Unions and me, Part I


Given my studies in Economics and History, I have always been supportive of the union movement, not only for the improvement of the earnings of workers but also because of the benefits to the nation.

But that doesn’t mean that I have not been in a couple of ‘bareknuckle’ battles, at least one potentially life threatening. Almost half a century passed between two “winner take all” scenarios. The latter will be Part Two.

About thirty-five years ago, we were building the California Apartments in Pleasantville, a three-story garden apartment complex, a few miles from downtown Atlantic City. We had a non-union work force and, apart from a couple of visits from union representatives, they did not make a fuss over the matter.

So when we sought to build a five-story hotel a couple of miles away in Egg Harbor Township, we thought that we had an arrangement with the construction union that, so long as we used union carpenters, the other unions would not raise objections.

It didn’t work out that way. No sooner had we started construction of the hotel than unions representing other trades objected and a picket line of a dozen persons was formed at our job site. And they didn’t give the impression of being peace loving.

This came about against a backdrop of a Lancaster County general contractor having been beaten almost to death for his temerity of trying to build non-union in Atlantic City where casinos were under construction.

Out of fear, I switched hotels each evening and frequently changed the cars I was driving. Although our non-union contractors for the most part were willing to cross the picket lines, many suppliers would not. To rescue concrete slabs from the plant, we had to arrange for a midnight run of trucks, load the plank ourselves, transport, and unload them at our job site. I rode in the cab of one of the trucks with a pistol on my lap.

So what to do? I realized I was dealing with some very tough guys. So I decided that I should attend one of union board meetings and try to explain matters.

I sat in the audience, making notes on a legal pad. This was finally noted by one of the board members about half way through the meeting and he addressed the attention of the other board members to me. The chairman inquired “Who are you and what the hell are you writing down.”

I introduced myself as the developer of the hotel they had been discussing and said I was taking notes because I wanted to better understand the nature of our problem with the union, which I described as an unfortunate misunderstanding. (Of course they knew what they had been discussing were violations of the National Labor Relation Act, if not worse.)

They let me talk and I explained that we had been told that if we went with union carpenters that we would not have to engage other union trades.

Obviously this did not set well with some members of the board since it was made up of reps from the various trades.

They heard me out. Then the chair said they would discuss the matter among themselves and get back to me. I thanked them and left.

We never heard back from them. The picket line continued for a while but was desultory, with only a handful showing up. Soon it disappeared all together. We were able to complete the hotel without interruption.

Apparently they bought my argument that we had been the victim of inaccurate information and, having cost out the project accordingly, were not in a position to change.

And, importantly, the hotel was not in Atlantic City proper.

So I lived to fight another day a half century later, although between times we did construct with union contractors an eight-story hotel in Newark, NJ and later operated it as a union hotel. Negotiations were respectful and peaceful until new union leadership arrived.

Updated: August 18, 2019 — 1:37 pm