Union Terror in the Building Trades


As dawn broke over Valley Forge on June 5, eight buses slowed to a stop before a dormant construction site. Packed inside were more than five hundred men armed with broom handles, baseball bats, canisters of explosives, and bottles of gasoline. The bus doors folded open, the men burst out, smashing down one side of the Cyclone fence, then another, and then the rest. A small group rushed towards the trucks and bulldozers and temporary offices, lit the fuses of a dozen firebombs, and scattered backwards as plumes of gritty black gas rose into the sky. A second throng began heaving stones at the lone policeman who ran to assist two security guards cornered by the mob, while a third blocked passage of fire-fighting equipment. Then, as suddenly as it began, the violence stopped. With a signal from a cluster of business-suited men on the street, the members of Roofers Local 30, AFL-CIO, and their union allies reformed into a picket line around the smoldering hulks. The rented buses returned, the union men boarded without interference from police, and above the fires, a grim man in a helicopter watched the attackers drive off. The man was J. Leon Altemose—owner and designer of the Sheraton Hotel construction project—and he had just witnessed $300,000 of damage to his and his subcontractor's equipment.


Union violence in the construction industry has been mounting all over the United States in recent months. As "open shop" or "merit shop" contractors win growing shares of the market, operating on the principle that only the lowest responsible bidders should be awarded contracts, building trades unions have waged an increasingly ugly campaign of terror. In January, scores of fights and incidents of arson erupted at non-union sites in Maryland, a merit shop stronghold. In March, the Louisiana National Guard was called out to protect non-union workers in Fort Allen from union picket lines. In May, 500 pickets smashed windows and lobbed stones at non-union workers building a Tennessee amusement center. The unions justify their acts by maintaining that nonunion pay scales, which average $1 to $2 per hour less than union rates, are exploiting non-unionists and pushing unions out of the market. They further insist that merit shop contractors are bypassing apprenticeship programs and work rules which "protect" employees.


But a nationwide group of merit shop contractors, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), disputes these claims, maintaining that the trades unions are instead struggling to preserve the hammer-grip they have held over the industry for 30 years—a hold which has seen construction costs soar by 10 to 15 percent a year. Far from being "exploited", ABC notes, the nonunion workers frequently earn more than their union counterparts because they are not subject to seasonal unemployment or the capricious job assignment characterizing union halls. By teaching a variety of skills to each worker, streamlining apprenticeship programs, and ending costly featherbedding rules, ABC says that it uses men on a year-round basis and holds down costs far more successfully than union shops.

ABC contractors in the Philadelphia area have proved their point—local ABC membership has leaped from 180 in 1969 to 347 today. By relying heavily on non union labor, these ABC members have escaped union strictures requiring that only operating engineers press elevator buttons on work sites, painters limit themselves to brushes less than 4½″ wide, and electricians stand guard over temporary lighting systems whenever the switches are on. With new construction shying away from the city, still the center of union strength, unions in Philadelphia and elsewhere have begun to look with envy at the suburbs—and with fury at the ABC. The building trades unions have determined to make the Sheraton Hotel project a test case to see whether the unions can raid newly lucrative ABC pastures, or whether they will tumble to oblivion as the cities decay. "If ABC wins this one, we've got a real fight for survival on our hands," recognizes Edward F. Toohey, president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO.


The unions have already begun to marshall all available resources for the impending battle. Tom Magrann, a leader of the Building Trades Council, is reported to expect that the unions will easily amass a $200,000 warchest for political and media campaigns. ABC officials believe the fund may go double Magrann's estimate. A recent sympathy march by over 20,000 unionists and supporters in June—the largest in Philadelphia history—was held despite flood conditions to underscore the electoral muscle of the unions and the depth of feelings at issue. To pressure the financial backer of the Altemose hotel project, the unions recently announced plans to withdraw "tens of millions" of dollars in pension funds from the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company, and have called for a nationwide boycott against the Sheraton Hotel chain which may cost the firm a million dollars a year.

