In a makeshift office space inside the Goldtex construction site at 12th and Wood streets, lead construction manager Al McVicker opens a file cabinet drawer, pulls out a homemade weapon and slaps it on the desk. It’s a flat slab of metal the size of a brick, with seven crooked nails thicker than pencils welded to the base, jutting upward.
“How’s that for your story?” McVicker, 54, says to me, adding that he found the nail bomb stuck in the tire of a delivery truck a week earlier.
According to McVicker, finding the homemade weapon was just one of many such attacks since March, when Philadelphia’s trade unions began protesting outside the Post Brothers’ $38 million project to convert the old textile factory into a 10-story, 163-apartment complex.
McVicker rattles off the damage he attributes to union protesters: 28 slashed tires, two broken windshields, four shattered passenger windows and four rear-view mirrors so far. “Someone’s going to get fucking hurt,” he says. Men on both sides have already been injured. And they’ve told me that they won’t be surprised if someone winds up dead by the time the project is finished.
The fight is so intense because Goldtex is the biggest local labor showdown in 40 years. Some union workers compare it to the protests against developer J. Leon Altemose for hiring nonunion workers to build a hotel and retail complex that eventually became the Valley Forge Convention Center. In the summer of ‘72, Altemose offered unions a 70/30 split on the $18 million project, but the unions violently declined. That June, a thousand men in hard hats stormed the construction site, throwing fire bombs and hand grenades. But Altemose refused to cave.
Altemose’s success symbolized the end of Philadelphia’s unions’ power and influence on suburban development. Forty years later, Goldtex symbolizes the final frontier of union influence over development in the city. “This is on our doorstep,” said a protester who declined to give his name. “They think they can come right in here and bust the unions.”
Trade unions’ traditional war tactics rely on a balance of unabashed intimidation and harassment, murky political connections and public-relations campaigns that cast them as the victims. Historically, the unions have had complete control over developing that narrative. Union protest PR may be crude—fliers littered with misspellings, a big rat balloon (manufactured in a nonunion shop, by the way)—but they can be nonetheless effective at broadcasting the message that their opponents are “destroying the middle class” or “killing the American dream.”
Goldtex shows that control is gone. The modern labor dispute is fought with technology, not muscle. From the beginning, Michael and Matthew Pestronk, the real-life brothers behind the Post Brothers, simply set up a high-tech surveillance system that beats the union at their own PR game.
The Goldtex building is a panopticon; more than 30 video cameras stud its perimeter. At PhillyBully.com, they post videos, photos, updates and scans of fliers union guys allegedly circulated, including one that says “Carrie Pestronk likes to get hard with it!” next to a doctored photo of one of the developer’s wives made to look like she is holding a penis. According to McVicker, the Post Brothers have a “video team” that has collected countless hours of video and more than 13,000 photos of protesters.
McVicker, who sports a small video camera strapped to the side of his hard hat, says he has personally snapped 900 to 1,000 photos.
The high-tech surveillance seems to be not only winning public’s support for the Pestronks, but is also forcing authorities to take action. Several weeks ago, police made arrests after cameras caught a group of men assaulting a Post Brothers worker. In the video, the man is shoved until he falls to the ground. Throughout the assault, the victim’s wife is in the mix, holding up an iPad, recording. McVicker says that he expects another arrest soon: A protester was caught throwing nail bombs like the kind McVicker pulled out of his file cabinet.
“He’s on film kneeling down and throwing it in the street in two separate locations,” he says.
Several weeks ago, a delivery truck pulled into the site. As usual, union protesters gathered at the fence to heckle the laborers as they unloaded the truck. They taunted the workers, many who appear to be Asian, with racist insults like “Look at Long Duck Dong!” and various nonsensical jabs about eating noodles. When I pulled out my phone and started recording, a large young man cut in front of me, pushing his back into me like a wall. When I moved, he followed me and started calling me “corrupt” for taping the harassment.
On a different day, after another delivery truck pulled away, a protester exclaimed, “Did you see that? That was an 8-year-old!” The protester, who declined to give his name, insisted he saw an 8-year-old working. “Illegals and kids,” snorted another protester.
The man who claimed he saw a child working says he got it on his camera. But when he checked for the video, he discovered his phone battery had died. It didn’t record.
“Anyone take pictures?” asks another protester, looking around. “Somebody’s got to have a picture!”
No one did.
The owners of MilkBoy Coffee, opening soon on 11th and Chestnut streets, say that with rates generally estimated to be between two and three times the rate of equally capable nonunion shops, it’s simply cost-prohibitive to hire all-union workers. But that didn't go over well with the Carpenters union.
It’s a recent afternoon inside the new downtown MilkBoy location, a two-floor space at 11th and Chestnut streets that will be coffee bar by morning, pub by afternoon and music venue by night, and co-owner Tommy Joyner is hustling to get the place in shape to open up next week.