Phila. labor dispute tactics eyed after vandalism

Damage at Phila. building site brings new attention to issue

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PHILADELPHIA -- It took four days to repair most of the $500,000 in damage done by vandals at the Quaker meetinghouse being built in Chestnut Hill.

Still on site is the dead hulk of a crane, its cab burned in what authorities said was arson.

"Do I think it was the unions?" said Robert Reeves, president of the nonunion Abington builder working at the site. "I don't think it was a group of 10-year-old boys."

Labor-related violence has declined in Philadelphia during the past 40 years, according to John Breese, an assistant regional director with the National Labor Relations Board.

But the Goldtex Building construction site at 12th and Wood streets endured months of sometimes-violent confrontation before two people were arrested in July for assault. And the circumstances of the Chestnut Hill incident -- against a Quaker meetinghouse four days before Christmas -- has brought fresh attention to the issue.

"This doesn't happen in other places," said Mary Tebeau, who came here after two decades in Ohio and is CEO of the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors Inc., which supports nonunion contractors. "It seems there's been a culture of that happening here over the years. It's been accepted for some reason, or expected."

Her group is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the vandals.

Philadelphia police said the meetinghouse vandalism was "absolutely" union-related.

"We take this very seriously," said Michael Resnick, the city director of public safety. The case was assigned to a police official trained in investigating crimes involving incendiary devices.

No federal agencies are involved in the inquiry, he said.

Union members "have a First Amendment right to stand out with their signs and say what they want to say," Mr. Resnick said, "but they do not have a right to destroy property or hurt people."

Carl Primavera, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents many of the city's developers, said he considers the two recent incidents an aberration. And union officials say their members are being unfairly blamed.

"Getting asked these type of questions is like being asked, 'When did you stop beating your wife?' " said Pat Gillespie, business manager for the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council.

Sabotage

Charges of sabotage at construction sites can be notoriously difficult to prove, often occurring at night with no witnesses.

In September, nighttime vandals rampaged across a locked construction site in Tacony, where a portion of Interstate 95 is being rebuilt by Walsh Construction Co. They destroyed a crane, excavator, bulldozer and pile hammer, and pushed a large compressor into the Delaware River.

Damage was estimated at more than $2 million.

But Walsh was employing only union workers. Today, months later, police have no leads, said Lt. Mike Gormley of the Northeast Detectives.

Builders say the incidents at Goldtex and in Chestnut Hill evoke memories of the 1972 attack on J. Leon Altemose's Valley Forge Plaza. Upset by the contractor's plan to hire 30 percent nonunion labor to build the hotel and retail complex, more than a thousand angry union workers stormed the construction site, armed with firebombs and grenades.

They set fire to seven trucks and to Mr. Altemose's construction trailer, causing damage estimated at $7 million. Two months later, Mr. Altemose was surrounded and beaten by a mob of two dozen union supporters at 15th and Chestnut streets, an incident that focused national attention on Philadelphia's unions.

Part of the mid-1980s investigation into the roofers union, then a political power, dealt with allegations that members resorted to violence to persuade contractors not to hire nonunion labor.

Union feuds propelled Philadelphia into the news in 2004 when the producers of MTV's "The Real World" decided to abandon a shoot after a confrontation. Filming proceeded only after public demonstrations against the unions.

The July assault arrests at the Goldtex site followed a months-long siege where workers were beaten, car tires slashed and delivery trucks blocked after developers converting the vacant building into loft-style apartments tried to hire a mix of union and nonunion workers.

Incidents old and new make it harder for Philadelphia to market itself as a welcoming place to do business, said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for commerce.

"It's not a good thing for the city's reputation," he said.

Mix of subcontractors

Jerry Gorski, president of Collegeville-based Gorski Construction & Engineering, said his firm never experienced the sort of attack that occurred in Chestnut Hill, even though he uses a mix of union and nonunion subcontractors.

Union representatives often show up at his job sites to seek work for their members -- just as they did on Mermaid Lane days before the meetinghouse arson.

But Mr. Gorski said the exchanges have been "very professional, and even friendly."

In Chestnut Hill, workers found disarray when they arrived the morning of Dec. 21. The crane cab was wrecked. Vandals struck at night, using an acetylene torch, which requires a skilled operator wearing a special mask and gloves, to shear the steel bolts from nearly a dozen columns.

Police said damage was "absolutely" the result of a dispute be-tween members of a construction union and the project's suburban contractor, E. Allen Reeves Inc.

The Quakers, known for their commitment to social justice, selected Reeves after conducting a blind review of bids. Reeves' price was 23 percent lower than the nearest union bidder, the group said. Even then, the decision was not easy, Meg Mitchell, clerk of the meeting, said earlier.

The new meetinghouse is on a long, rising hill in a residential area, with homes across the street and businesses down the block. It's believed to be the first new Quaker meetinghouse in Philadelphia in more than half a century.

Days before the fire, Mr. Reeves said, representatives of several construction unions appeared at the site to discuss having their members hired. They were rebuffed, and afterward an iron workers' representative "basically said to the superintendent that 'he would do what he had to do,' " according to Mr. Reeves.

Efforts to reach Ed Sweeney, business manager for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, were unsuccessful.

The day after the fire, Mr. Sweeney told the Philadelphia Daily News that he was unaware of the arson but knew the work site. "I was up there last week and said hello to the guy, and asked if he wanted to hire any iron workers, and he didn't even talk to me," Mr. Sweeney said.

On Friday, four workers stood on the steel skeleton of the emerging structure, the sound of drills and hammers echoing across the neighborhood. Mr. Reeves is the third generation, after his father and grandfather, to own and run the company, founded in 1918.

In recent decades, he said, his workers have been harassed, and job sites damaged, more times than he can count. Some workers have been followed. Or found tacks in their driveways. Vandals once pulled out the framing for a concrete floor at a building site.

"It's bullying," he said. "It's using fear and emotional terror to encourage people to do what you want them to do."

Society doesn't tolerate bullies in grade-school playgrounds, he said, so "why do the politicians and the institutions and business community remain silent and reward unions for what is a long history of bullying?"

Sociology professor Rick Eckstein, who studies labor issues at Villanova University, said the aggressiveness of Philadelphia construction unions has been overemphasized in the same way that city sports fans can never seem to shake their goonish reputation. What's occurred in Philadelphia is nothing compared with the violence that plagued turn-of-the-century disputes in the coal and steel industries, he said.

"As long as there are fewer jobs than there are people, there's going to be this tension about, 'How can you maximize your economic benefits as a worker?' " he said. Part of that tension arises because, traditionally, union workers who risked their jobs for better wages and conditions saw those hard-won benefits handed to nonunion laborers. "People in unions feel there's some 'free-ridership' going on."

Mr. Gillespie, the trades-council business manager, said nonunion workers and companies were "destroying our wages and benefits."

It's no surprise that those people "are not treated hospitably, but we're not violent," he said. "The easy villain is always the organized labor people, because we demand fair wages."

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