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.

One of the first steps I took in reporting this story was to try to substantiate the arguments made by union boss Pat Gillespie:

  • The unions fight to maintain fair compensation for the entire region, while the Pestronks pay workers, many of them illegal immigrants, substandard under-the-table wages that deny this city its due taxes.
  • No illegal acts have been authorized or countenanced by union leadership.
  • The Pestronks behave more irresponsibly than union picketers, allowing workers to wave their cash in mockery of his out-of-work men. “They have selectively edited those videos,” Gillespie tells me, “to show illegal acts where none occurred or to remove the ways in which picketers were provoked.”

But along the way, I meet more compelling spokesmen than Gillespie. An ironworker named Danny MacDonald Jr., from Delaware County, tells me how well the unions treated his family after his father died in a fall. “Will any of these non-union guys, and their families, receive those kinds of benefits?” he asks.

Similarly, during an interview at Jany’s, a diner near the Goldtex worksite, Ironworkers business agent Ed Sweeney tells me that after he was hurt on the job in the late ’80s, he received more than $7,000 in donations from union men he’d never met. Remembering those days, he starts to cry, wiping his eyes to make sure no one sees.

The moment is entirely unexpected, but those big, wet tears serve as a telling reminder that there is something to mourn here. This country’s unions saved lives and established a baseline of treatment for American workers: The 40-hour workweek. Health benefits. Safety standards. Paid vacation. And yes, a living middle-class wage—standards set for the rest of us by labor-union negotiators. But somewhere along the way, the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council stopped being an underdog and started behaving like a bully.

The Philadelphia media has dutifully reported all of Gillespie’s charges against the Pestronks. But Gillespie could offer me no proof. A lack of ammunition, however, doesn’t stop some of this city’s Trades-
affiliated politicians from firing off the same accusations. In a phone interview, Congressman Bob Brady, a card-carrying member of the carpenters union, states that some workers at Goldtex are being paid under the table. “That’s documented,” he says, multiple times.

When asked for the documents, however, Brady refers me to Councilman Jim Kenney.
The Councilman responds that union men heard laborers supposedly working at the Goldtex site talk about cash payments while “drinking in bars.”

“There are no documents,” Kenney says.


By the time September 6th rolls around, the Post Brothers site has calmed. “We have a negotiation set up with the Pestronks,” Gillespie tells me in a phone interview, “and we’re optimistic. So we want a new tone over there.”

The Pestronks deny any breakthrough. “We’ve done this before,” says Michael Pestronk, on-site. “They’re jerk-off meetings.”

The Pestronks also find no reason for optimism in Bob Brady’s participation in the negotiations. “I think he’s there to make sure things work out,” says Matt, “in a certain way.”

“At some point,” says Michael, “he always turns to us and says, ‘You know, it’d be a shame if someone were to get hurt.’”

But around noon, two hours after the meeting begins, the union protesters depart the Goldtex site and don’t come back. Something has happened. And in the coming days, it emerges that Brady successfully brokered the bare outline of an uneasy detente.

The Trades swear to end their protest and begin whatever work is still available on the Goldtex building, as part of a mixed site of union and non-union workers. This is a radical about-face. In return, they asked the Pestronk brothers to make one of their next major jobs all-union.

That next job, the Atlantic Building, a 21-story high-rise on South Broad Street just two blocks from City Hall, is undoubtedly a prize. The Pestronks plan to rehab the whole building, installing retail to go with 300,000 square feet of apartments. A successful project there, without union labor, would send the signal that Trades dominance of the marketplace is clearly over. But the Pestronks refuse to commit one way or the other, insisting they’ll bid the project out, just like Goldtex.

What the Pestronks do concede is a preference to go all-union, and to that end, they begin discussions with the Trades about financing. They also grant the unions a coveted “last look” at any other bids.

“I essentially gave the unions the last look on Goldtex, too. I went back and told them the lowest bid,” says Michael Pestronk.

The talks seem to render the Trades’ continued dominance uncertain at best, yet they claim total victory. “They made a commitment to make their next job all-union,” Gillespie tells me during a follow-up phone interview.

Really? Didn’t they say they’d bid it?

“They commited to us,” Gillespie replies.

“But, Pat,” I ask, “Michael Pestronk did say they would bid the next job, yes?”

“Yes,” says Gillespie. “But I interpret that as a commitment.”

Gillespie’s certitude could be taken as pure spin, or it might simply reflect his acumen—a knowledge of how union power will play out in the coming months.

Multiple observers of the Building Trades say the financing the carpenters and electricians can provide from their billions in pension funds is delivered at well-below-market rates. These loans can help offset some of the upcharge on union labor. And the unions might simply offer the Pestronks a much lower rate—granting them one-time-only admission into the unofficial club of developers who get preferential treatment.

Of course, darker possibilities exist. Pledging that the unions will receive the “last look” at bids could chill potential non-union contractors. “It’s a decision every business will have to make for themselves,” says Mark McMahon, a builder and board member with Associated Builders and Contractors. “But would you invest the time and money it takes to bid a project that big knowing that you’re not the preferred candidate and someone else is going to get a last chance to beat you?”

Of course, given what’s already taken place, what happens on the Pestronks’ next job might not even matter.