When Matthew and Michael Pestronk had the vision to rehabilitate a former shoe factory in Philadelphia, they didn’t think it would bring on a showdown between themselves and the city’s unionized workforce.
Yet, more than 18 months after the Pestronks began developing the 150,000 square-foot factory into a 163-unit apartment building, union members are still protesting the project day after day.
The protest was sparked when the Pestronks’ company, Post Brothers Apartments, began accepting bids for the development and chose to award a hefty amount of the work to non-union contractors.
The decision caused outrage within Philly’s largely unionized workforce and launched a protest outside the project’s site, leading to violent clashes, arrests, and injuries.
“We’re inclined to go with unions, but we are going to go with the most competitive bids,” Matthew Pestronk said.
As contractors work on the site, conflict consumes the buzz surrounding the project, which was intended to help the local community. And in the tango between the two sides, violence took over, Pestronk said.
“They picked the fight,” he said. “We just stood up for ourselves—it’s really just that simple.”
“You Hit Back”
While the struggle may have added to the project’s delay, is hasn’t shut the Post Brothers down.
The company plans to expand into the New York City market and start new developments in Philly as they finish the factory renovation. And they won’t change their business practices, Pestronk said.
“I don’t care about using union or non-union,” he said. “And I’d probably pay a couple extra dollars to avoid the brain damage that we went through with that property.”
The Building and Construction Trades Council stands firmly beside the workers who spend countless hours at the factory construction site, Patrick Gillespie said.
Gillespie, business manager for the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, noted the protest isn’t focusing on the Post Brothers because they chose other contractors. Instead, the protest is meant to raise awareness about workplace safety, skilled workers, adequate wages, good benefits and healthcare for Philly workers—all the principles the unions embrace.
“The whole point of this protest is to let the community know that these folks are not playing by the same rules as everybody else,” he said.
But Pestronk holds his ground that it wasn’t a personal decision that motivated the contracts, it was a business decision driven by the bottom line of the project. It wasn’t until after the unions began causing a ruckus at the construction site that he decided to voice his distaste for the behaviors of the protestors.
“You fight the fight the best way you can,” Pestronk said. “If it gets as ugly as it did for us, you fight in the courts, you use social media, you use the media. You do what you can.”
So, the Post Brothers posted pictures and videos online to document the ongoing dispute, capturing union workers harassing contractors. Some of the scenes depict physical attacks on non-union workers, while others depict the slashed tires and smashed windows of non-union worker cars. Using a website, phillybully.com, is one way the brothers have fought back.
But while Gillespie doesn’t support any of the violence that may have happened at the site, the videos being posted on the site don’t show the other side of the story, including portions of tape where the unions are being taunted or victimized by people working on the project.
“These are people who work in a fairly rugged industry and they pride themselves in being tough,” Gillespie said. “They react. If you get hit, you hit back.”
One of the largest frustrations unions have in protesting in America is that they have a hard time organizing which sometimes leads to crossing lines, labor expert John Russo said.
Russo, a retired labor studies professor from Youngstown State University, said since striking isn’t a viable option for many unionized workers these days, they don’t have many other options of how to organize. “People get into it when their own work and their way of life is threatened,” he said. “It doesn’t always go to violence.”
But sometimes it does and a declining membership adds to the pressure building up in union camps.
“It’s cheaper to disobey the law than to obey it,” Russo said.
However, bucking the unions and cutting corners to bring costs down isn’t helpful to anyone, Russo added.
Unions help to raise wages and bring benefits to workers while keeping strict regulations on quality. Putting more money in workers’ pockets also pumps the local economy with extra revenue through consumer spending, Russo said.
Inflating wages and pushing the cost onto developers isn’t something that sits well with Lee Harris, president and CEO of Overland Park, Kan.–based Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Services.
While working on a 180-unit high-rise in Kansas City, Harris’ team was obligated to use union wage rates as part of a term on a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) loan.
“That cost the project an additional million dollars—which was so unnecessary,” he said. “We could have got qualified labor for a million less.”
While Harris works in smaller communities where union labor isn’t as big of an issue, like it is in deeply unionized metros such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago, he’s not opposed to using union labor. But, he doesn’t agree with HUD’s Davis-Bacon wage requirement on federally funded projects.
Workforce labor leaders should be focusing on how to woo developers with better business instead of trying to be competitive strictly based on the minimum qualifications to get a job done, he said.
Pestronk and Russo each agreed that the unions are struggling to find new ways to stay relevant in an evolving economy.
The Pestronk brothers are looking toward the future and hope to have better relations with the local workforce on upcoming projects, Pestronk said. The shoe factory’s rehabilitation is scheduled to be finished in June.
“I look forward to things being more peaceful,” he said. "If I felt the market would support ten more of these projects done the exact way I've done it, then I'd do it again."