The Brothers Who Busted Philly Unions. For Good.
All of the videos are voyeuristic—surveillance-quality film of a construction site. The worst ones, shot from three different angles on a sunny day in July 2012, involve the fence:
On the screen we see an engineering contractor who wants to enter the controversial Goldtex construction site at 12th and Wood streets, only to find his path blocked by eight union men. With mincing steps, the non-union contractor—a middle-aged man in a blue short-sleeved shirt—tries to sneak in behind them, sidling through a narrow gap between a temporary chain-link fence and a stone wall. But the union men spot him, move toward the fence, and start to lean against it. Then we see four of them take turns pushing—using the fence like a microscope slide to fix the contractor against the wall. In one of the videos, you can hear the man start to cry out, his voice tremulous as he’s crushed. Finally, he slumps to the ground.
The most troubling part, though, isn’t the sight of the men trapping the contractor; it’s the brief glimpse of one of the protesters grinning as the contractor wails. And the way the union guys stroll casually away from the scene when their victim collapses.
“It’s standard for construction sites to have surveillance cameras,” says one of the two 30-something brothers responsible for capturing the incident on video, Michael Pestronk. “The only novel thing we did, which just seemed obvious to me, was to post the videos on the Internet.” And with that, everything changed.
Until this year, getting something built in Philly meant meeting union demands. No one had dared to challenge the power of this city’s Building and Construction Trades Council, a consortium of nearly three dozen unions representing 45,000 people. Then Matt and Mike Pestronk undertook the renovation of the old Goldtex ladies’ shoe factory in the Loft District part of the city, a 10-story building they planned to convert into 163 apartments.
A $38 million project, the Goldtex deal is just the sort of high-profile, good-money job this city’s unions have held a lock on since—well, forever. But the Pestronks first did the unusual: They bid the job out to both union and non-union contractors. Then they did the unthinkable: They awarded union contractors just 40 percent of the deal, including demolition and electrical work. The rest isn’t history so much as history in the making.
The unions responded to the Pestronks fiercely, declaring a mixed site of union and non-union workers a “disaster” and refusing what work they were offered. “All or none” went the battle cry, a herald of time-tested tactics.
As early as January, protesters began passing out fliers, chanting, and marching with signs. Eventually they blocked delivery trucks hauling in materials and equipment. They harassed non-union counterparts, daring them to fight. A few times, push came to shove. They poured oil across the site’s entrance. They printed fliers with a photo of Matt Pestronk’s wife superimposed with an erect penis and the oddly oblique message “Carrie Pestronk likes to get hard with it.”
They planted caltrops, old-school union contraptions made of nails and designed to flatten tires. And they uttered nasty, brutish threats. The brothers say that Building Trades business manager Pat Gillespie told them that unless they hired an all-union workforce, the project would “never get built.” Another time, as Michael Pestronk entered the worksite, voices cried out among the protesters: “You’re dead!”
There’s more, but all of it is typical of the rough-and-tumble sport of Philadelphia development. What was new was the response. Instead of cowering or capitulating, the Pestronks used batteries of video cameras to record the activities of picketing union members, which they posted online at YouTube and a website they dubbed “phillybully.com.” And the effect was galvanic.
For many years, Building Trades has been criticized—usually in fearful whispers—for stifling development and economic growth, shutting out new investors, and undermining this city’s entire political process. But the videos shot and posted by the Pestronks provided something to go with all those allegations: evidence. Footage of leering, chuckling union men spitting profanities—so afraid of losing what they have, they can’t see what they’ve become.
Since the first videos went up in spring, the tide of public sentiment has turned, and the Pestronks won a court order restricting the picketers’ behavior. But in coming years, the Goldtex battle and the techniques employed there may be seen in grander, historical terms: as the moment that started the unraveling of Building Trades’ vast economic and political power, and perhaps of Philadelphia’s entire power structure.
So this is a story about more than how new-school technology defeated old-school bully tactics. It’s a story about how a single apartment building, and the two guys who wanted to build it, created the opportunity for an entire city to come unstuck in time.