Callowhill neighbors intimidated by protest at building site

A construction project in Philadelphia’s Loft District has turned contentious, and maybe violent. For some residents near 12th and Wood Streets, anticipating clashes between union protesters and project workers has become routine.

The building looks like any other construction site. But the dozens of men standing on the street corners around it — many chatting, others standing silent — sets it apart. There’s an air of tension, and none of the men wants to speak on the record.

Sarah McEneaney, however, is ready to talk. The president of Callowhill Neighborhood Association, she has lived and worked in the neighborhood for 33 years.

McEneaney, an artist, says she is looking forward to the end of a decrepit eyesore and the beginning of a new residence to add to the neighborhood. While she supports peaceful protests, she says she is frustrated by the union presence around the construction site.

“I walk my dog down the street and there will be like 10 or 20 big guys standing around and it just feels threatening,” McEneaney says. “It’s every day, Monday through Friday. I tend to sort of avoid it now.

“I used to sort of walk through it because I feel like I should be able to walk down the street on my normal route with the dog, but it’s intimidating and I feel threatened by it,” she says.

Pat Gillespie of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council says union workers are protesting the destruction of wage standards, but there’s no call for violence.

“The wages that are being paid there are substandard and we are protesting that because that’ll have a negative impact on our marketplace,” said Gillespie.

But the project developer says some of the union protesters have gone too far in trying to interfere with construction.

And one neighbor says she was biking near the construction site with her 3-year-old daughter when she came across a ball of nails welded together. After she picked it up, she said one of the protesters followed her and told her to put the nail ball back in the street. She declined to give her name for fear of possible retaliation.

Violent confrontations

The CEO of Post Brothers Apartments, the owner and developer of the property in question, has his own take on the situation.

“If there were one word and only one word to describe it, extortion would be it. Absolutely. Extortion,” says Mike Pestronk. “There’s 30 to 100 guys there on any given day. They block the deliveries.”

Pestronk says one recent bad week illustrates the reason for his frustration.

“About two or three weeks ago, we had a very high tension week where there were a number of violent incidents at the site. We had several contractors get assaulted as they were trying to enter the property, we had one person who is an engineer for the project coming inside,” he said.

“He was shoved up against a stone wall by four guys and kind of squished between a stone wall and a fence. He got cuts, he was actually knocked out for a couple minutes,” Pestronk continued. “Later that same day, about 150 union guys were spread out all over the neighborhood (and) they put a steel plate with spikes welded to it in front of the concrete truck. That punctured the concrete truck’s tires and we weren’t able to get a concrete delivery in.”

The trouble continued the next morning, according to Pestronk.

As a sprinkler contractor attempted to pull into the site, his van was surrounded and one of the protesters tried to jump in through the van window, Pestronk says.

“He grabbed the guy’s steering wheel, and so his van started veering toward a brick wall,” he continued. “So our contractor who was driving then Maced the guy who was in his window.”

Pestronk, who said he’s been begging the city for help, said in the last week and a half law enforcement has been taking the problem more seriously and the incidents have died down.

Looking for work, not a fight

Pestronk, who said he’s not using union contractors on this project, said he planned to use union workers but was told they were barred from the project because he didn’t plan to use 100 percent union contractors.

Gillespie, the Philadelphia Building Trades Council business manager, says he never told contractors that.

And, he maintains, the union members are not interested in violence, just in work.

“Most of our contractors are very competitive,” Gillespie said. “We pride ourselves on being productive workers and we pride ourselves on our craftsmanship.”

Gillespie says the workers on the project are being paid substantially less than union workers would be.

Pestronk says that’s true. But he argues that union wages for the construction project in Philadelphia are unreasonable.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.