Hotel developer Mihir Wankawala clicked on the link a friend had sent him and watched in shock: Drone-shot video shows dozens of union protestors, the view rising to peer in the windows of the historic hotel property Wankawala was carefully refurbishing. The whole video, which the unions posted to YouTube, is ominously set to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”
“I guess they were trying to show their power,” says Wankawala, who says he sought bids from union and non-union contractors and discovered that using solely organized labor would increase his costs by around 30 percent. “I’m the new kid on the block. This is my first project [in Philadelphia]. I think they were trying to send a message that you have to use union labor to get your project done.”
The construction unions’ drone plan came to fruition under the leadership of Philadelphia’s most powerful union boss, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. He leads not only his home union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, but also recently became head of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, an organization representing nearly 40 construction unions in Philadelphia and its suburbs. These unions often work together, rallying to take on any builder who fails to yield to their demands.
Local 98 shelled out more than $10,000 on three drones, a Local 98 spokesman told the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Building Trades Council also intends to buy at least one more.
Though Philadelphia’s builders are used to strong-arm tactics from construction unions, the drone video was version 2.0, signaling that Philadelphia’s construction unions would invest in the most cutting-edge technology available to intimidate people who get in their way.
Local 98’s spokesman declined Heat Street’s request for an interview with Johnny Doc or other union leadership. Local 98 claimed online that it had bought the drones “to film [Local] 98’s own picket lines and protests to protect the union from false claims against it.” Union spokesman Frank Keel also said the drones would be used to “identify unlicensed workers, and in some instances, undocumented workers,” a statement he later retracted after the social-justice group Juntos accused him of racial profiling.
Philadelphia’s builders and open-shop construction workers say they think the intent is clearly to harass and intimidate them, according to multiple individuals familiar with the industry.
“In some way, the union will use those images to intimidate those workers,” says Wally Zimolong, a Philadelphia construction attorney. “No one wants to be the subject of an edited video that makes them look incompetent or unsafe or unskilled. Employers, developers, contractors, etc., have similar concerns that they will be portrayed as unskilled, unsafe, incompetent and unsympathetic.”
Others in the building industry interviewed by Heat Street speculate the unions’ intentions may be even more sinister, given their history of stalking and gathering footage.
A few years ago, the construction unions focused their ire on Post Brothers, a builder that resisted their demands to use 100 percent union labor for their upscale downtown apartment complex.
Matthew and Michael Pestronk, the brothers who founded the company, claimed at least nine construction unions repeatedly vandalized their site and assaulted at least two of their workers; their security cameras captured one particularly brutal attack.
Furthermore, Matthew Pestronk said union members took photos of his pregnant wife, Carrie, and two-year-old child, and disseminated a photo that had been doctored to make it look like she was holding a dildo. “Carrie Pestronk likes to get hard with it!” was scrawled on the side.
The Building Trades Council and construction labor unions also targeted Sarina Rose, vice president of development at Post Brothers, she told the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as it weighed legislation to close loopholes that effectively allowed union intimidation. In July 2013 testimony to the state’s House Judiciary Committee, Rose said construction union members had videotaped her children as they waited for a bus stop, and showed up at her children’s sporting events and filmed them.
Rose told state legislators that she wasn’t the only one afraid for her family. “Our contractors and employees’ wives have been harassed and videotaped, followed and harassed while entering and dropping off their young children at classes, child care and home by local trade union members. They go through our garbage, follow us home, and have enlisted a campaign to videotape our residents, including women, children and seniors, on all of our sites all day almost every day,” she testified to the House Judiciary Committee.
Rose filed charges against a business agent of Ironworkers Local 401 in 2013 after she said he had followed her into a restaurant near her work, pushed her against a counter, pressed his body up against her and called her a “cunt,” according to November 2013 municipal court records of the case.
Later that same day, she told the court, that same union member followed her car, mimicked a gun with his hand, pointed it her and mouthed “bang, bang, bang.”
