworth adds. “On the management side . . . I’ve seen a loss of respect for the labor movement, which to some extent, unions were complicit in. . . . We’ve lost that kind of literacy around unions. . . . [My advice would be to] tone down the temperature on the union side. They become so strident as a result of feeling embattled that it feels like they’re screaming.”
The Pestronks insist that they’re not anti-union. Both say they’ve tried hard to work with the unions and compromise, and that it’s the intransigence of the labor leaders that has created the current conflict.
“It is a shame that they’re calling it unions,” Michael says. “It has nothing to do with labor unions or the fair treatment of workers. It’s just organized crime. They’re a criminal syndicate. . . . It’s just an organized-crime ring that’s racketeering and controlling the market.”
As for the Pestronk brothers, “we’re not on some ideological mission,” Michael says. “We don’t want to be known for our labor issues. We just want to be known for having the nicest apartments.”
* * *
Unions’ ill-gotten power has threatened both personal rights and property rights in Philadelphia. This is partially a legal failing; federal labor law and court precedent have created a situation where unions can use fear — backed with criminal activity — to control Philadelphia’s construction industry. And it’s also a political failing; Philadelphia’s leaders have relied on unions’ money and political support, and, in return, they have given unions preferential treatment, ignoring the rights of others whom they are supposed to represent.
When law and politics don’t suffice to protect rights, the last defense falls to private citizens with personal courage and a sense of moral duty. The Pestronks can’t change the law shielding unions. But they are shifting public opinion; the YouTube videos they claim show unions perpetrating vandalism and violence have garnered thousands of views. And if public opinion changes, so might politics. Perhaps even more important, the Pestronks are inspiring others in the construction sector to take a stand against illegal union activity.
Whether Michael and Matthew Pestronk intended it or not, their actions may change Philadelphia’s construction industry. That’s monumental.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. This is the final installment of a three-part article.