Quaker meeting says hiring nonunion contractor not an easy call

As part of the vandalism at the site, the cab of this crane was set on fire.
As part of the vandalism at the site, the cab of this crane was set on fire. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: January 24, 2013

The Quaker meeting in Chestnut Hill acknowledged Tuesday that its decision to hire a nonunion contractor to build a new meetinghouse raised questions among Friends groups and caused division within its own ranks.

Vandals attacked the Mermaid Lane construction site four days before Christmas, causing $500,000 of damage in what police said was a dispute between union members and the contractor. The vandalism, coupled with summer arrests at the Goldtex construction site on the edge of Center City, has focused attention on Philadelphia's history of labor-related violence.

Nutter administration officials have backed union members' First Amendment rights to picket and protest, but say violence and property damage are unacceptable.

On Tuesday, the Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting posted a lengthy statement on its website reiterating strong support for the ideals of the labor movement and setting out how it came to hire E. Allen Reeves Inc. of Abington.

The decision was based on cost, on the meeting's evaluation of the firm, and on assurances by other organizations that the company's workers were treated fairly, the statement says. Building a new meetinghouse with union labor "was not economically feasible," it says.

During internal debates, three members were recorded either as opposed, a strong step, or as "standing aside," which means they did not agree with the decision but did not think they should stand in the way of the project.

Meg Mitchell, clerk of the meeting, declined to answer questions about the hiring process when contacted Tuesday. She also declined to provide the minutes of meetings at which the matter was discussed, saying that would require approval from the membership.

Vandals burned the cab of a crane and used an acetylene torch to shear steel bolts from nearly a dozen columns. The police investigation is continuing.

Early in planning the new structure, the statement says, concerns arose that construction workers be fairly treated - including pay, safety, and equal opportunity. Because of the number of subcontractors involved, it would have been difficult to set independent standards for fairness.

It was proposed that union labor offered the best assurance, but a number of members spoke in opposition, the statement says. They feared that deciding to use union labor without regard to cost would be poor stewardship of meeting finances. Several expressed specific concerns about some Philadelphia building-trades unions, specifically a perceived lack of racial and gender equality in hiring and reports of violence.

After a prebid evaluation, the statement says, only contractors with excellent reputations and references were invited to compete. Two bids came from open-shop contractors, three from union builders. All were significantly over estimates.

The lowest bid, from Reeves, exceeded the $3.5 million construction budget by about $300,000. The lowest union bid was more than $1 million above.

At two subsequent sessions, "some members of the meeting spoke passionately in favor of the use of union labor and expressed a hope that we could find a way forward using union labor. Other members reiterated the concerns about some Philadelphia building trade unions."

Members met with representatives of Reeves to reprise their concerns about worker treatment, and solicited feedback from other institutions that had worked with Reeves. "We received very positive reports," the statement says.

The full meeting concluded that Reeves "had a record of good quality work and good treatment of workers," the statement says.

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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