While the union disclaims any knowledge or sanction of illegal activities, recent violence further illuminates the savage feelings lying below these legitimate tactics. Since the June 5 attack on the Valley Forge project, a house belonging to Altemose's father has been gutted by fire; the residence of a man who will help run the Sheraton restaurant has been repeatedly stoned; arson brought damages of $100,000 to George Blyth, non-union developer of a suburban apartment complex; and on July 14, vandals ravaged the Philadelphia Sheraton. In addition to ripping open beds, smashing furniture, breaking mirrors and windows, tearing carpets, and cementing bathroom drains, the men involved in the last incident left spray-painted wall messages bearing the union cry, "Remember Altemose."


J. Leon Altemose, 32 year old president of a burgeoning Norristown design and construction firm, stands at the center of the gathering holocaust with the ABC. Tall, usually cheerful, a prize-winning racer of cars and a man who has watched his company double in size each year for the last ten, he is determined not to capitulate to the unions. "I'm going to fight them to the end," he promises. "I've laid everything on the line—everything." Everything, to Altemose, is a company now grossing $16 million a year, and a personally-designed "dream" headquarters for his firm which looks like a transplant from the 21st century. The principle at stake, he says, is whether he will be allowed to run his business as he thinks best, or whether he will bow to dictation from the unions.

Jack Bingaman, executive director of the Delaware Valley ABC, sees many parallels in Altemose to Hank Rearden of ATLAS SHRUGGED, and a general similarity in their respective positions. "They attempted to restrain Rearden, and they're trying to restrain Altemose," he said early in July. "Leon Altemose hasn't been satisfied with the mediocrity that most contractors are. He's built probably the greatest construction firm in the Philadelphia area."

The Delaware Valley ABC, too, under Bingaman, is girding for the impending showdown. On June 1st, it opened a drive for emergency funds to assist contractors endangered by union violence. Some $30,000 has already been collected. The same week, it approached Cong. Lawrence Coughlin (R-Penn.), and persuaded him to convince a lukewarm district attorney that the unions merited more attention than they were being given. Coughlin is now looking at reform of the National Labor Relations Act as a further way to curb union intimidation. The ABC has also lent support to investigations by private detectives into the June 5 affair, and sponsored an ad offering $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the Sheraton firebombing. State police and private investigators are reportedly working on several leads from the ads, with arrests expected soon. Both Altemose and Bingaman are confident that an injunction barring union members from picketing Altemose sites—requested after the June 5 Valley Forge attack—will be upheld when reviewed this September by the State Supreme Court.

But Bingaman thinks the unions may win regardless of court decisions. "If they do anything else, looking at past experience, they'll blow up the Sheraton complex once it nears completion," he says. "If they blow it up, I don't see how Altemose can rebound." And past experience suggests that his fear is indeed a possibility, that the unions are quite capable of planned and premeditated violence.


The Philadelphia showdown has been building for 10 years in blunt, often brutal stages of intimidation. It began with an incident almost identical to the Valley Forge firebombing. Roger J. Fisher, a leading nonunion contractor who decided in 1963 to build an apartment complex in a Philadelphia suburb over union protests, was hit in that year by repeated dynamitings. Ruinous financial losses ensued, and although the project was later completed it discouraged other merit shop contractors from undertaking similar construction.

From 1966 to 1969, Pennsylvania State Police reported numerous instances of arson and reported threats of violence against merit shop contractors. Then, in 1969, union terror became increasingly spectacular and bloody. Daly Brothers, Inc., an area roofing firm, saw eight of its trucks in January go up in smoke after repeated warnings to unionize. A month later two more trucks were firebombed, and a shot whistled past one of the owners as he entered his apartment. In April, a nonunion roofing firm named R. Alper and Co. was hit by an incendiary bomb. Alper said that two weeks before the fire, John McCullough, president of the roofing union, approached him and asked, "What does it look like—you being across the street from our Hall and not belonging to our union?" A man police believed implicated in the firebombings was murdered shortly afterwards, amid reports that he had talked too freely in a local bar.

