After Quaker Meetinghouse Site Arson, Who Will Stand Up to Unions?

Michael Nutter needs to send the city's biggest bullies to bed without supper.

Illegally blocking vehicles. Threatening people with physical harm. Distributing vulgar, sexist fliers. Frightening residents. This is an abbreviated, understated list of union workers’ tactics employed at a single construction site—the former Goldtex shoe factory—in 2012. It was—and is—a bad scene. A siege, Inga Saffron called it.

Everything that’s gone on there is awful and stupid and counterproductive, but not entirely surprising. Few Philadelphians do more than shrug at what’s become routine union thuggery, and outrage here is in short supply. After all, we have guns and Mummers to be angry about.

But now it appears the unions may have set fire to part of a construction site belonging to the Chestnut Hill Meeting—a Quaker congregation. Yes, the religious people. The quiet ones. No one has been charged, and police say they have no leads. But a police lieutenant told the Inquirer he “absolutely” thinks the arson was a “union issue.”

The group is building a new meetinghouse to be used by the larger community. The work site is staffed by a mix of union and non-union labor. It’s a project with little financial import to the unions: The projected construction cost is somewhere around $3.5 million. But the vandalism is not about the money; it’s about making a point and getting revenge. In case that seems implausible, just remember that the building trade unions tend to operate on the same frequency as they did in grade school. Only now there’s more testosterone.

Philly has a rich Quaker heritage, which is part of what makes the city unique. As a student at a Friends high school, I came to value the meetinghouse where we spent 40 silent minutes every Wednesday afternoon. There was so much chatter everywhere else—at home and in the school’s hallways—that to have a time set aside for nothing more than contemplation felt like a gift. In fact, I’ve even gone to Quaker meeting as a adult—without a teacher telling me to.

I learned only good lessons from Quakers about their tradition and about my place in the larger world. Quakers advocate peaceful, nonviolent resistance; modesty in dress and action; careful, quiet consideration of one’s relationship to spirit; and responsible care-taking of a vulnerable planet. I don’t want to imply they’re floating in the clouds and speaking Elvish, but these are the latest union target? Peacemongers?

When chronicling the events around the Goldtex building site, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron noted: “It hardly needs to be said that Philadelphia is an old-school union town, one of the last left in America where muscle and tradition rule unquestioned.”

That muscle she refers to is both literal and political. So many people—politicians, most tragically—are beholden to the unions that it creates a culture of fear that’s bizarrely Cosa Nostra. Try to talk to people in power in this city about union misdeeds and you’ll get a lot of blank stares and no comments. Can this really be a modern metropolis in the 21st century?

I think if union workers are going to act like children, we should treat them accordingly. Aside from whatever criminal charges one individual might receive, give the whole Building Trades a time out. If union workers delay the opening of a building or facility using illegal or borderline tactics, the unions should be unable to bid on a new project for an equivalent length of time.

This is how firm parents handle a problem child, and while Mayor Nutter might not say it out loud, he surely knows the unions are this city’s problem child. They need discipline, not coddling. Is there any elected Democratic politician in this city willing to stand up to them?