"Philadelphia, we need to talk." So says the Inquirer's Inga Saffron in her piece on the never-ending battle between the building trades union and the Post Bros., Michael and Matthew Pestronk, who are developing the Goldtex building. Unlike most everyone else in the city, Saffron is willing to talk about the trade unions and what they're doing wrong.
To bring you up to speed, she starts with background:
Workers have been beaten, car tires slashed. Delivery trucks are blocked for hours. This week, two people were arrested on assault charges. Neighborhood residents are afraid to walk near the building. If a gang held a Philadelphia house hostage for this long, you can bet it would have been all over the news and politicians would be issuing releases by the gross. The events at Goldtex are part of a union protest, so there is practically a Cone of Silence hanging over this tense and increasingly violent standoff.
As you can see, Saffron is not messing around. This balls-to-the-wall piece is the first we've seen that takes the battle seriously and addresses what some see as political complicity between the city and the trade unions.
While Saffron concedes the importance of labor unions, she comes down harshly against the Philly unions involved in construction:
Yet few in power here are willing to acknowledge that the trade unions' iron grip on Philadelphia has cost the city dearly in lost projects, especially by national developers. Philadelphia trade-union members are paid on average $63 an hour - about $10 less than those in New York, and twice as much as those in Washington, D.C. - despite much lower real estate sales prices here, according to Kevin C. Gillen, of Econsult, an independent economic-research firm in Philadelphia. A bigger issue for many developers, he said, is that union contracts require developers to inflate their workforces with more employees than they want. As a result, the cost of erecting a new building using union labor often exceeds the return, which helps explain why the apartment tower now rising at 23d and Chestnut Streets required a $12 million grant from the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
What's so threatening to the unions about the Goldtex project is that it's the first without any union labor, though the Pestronks have repeatedly said they tried to work with the unions and were shot down when they said they wanted to use a mix of union and non-union labor. Were they to use union labor exclusively, it would have brought their costs up by $10 million. So they decided to do things differently. Say Saffron: "By loosening up Philadelphia's closed-shop tradition, the brothers could reset the economics, making large construction projects more feasible."
Saffron's firsthand observation of what's happening at the site demonstrates the kind of illegal tactics the unions employ:
When word came that a flatbed carrying construction materials was on Vine Street, protesters rushed to surround the truck. Shuffling slowly in front of the vehicle, they forced it to move at a crawl. It took more than two hours to travel the two blocks down Wood Street, from Broad to 12th. As the truck approached the building, police and sheriff's deputies ordered protesters back so it could enter the site. Mike Pestronk says the project is now four months behind schedule. The developers are unable to obtain cement, crucial to finishing an underground garage, because local producers are all unionized plants.
Technically, it is illegal for the protesters to block deliveries. "We don't condone blocking delivery trucks," Gillespie told me repeatedly in an interview, even as his deputy, Fred Consenza, was at the site organizing the blockages.
Saffron refers to the union's tactics as "straight out of the '30s," and doesn't mince words about the union's problematic demographics. It's a very interesting piece, and glad that someone who cares so much about the built environment wrote it. But we are now concerned for Saffron's safety. Inga, we hope you have a strong right hook.
· Changing Skyline: Unions, developers stuck in standoff over Philadelphia building [Inquirer]
· Curbed Philly Goldtex Archives [CPHI]