Would Union Labor Have Prevented the Market Street Building Collapse?

Union leaders and their allies say "of course," but a look at other local collapses reveals a mixed record.

After the June 5th building collapse at 22nd and Market, the trades unions — and their supporters in City Hall — were quick to make the case that the tragedy never would have occurred if the site’s owner Richard Basciano had hired union labor for the demolition. Labor ally Jim Kenney said it “would not have happened on a union job.” Building Trades president Pat Gillespie told me that “we would have done it properly. There are procedures that our people are trained to follow.”

When unions point fingers at competitors, it’s easy to be skeptical of their claims. Several developers I spoke with rolled their eyes, telling me that the union vs. non-union designation was nonsense, and that the building trades were simply being opportunistic. A cynical City Paper piece offered a similar take.

But after a review of a number of Philadelphia-area building collapses during which workers were cited or investigated for violations, a more useful distinction became apparent. “Small projects tend to gravitate more towards the non-union,” says longtime engineer and Drexel professor Bob Brehm. “And the larger projects tend to gravitate towards the unions.” (Why? Cost.) Likewise, the small-scale collapses that I studied involved non-union workers. On the larger-scale projects, the opposite was largely true. Whether a property owner goes open-shop or closed-shop, in other words, might not guarantee anything.

On a July morning in 2000, a group of laborers were renovating Louisa’s, a Pennsport variety store popular with the Mummers, when they accidentally weakened one of its walls; the back of the building crumbled, the roof caved in, and two men died. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which fined two contractors for failing to conduct an engineering survey, reported that both were non-union. (All information concerning union vs. non-union status in this piece comes from OSHA.)

In September 2005, during the construction boom, a New York developer was renovating two Queen Village rowhomes when one of them began slowly crumbling. A little more than a week later, it collapsed. OSHA cited his contractor — who employed non-union workers — for two violations. Later that year, a brick facade of a Fairmount rowhouse came undone and crashed to the ground during excavation work being done next door. The two contractors cited? Non-union.

Examine larger-scale disasters, however, and you’ll find that union projects haven’t necessarily been free from trouble. Earlier this year, ground broke on a new headquarters for the police department’s SVU division in Hunting Park. On January 29th, the roof caved in. The (non-union) general contractor, Axis Construction, along with two union subcontractors, are being investigated by OSHA. In 2005, another team of union and non-union workers was fined after OSHA determined it had improperly set the foundation of a luxury apartment complex in Spring Garden, causing the destruction of a nearby building. Most infamously, in 2003, three union contractors and one non-union contractor were successfully sued and fined for the collapse of the roof of the parking garage at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City that killed four and injured 20.

Talk to Pat Gillespie and he’ll tout his unions’ robust apprenticeship programs, years of accumulated experience, and employee drug testing. Brehm, the Drexel professor, who’s worked on construction sites for decades, counts those among the greatest assets of unionized labor projects. Yet Brehm says that those who claim union workers would have prevented a collapse at 22nd and Market are missing the point. Given what the building trades charge, he says, there’s virtually no chance they would have been hired to do such a relatively small job in the first place. It’s a pointless hypothetical.

(Carl Mason, a union contractor, says he would have bid $250,000 on the project, had he known it was up for grabs. Though Brehm says the $10,000 Basciano claims to have spent on the project is probably not an accurate figure, the longtime Forum Theater owner almost certainly would not have been willing to spring for Mason’s figure.)

Put another way, the next time faulty workmanship leads to a collapse on an inexpensive, small-scale project in Philadelphia — in other words, most collapses in Philadelphia — members of the building trades probably won’t be involved. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of making mistakes.

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