Anti-union greed the killer in Philly building collapse

PHILADELPHIA – Six people who died here June 5 have been described as being “of different backgrounds and classes.”

At the time of their deaths, though, they were all in the same place. They were working or shopping in a downtown Salvation Army thrift shop last Wednesday when a four-story brick building being demolished next door collapsed on top of the single-story structure they were in.

Mayor Michael Nutter gave their names at a press conference and press reports have filled in some of the details of their lives and their different paths to the shop on that fateful day.

Two young women were art students who had been friends since third grade; they were dropping off donations of clothes. One man was a Liberian immigrant who worked in the store and planned to return someday with his wife to their homeland. Another was a woman on her first day on the job at the store.

The six were among more than 20 people in the store at the moment that an unsupported wall next door collapsed. Besides the dead, 14 people were injured.

The collapse has been front page news for days as officials scramble to piece together the story of what went wrong, how such an obvious breach of basic safety procedures could occur, and who is responsible. Each passing day brings new information relating to the case.

Among the facts that have emerged are the following. The building under demolition was being taken down by a non-union crew working for a firm who got the contract with a bid that was so low it shocked observers.

One was quoted as saying that the job done safely would have cost over $200,000 but that the contractor was doing the job for $10,000. Press reports have uncovered the backgrounds of both the owner and the contractor. Principal owner Richard Basciano made his fortune as a proprietor of adult film theaters here and in New York, and was once described by the New York Times as the “king of Times Square porn.”

Basciano owned several buildings along a stretch of Market Street described as one of the last undeveloped strips in the center city area. When he decided to redevelop the Market Street strip, he was unable to acquire the Salvation Army store. He went ahead and hired Griffin Campbell Construction Company to demolish the building next door.

It has since come to light that the city does not require demolition contractors to provide their qualifications and that Campbell failed to practice Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. During the weeks leading up to the collapse as the demolition proceeded, the site was worrying neighbors as well as union construction workers on a job nearby. The local press published copies of emails that citizens had sent to the city warning of unsafe conditions and of a possible building collapse.

One such email was sent a month before the building collapsed. It said in part, “The workers are not wearing any safety equipment. The sidewalk is not adequately protected, and there appears to be no adequate plan to prevent the collapse of walls or facing materials onto pedestrians and those exiting the subway.” (Philadelpia Inquirer, June 7).

After the building fell, a city spokesman said that its Department of Licenses and Inspections (L and I) typically does not inspect demolition projects in progress but does so after projects are completed. Another said the city relies on OSHA to monitor safety issues at active sites. OSHA has just eleven inspectors for Philadelphia and its nearest suburban counties.

Patrick Gillespie, head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, wrote to Mayor Nutter after the tragedy offering to set up a “construction and demolition advisory committee” that would include union safety experts and link them with city agencies responsible for monitoring work sites. Gillespie had earlier told the press that two union brick workers on a nearby job had complained to L and I and to OSHA before the collapse. One roofer on a nearby job had even approached the demolition crew and warned them of the danger.

When the wall actually did collapse on June 5, workers on the roofing job next door rushed to help. Soon medics, fire fighters and search-and-rescue teams arrived on the scene and took over the dangerous and painstaking work of searching through the rubble for survivors. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, one of the union roofers who had gone in to help told the press, “It was like a maze in there…. Someone dropped the ball on this.”

The website posted an article headlined “Greed Runs Amuck,” referring to the Market Street collapse. The article went on to attack the practices of “back alley construction projects” and the “terrible working conditions” of the day laborers they hire.

So far only the operator of the excavator in use at the time of the collapse has been charged with a crime. According to police, he also tested positive for marijuana use on the job. He faces six counts of manslaughter and numerous other charges.

The political fall out from this tragedy is only beginning to emerge. District Attorney Seth Williams has announced that the city will conduct a grand jury investigation, and the City Council has established a special committee to hold hearings this summer.

The demolition of blighted properties and downtown redevelopment has simmered for over a decade. Mayor Nutter apparently sidetracked a program of blight removal which included “aggressive and comprehensive” standards for demolition work which had been in place under previous Mayor John Street.

Several members of Council’s special committee have called attention to lax standards of code enforcement and the greed of some developers. Councilman Bobby Henon is an experienced member of electricians’ union Local 98 (IBEW). He and others have blasted the practice of hiring day laborers and paying them under the table in cash. Henon in particular has called attention to the importance of proper training for workers on demolition sites.

Photo: Rescue personnel search the scene of the Philadelphia building collapse. Jacqueline Larma/AP


Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Ben Sears is a retired teacher and AFT member in Philadelphia. He is the author, as John Bennett Sears, of the book "The Electrical Unions and the Cold War" (International Publishers 2019).