November, 1969, brought troubles to another nonunion contractor which continue unabated today. Donald Gaster, developer of a 27 story apartment-office center who sought to pare expenses to a minimum, hired local black workers and North Carolina Indians to keep building costs under $5 million. Five hours after sunset on November 9, three satchels of dynamite destroyed his plans, wrecking a giant crane and knocking a ten foot hole in the foundation. He has been unable to work on the site for the past 30 months because of daily union picketing, and is now resigned to tearing down the half-completed structure.


The twelve months preceding the Sheraton explosion, however, saw the circle of terror widen to draw in even more victims. Arson, beatings, and bombings climbed to new heights in pace with ABC successes. The stepped-up campaign of violence began on June 29, 1971, when 16 men drove up to a nonunion job at the Olde Sproule Shopping Village and rushed out of their cars swinging baseball bats labeled "Local 30". They left the site's general contractor with a broken hip, one worker nearly blind, several men with broken arms and legs, and one employee hospitalized with a concussion and a fractured skull. Although witnesses scribbled down the license number of one of the cars, and others identified three of the assailants, no one came forward to testify in court. "I think the union got to them," a Delaware County police lieutenant commented afterwards. Days later, union violence again turned on itself—one of the three identified men was found lying dead of gunshot wounds under a turnpike bridge. A second identified assailant put the blame for the murder on another member of Local 30, who had also participated in the beatings, saying that the deceased had been too talkative for his partner's tastes. The trial ended in a hung jury.

Minor incidents of arson and beatings continued until January of the present year, when Altemose announced his decision to build the $15 million Sheraton complex under the merit system. Then, in angry reply, the Philadelphia Building Trades Council threw up picket lines at an Altemose school construction site in Prospect Park, intimidating workers and damaging equipment. Three trucks blew up in March alone. When Altemose brought grievances to the National Labor Relations Board, the unions backtracked and acts of violence against him subsided. Elsewhere, however, new union coercion shook merit shop builders: vehicles belonging to Joseph B. Rogers, Inc., disintegrated in fire on April 5, arson struck offices of Main Roofing, Inc. on April 3, and two Mennonite craftsmen who refused to join a plumbers union for religious reasons were beaten severely on April 10.


In April, Altemose agreed to talk with the unions about hiring more union workers for the Sheraton project, proposing that 70 percent of the work go to union shop contractors. The offer was rejected. As the talks dragged on, Altemose used the time gained to set up fences and guards on the Valley Forge site. Finally, at the end of May, in response to what he termed "continued union threats" if any nonunion laborers were used, he informed the Building Trades Council that the hotel would be built entirely by nonunion labor. On June 5, the unions retaliated.

"We didn't know that the rank and file would go wild," union attorney Bernard Katz said later. "We had no idea that they intended to do anything but picket."


Many observers, however, had their doubts. The PHILADELPHIA EVENING BULLETIN, in a subsequent lead editorial, said so without equivocation:

"As they typically do in instances of construction violence, officials of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council are disclaiming responsibility for the mayhem and wanton destruction that erupted, at the King of Prussia [Valley Forge] building site.

"But somebody organized this assault and organized it well. The seven [sic: there were actually eight] buses that hauled the rioters to the melee were chartered by someone. When the pickets swarmed off the buses, they were carrying sticks, clubs, and homemade firebombs. They were also carrying placards that cited grievances against the nonunion Altemose Construction Company.

"Whoever sent the buses and their charged up riders to the construction site knew they weren't headed for a picnic. Presumptive evidence of a planned, rather efficiently mobilized, riot appears abundantly at hand."

The president of Merz Bus Lines, Inc., told REASON in July that the bus rental had been arranged by John McCullough, head of Roofers Local 30, several days before the firebombing.

