Philadelphia trade unions that have kept the Goldtex construction site under siege for the last six months agreed to end their protest after Rep. Bob Brady convened talks last week at the Sheet Metal Workers union hall, developer Michael Pestronk confirmed yesterday.
The Goldtex entrance at 12th and Wood Streets was virtually deserted Monday, for the first time since angry union protesters began gathering there in March in an organized effort to block deliveries and prevent Pestronk's company from converting the 12-story factory building into rental apartments. Pestronk is trying to break with Philadelphia tradition by employing a mix of union and nonunion workers.
According to his account, the unions agreed during Brady's peace parley Thursday to drop their demand that he use a fully unionized workforce. In exchange for calling off the protest, Pestronk said that his company, Post Brothers, had promised to encourage its subcontractors to include more card-carrying union members in their crews.
The exact percentage of union hires was not spelled out, Pestronk said. Nor did any written agreement emerge from the talks, which involved representatives from more than 30 Philadelphia construction unions. Rather, Pestronk said, the two sides came up "with a framework of how we can work together."
Philadelphia's top trade-union official, Patrick Gillespie, of the Building Trades Council, did not return phone calls Monday, but a Brady spokesman acknowledged that Pestronk's version was largely correct.
For years, Philadelphia's development community has complained that high union wage rates make it difficult to finance new construction. The Pestronks' attempt to buck the union demand for 100 percent of the contracts has been watched intensely. "Given this economy, I think you're going to see more developers go nonunion," said one prominent developer who asked to remain anonymous.
It is not clear whether the protesters will be satisfied by the deal worked out through Brady's mediation. During negotiations, union leaders pressed Post Brothers to commit to hiring a fully unionized workforce for its next apartment project, in a former office tower at Broad and Spruce Streets. But Pestronk insists that he never agreed to that key demand.
"No promises were made," he said.
That almost certainly means the Broad Street project will include a mix of union and nonunion workers when the conversion begins next year. Post Brothers will award contracts to the lowest-qualified bidders.
About 40 percent of the contracts went to union subcontractors at the start of the Goldtex project - including one owned by Gillespie's son, Kevin. But once the protests began, union workers refused to cross the picket line.
The Building Trades Council, which organized the protest, had initially expected the crowd of angry protesters would make it impossible for Post Brothers to receive deliveries of crucial building materials.
But Post Brothers was determined not to give in. The company hired a crew of burly security guards to police the site and obtained a court injunction forcing the protesters to stay 45 feet from the construction site's entrance.
Their most potent weapon was probably public opinion. The Pestronks gave their workers recording devices enabling them to capture every encounter with the protesters on video, and then posted the footage on a company website. Two arrests resulted.
The union workers largely relied on old-style tactics, like setting up an inflatable rat on Vine Street and marching slowly in front of delivery trucks.
In the end, the protesters only slowed deliveries and rarely succeeded in turning back trucks. Pestronk said Monday that Goldtex is three months behind schedule. The developers plan to open a model unit in October. Workers are currently installing a new glass facade, using a crane smuggled onto the site during an elaborate diversion scheme.
Pestronk said that Brady reached out to him last week.
"We've never had a problem with union contractors," Pestronk explained. "We've always used a mixed group before. Union contractors can be competitive. This blew up only because the union leadership inserted themselves into it."
For Brady, who relishes a mediating role, this is the second time this year that he has intervened on union matters. In July, he helped persuade the Carlyle Group to partner with Sunoco to run the South Philadelphia refinery. Part of the deal involved winning concessions from the unions, in exchange for financial support from the Obama administration.
It is not clear whether the deal on the Goldtex project is as strong.
Just in case it's not, Pestronk said he intends to use this window of peace to bring in a much-needed shipment of concrete.