Municipal Judge Charles Hayden ruled that these acts did “not rise to the level of a crime,” agreeing with the union lawyer’s argument that “this has been about a labor dispute. It’s about union and nonunion.” Under Pennsylvania law at the time, union members were exempted from being charged with stalking, harassment or threatening to use weapons of mass destruction if they acted in connection with a labor dispute.
Though the municipal court judge acquitted the Ironworkers’ business agent, Rose’s harrowing experience caught the attention of state legislators, and the governor signed a reform bill into law last fall aimed at restricting union intimidation.
In the context of Rose’s run-in with the construction unions, the lyrics in Johnny Doc’s drone video take on a chilling new gravity. For instance: “When I’m in the shower/I’m afraid to wash my hair/’Cause I might open my eyes/and find someone standing there.” Or: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me/and I have no privacy.”
Some in the Philadelphia construction community say they fear the construction unions will use the drones to harass, stalk and intimidate their opponents with impunity.
It obviously increases the level of intimidation,” says one Philadelphia resident who’s been subjected to union intimidation in the past and asked to remain unnamed for fear of retribution. “How do you prove that someone is flying a drone over you? Police can identify a car sitting across from your house or a man sitting across from your children taking pictures. But a drone– you don’t know who’s flying it. That’s more scary. And I think they will use it in that way.”
Some news reports say Johnny Doc and his union drones are likely violating the Federal Aviation Administration’s strict guidelines on commercial usage of drones, especially in city limits. But rules for flying drones are more lax in the suburbs, where some of the unions’ enemies actually live.
Philadelphia’s unions have a history of impunity that stretches back more than four decades. Between 1975 and 2009, the National Right to Work Committee tallied a staggering 143 incidents of union-related violence or vandalism in Philadelphia. They resulted in a mere eight convictions.
Last year, a judge convicted several members of Ironworkers Local 401 who had run their union like an organized-crime syndicate. Their crimes included torching a Quaker meeting house days before Christmas and beating non-union workers with baseball bats outside a Toys R Us construction site.
The conviction of Philadelphia ironworkers was “arguably the most significant [federal case] against a construction union since the 1980s,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote.
More recently, in February union boss Johnny Doc was accused of punching a non-union worker in the face at a job site. Philadelphia authorities have not yet charged him, and it’s unclear whether they will. Though the alleged victim wants to press charges, local media took note that a deputy district attorney who recommended criminal prosecution against Johnny Doc was promptly demoted.
Meanwhile, Johnny Doc has turned his union power into personal wealth. In 2015, his total compensation from Building Trades Council and Local 98 was more than $425,000, according to the unions’ filings with the Department of Labor.
As for Wankawala, the builder targeted in the drone video, because of union opposition the project is now postponed indefinitely.
Union members lined up and refused to let Wankawala’s employees enter their work site. The builder called 911. But the Philadelphia police declined to intervene, Wankawala says. He went to court and got an injunction against the construction unions, but only the sheriff could enforce a civil injunction—at a cost of $2,000 a day.
Tanya Little, a police department spokeswoman, confirmed that their officers do not get involved in union issues—“not because we’re union, and I know a lot of people like to push that or state it”—but because the police department directive states that the sheriff’s department is responsible for enforcing all court-ordered injunctions.
Because Wankawala has a civil injunction, not a criminal one, he’s responsible for paying the sheriff’s department, says Joseph Blake, chief communications officer for the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Department.
Wankawala says that neither paying a sheriff $2,000 day for the forseeable future— nor using 100 percent union work as the labor bosses demand—works with his budget. He lays out the simple math, saying that he isn’t anti-labor and desperately hopes he can find some form of compromise where he can employ some union workers. He’s built hotels all across the Northeast and never encountered organized opposition like this, he says.
“This building sitting empty isn’t good for anybody,” Wankawala says, gesturing to his hotel. “When things like this happen, it does discourage development in Philadelphia.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Steamboat Institute.