Politics & Policy

Goon City

Philadelphia construction unions aren’t big on brotherly love.

The engineer’s wife caught his brutal beating on camera.

Just seconds before, the couple had arrived at the open-shop construction site in downtown Philadelphia, walking past the cluster of union protesters who had congregated outside the fence.

As the engineer tried to enter the site through a tiny gap between a chain-link fence and a stone wall, the protesters rushed him, pressing the fence against his body and pinning him. The engineer shouted out, then howled, clutching the fence with both hands. His cries grew hysterical as he thrashed, first trying to escape, and then simply trying to shield himself. When the aggressors finally relented, he crumpled to the ground and passed out.

“It was terrifying,” the engineer tells me, asking to remain unnamed for fear of union retaliation. “I was concerned that if they pushed a little harder, my head would be crushed. Even after I was on the ground the Civil Affairs cop came up. Who knows what they would have done if he hadn’t been there?”

The engineer’s assault was caught on tape. But despite being charged with simple assault, reckless endangerment of another person, and conspiracy simple assault, two union members, Ryan P. Stewart and Philip J. Garraty, each got off with a $200.50 fine and 18 hours of community service.

Their lawyer, Joel Trigiani, who also represents the Laborers District Council of Philadelphia, successfully petitioned for Stewart and Garraty to participate in the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program. Consequently, the incident is eligible to be expunged from both men’s arrest records.

* * *

The engineer’s experience was far from unique. Organized labor in Philadelphia has a long history of intimidation, harassment, vandalism, violence — and impunity.

A study by the National Right to Work Committee examined news reports and found that, from 1975 to 2009, there were 143 incidents of union violence in the city of Philadelphia reported in the press. It’s a grim roster that includes an unsuccessful murder attempt; a janitor’s losing an eye during a protest; the firebombing of company property; countless tires slashed; and business owners’ being threatened with a gun and with knives.

Moreover, NRTWC research suggests that for every reported instance of union troublemaking, at least ten similar incidents never make the newspapers. If those estimates are right, Philadelphia has seen an average of 45 incidents of union violence each year for nearly four decades.

And recently, many contractors and developers have reported an uptick in union troublemaking. Even some of Big Labor’s allies in Philadelphia told National Review Online that as unions started feeling economically threatened, and they have responded by behaving more aggressively.

The recession devastated Philadelphia’s already-declining construction market. At least 30 percent of Philadelphia’s union construction workers have been unemployed or underemployed since 2008.

Meanwhile, organized labor is facing stiff competition, said Cameron Mactavish, an architect who has worked in Philadelphia for 25 years, collaborating with both unionized and open-shop contractors. He said that he had had very positive experiences with unions in the past, but he has also seen a surge in highly qualified open-shop contractors.

“It’s common knowledge in the industry that there’s a 15 to 25 percent premium on construction for union versus open-shop,” Mactavish says. “That’s a lot for an owner.”

And that price difference is putting union workers on the defensive — or offensive, depending on who is asked.

Unions should retain their market share because they’re more productive, skilled, and safe, says Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Greater Philadelphia Building Trades Council, a labor organization that coordinates among 13 different construction-trades unions.

Gillespie tells me that tensions are “not anywhere near as high as they could be. You have folks coming in and trying to bottom-feed the industry, trying to destroy the standards and quality of life that we’ve established. You can’t let that happen without at least speaking up about it, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Gillespie has led the Building Trades Council since 1982, through many of Philadelphia’s tumultuous labor disputes. He says he doesn’t know whether people today are afraid of unions.

“One person’s harassment is another person’s free-speech exercise,” he says. “Life is tough in Philadelphia, as it is in any urban area. Someone shot me from a car one time. People who tippy-toe around the edges of the city and then come in for a foray to try to do something against the standards that have been established get their feelings hurt when people call them a bastard, when people call them out for what they are. To say that we’re more expressive than any other area — maybe we do it a little louder, but the point’s the same. You have to protect what’s yours and preserve the standards that have been established for our area. ”

* * *

Rob Reeves Jr. sat inside the construction trailer on the coldest day of the winter, preparing to give a tour of his wrecked site. To his right, several iron beams bore large gashes, the scars of an acetylene torch wielded by a skilled hand.

Bundled in a thick tweed coat, Reeves recounts his company’s history with pride. His grandfather founded the contracting company in 1918, and it has been open-shop since day one. Choosing hires based on merit and bids rather than union affiliation alone has proven a good business plan; Reeves has enjoyed decades at his desk, and his three adult children are the fourth generation working in the family business.

But because E. Allen Reeves Inc. is an open-shop company, “we’ve had our share” of union incidents, Reeves says, putting it mildly.

“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.


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