The Brothers Who Busted Philly Unions. For Good.

Brutish threats, expletive-heavy protests, oil poured at construction-site entrances–for years, Philly unions have used intimidation and bully tactics to protect their power. Then two young developers set up cameras and a website, and set in motion the most dramatic power shift the city has seen in generations.

Matt Pestronk is 35 years old, a former college and high-school wrestler, with close-cropped hair, a coal-stove build and a broadly outspoken demeanor. “Fuck them,” he says at one point, joking about his union adversaries. “We can take any of those guys.”

Michael is 31, also a former high-school wrestler, with a shaggy artist’s mop of hair and a slightly more politic personality. “I’d be happy to use all union guys,” he says, “but the numbers have to work.”

I first meet the Pestronks in August, at the Goldtex site, and find them unbowed. Neither of them seems likely to be scared off by politicians or the unions, whose antics apparently have left them mostly mystified. To hear them tell it, they came to Philadelphia to be developers but found themselves face-to-face with union bosses straight out of old-time Hollywood epics—heavy-handed, thick-necked men with enough disregard for the law to issue death threats over an apartment conversion. For the Pestronks, this was like seeing a woolly mammoth come charging across the plains.

When I ask why they took on a battle no one else in Philadelphia would tackle, they look at me like I’m the odd one.

“We didn’t start this fight,” says Michael. “And as for why we’ve stayed in it, the law is on our side. Why should we give in?”

Philadelphia Building Trades business manager Pat Gillespie portrays the Pestronks as out-of-town richies, “born on third base” and bent on “destroying the wage structure” for all of Philadelphia. But the Pestronks deny any grand plan. “We’re not interested in shifting any paradigms,” Michael says. “Breaking the unions is still not on our agenda.”

For the Pestronks, the Goldtex equation begins and ends with economics. They sought bids for the job. When the results came in, they calculated that going all-union would run them an extra 40 to 50 percent in labor costs. Some unions, like the electricians, offered a competitive combination of cost and delivery time, or negotiated. Others didn’t. The Pestronks wound up awarding 40 percent of the job to unionized contractors. They didn’t concern themselves with how Trades would react to winning less than half the work, figuring any protest would be small. “To be honest,” admits Michael, “we were probably a little naive.”

Born in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the richest regions in America, Matt and Mike Pestronk admit they’ve enjoyed some advantages. “We weren’t born on third base, like Pat claims,” says Michael. “I’d say we were born on second. Our parents put us through college. But they didn’t give us a dime, ever, toward this business, or provide any connections. We did this on our own.” Ironically, their mother, Deborah, was once a dues-paying Teamster while working as a travel agent for Pan Am.

Matt earned a history degree at Drexel. But Michael never graduated, leaving college after a couple of externships convinced him that doing deals beat studying them. In 2007, they launched Post Brothers, a name with family history: A great-grandfather, Max, made uniforms in Manhattan with an outfit he called “Post Manufacturing,” to hide his Polish heritage.

The brothers soon earned recognition as a canny development team, capitalizing on the influx of new families in Germantown and Mount Airy. Since 2007, they’ve completed four rehab projects in the area and started three more. Those early projects were small, enabling the Pestronks to hire mixed union and non-union crews without attracting attention. In fact, they encountered the unions only once. While building the Delmar Morris Apartments, on Chelten Avenue, Michael received an unexpected visitor in the lobby.

“We want to make sure this job is all good,” a man said, announcing himself as a member of Building Trades.

He was big and beefy enough to intimidate, and Michael knew enough about the city’s union culture that he recognized “all good” as code for “all union.” But he responded with youthful bravado: “It’s all great!”

“Is the job all-union?” the man asked.

“I don’t know,” Michael said. “We just hire the most qualified people at the best cost.”

The next day, Michael got a call from a man who said he was from the Trades.

“If you don’t go all-union,” he said, “we’ll be there tomorrow with pickets.”

“If you want to come out here to the corner of Chelten Avenue and protest,” Michael replied, assessing the neighborhood as an unlikely place for a media firestorm, “you’re going to look ridiculous.”

No one showed. But if this was victory, it came too easily. Because whatever the Pestronks understood of Philly, its union history made no mark on them. They didn’t really understand the footsteps they were following in.