In response to the Valley Forge attack, County Judge Vincent A. Cirillo ordered on the afternoon of June 5 a ban on all union picketing against Altemose projects within one mile of the sites. It came too late for delivery that day to union members, and over 120 of them assembled the next morning in front of Altemose headquarters in Center Square. But at that time, in contrast to the previous morning when only a few dozen police showed up, over 100 state and local police were waiting. The Sheriff read Cirillo's injunction to the pickets, giving them 15 minutes to leave, but they refused to depart. The police moved in and arrested 123 men, confiscating over 30 knives and one fully loaded 22 caliber pistol belonging to Allen Cohen, a friend of the union leaders. Cohen, chief union negotiator for a Mafia linked meatpacking company—Kansas Beef Industries—carried no permit for the gun.


The wheels of politics and justice began to turn soon afterwards, and it became suddenly clear that union bosses weren't Cohen's only allies. Edward E. Pilch, Philadelphia representative for Senator Hugh Scott (R-Penn.), telephoned Altemose an hour after the arrests to request that charges against Cohen be dropped. Altemose asked if Pilch would guarantee an end to picketing and violence if he agreed, and hung up when Pilch said that was beyond his control. According to a PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER reporter privy to sources near Pilch, Pilch made the request on behalf of the Building Trades Council, staunch financial supporters of Scott in past elections. The reporter also stated that Cohen was a reputed "hired gun" for the trades unions, a statement borne out by Philadelphia newspaper clippings from the '50s linking an Allen Cohen to organized crime.

Pilch himself has had tie-ins to the construction trades through his job as a real estate broker and insurance salesman for United Brokers, a major Philadelphia firm which came under federal investigation last year for rampant frauds in housing programs designed to subsidize renovation and purchase of low-income housing. Critics charged at the time that the FHA had given United Brokers monopoly control of the much-abused program in the area due to political influence from Scott's office.

On the afternoon of June 6, the day of the arrests, Cohen was released on all charges. The other picketers were clamped with $100 fines for violation of the injunction.


The union contention that the June 5 violence was "unplanned" began to shrivel two days later in court hearings before Judge Cirillo. Two witnesses—Lewis Louderback, chairman of a union-shop transportation firm, and Mrs. Ruth Dann, a participant in a Baptist convention next to the Sheraton site, testified that a small group of men appeared to be directing the proceedings from the street. "Four or five men in business suits seemed to have control of the whole situation," Louderback said. The men in the business suits, identified in photographs, proved to be more than idle bystanders—they included Cohen, Magrann, and McCullough. As a final damning piece of evidence, a picket holding a walkie talkie was also photographed standing nearby.

Cirillo, apparently convinced by the testimony and a review of past incidents that trouble erupted whenever Local 30 picketed, ordered an indefinite prohibition of union picketing against Altemose projects. Three weeks later, Building Trades Council leader Magrann announced that the BTC would send 50,000 men to work for Cirillo's defeat in county elections next year.


Union tactics have struck scores of victims, but they have hurt Altemose most of all. He estimates that they have already bled $1 million from his company in direct costs and in business frightened away. He concedes that he will have problems when the company's insurance policies come up for renewal, and that armed guards and dogs must now watch over his home and all 20 company building sites around the clock. Nearly every week brings him new reports of stonings, telephoned threats, or property destruction—or, as in the June 29 firebombing doing $100,000 damage to merit shop contractor George Blyth, reports of terror directed against his colleagues. And Altemose is acutely conscious that his much labored-over office building is constructed entirely of wood.

But, at the same time, Altemose believes that the unions are becoming their own worst enemies. "They're hurting themselves more than I ever could," he says. "They're losing—I think they've lost already—the respect of people in this area. I think it will eventually lead to legislation which cuts down some of their power."

In the meantime, the young president races his cars, reads the hundreds of congratulatory letters he has received—and mulls over plans for a new and bigger project, a $25 million condominium.

Of the present job he has no doubts. "I'm going to build that building," he says. "It may cost a lot, but I'm going to build it."

REASON contributing editor Mark Frazier is studying journalism at Harvard University and spent this summer as a reporter for HUMAN EVENTS.