Philadelphia has New York City construction costs and Cleveland residential and office lease rates. To understand what lurks behind the lopsided building market, consider the travails of Philadelphia developers, the Pestronk brothers. The brothers, who operate Post Brothers Apartments, have endured years of harassment, stalking and threats from the local trade unions, resulting in millions of dollars in property damage and lost time. All of this because they use a portion of non-union, merit based labor on particular portions of their projects. Perpetuating this unrest is a state law that actually shields the union activists from prosecution when harassment, stalking, or the use of deadly threats occurs during a labor dispute.
Pennsylvania’s criminal code currently declares harassment, stalking, and even threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction to be protected activities when done by a party engaged in a labor dispute.
Because reports of violence and destruction of property by union activists have escalated to increasing levels, the House Judiciary Committee, under the direction of Chairman Ron Marsico (R-105), held a hearing last week on House Bill 1154 that aims to end these outrageous actions.
Many argued before the House Judiciary Committee that what starts as harassment, stalking, and threatening quickly escalates to assault and/or destruction of property. HB 1154, sponsored by Representative Ron Miller (R-93), would remove the current carve-outs in the criminal code and make harassment, stalking, and threatening to use weapons of mass destruction illegal for all Pennsylvania citizens, regardless of the circumstances.
PMA Executive Director David N. Taylor and others testified at a hearing last week in Harrisburg before the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1154. Appearing alongside Taylor was Robert N. Reeves, Jr., President of E. Allen Reeves Inc.; a merit shop construction company his grandfather founded in 1918. In his testimony, Mr. Reeves stated that he has personally been stalked, harassed, and threatened, but also that he had been shot at by who he believed were union activists.
When his company undertook the project of building the first new Quaker Meeting House for the Chestnut Hill Religious Society of Friends in over 80 years, they were excited and honored to have submitted the winning bid. Once construction began, he and his team were harassed and experienced unwelcome visits by union representatives at the worksite several times. In his testimony, Mr. Reeves stated that one union business manager said as he was turned away from the worksite, “Well, at the end of the day, I gotta do what I gotta do.” Four days later and just five days before Christmas, the worksite was set ablaze, equipment was destroyed with Molotov cocktails, and steel support beams were skillfully sliced with acetylene torches. Though local authorities believed union activists were to blame, no arrests have yet been made. The atrocity caught the attention of the national media as shown in this New York Times article. The sabotage inflicted on the church site was more than a half-million dollars.
“Union violence and intimidation lead to a situation that is no different than a ‘protection’ racket,” Taylor said. “It is, in a word, extortion. Justice demands that stalking, harassment, and making deadly threats must be illegal in all circumstances. A change in culture must begin with a change in the law.”
There’s also the psychological toll of union violence, harassment, stalking, and deadly threats. Post Brother’s executive, Sabrina Rose, said she’s been personally harassed and threatened. “I’ve even had my kids photographed and stalked when they’ve been out playing soccer or waiting at the bus stop,” she said. “They’re acting like a bunch of predators.” These actions are clearly meant to induce mental anguish and impose fear to those making business decisions. The union harassment is well documented at the website, www.phillybully.com, created by Post Brothers.
Representative Miller said the Judiciary Committee invited eight union officials to the hearing, but only one accepted the offer. Frank Snyder, Treasurer and Secretary of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO testified against the bill and advocated leaving the carve-out unchanged. However, in his testimony he stated, “Employers are overwhelmingly proven to be the party which violates these laws.” He went on to say that he has been stalked and harassed by “the boss” several times in the past. Members of the committee examined the fact that HB 1154 does not just close the exception for union activists, but all parties involved in a labor dispute – management included. Committee member, Representative Rick Saccone (R-39) said, “In my opinion, you’ve made the best argument for this bill all day!”
“All the more reason they (union officials) should be for it,” Miller said after the hearing in reference to Mr. Snyder’s testimony. However, Rep. Miller also expects the unions to fight the legislation throughout the entirety of the legislative process. He feels they may view it as the camel’s nose under the tent leading to approval of other reforms aimed at loosening organized labor’s grip on artificially inflated wages. Members of the committee hope for approval of the bill soon after members return to session on September 23.
Separate hearings by the House Labor and Industry Committee, for instance, are ongoing in examining bills that would modernize the state’s Prevailing Wage Law. The law artificially increases the costs of public construction and maintenance projects by setting regional wages at the union rate.
“Pennsylvania’s property taxpayers deserve to hear why local projects are needlessly costing more of their hard-earned dollars,” said committee Chairman Mario Scavello (R-176). “Local government officials from across the commonwealth have asked to be heard, and that is what our committee is going to do. We will hear from elected supervisors, commissioners, council members, mayors and school directors who run local governments and school districts in Pennsylvania, why pothole-rutted roads are not being resurfaced and why their small local projects cost significantly more than similar private projects.”
The Committee did approve two reform bills in April. House Bill 796 would raise the threshold for which projects would be subject to the law from $25,000 to $100,000. House Bill 665 would establish a clear definition for maintenance work. But so far neither has advanced beyond the House floor.
The costs quickly add up and are a needless hindrance on the economy. A Philadelphia carpenter makes nearly twice as much as one in Washington, D.C., where similar units rent for almost twice as much. A 2008 report by Econsult found it to be unprofitable to build in most of Philadelphia, ranking it below even Madison, Wisconsin, as a desirable place for new construction.
But in summary, no individual or group should be exempted from the criminal code. Allowing or enabling anyone to harass, stalk, or make deadly threats is never acceptable. This is a common sense reform that benefits the entire workforce of the commonwealth. HB 1154 is not pro-management or pro-union; HB 1154 is pro-public-safety. The Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association fully supports HB 1154 and asks lawmakers to promptly pass this legislation in the coming weeks.