Montpelier's downtown workers are fightin for their rights -- to organize
Last month, Dustin Byerly's boss tried to reduce his pay and scale back his hours. The 26-year-old Montpelier resident and father of two couldn't afford the sudden pay cut -- his girlfriend is pregnant with their third child. And he didn't want to quit his job; finding another one could take a month or more. So Byerly called his union. Under his new contract, his boss was required to discuss her actions with union representatives, or stewards.
After two days of five-hour meetings, they reached a deal. Byerly kept his job. In a phone interview during a recent Saturday-morning shift, he talks about the process. "I don't know where I would have been if the union hadn't been there with me," he says.
This is a familiar story in the American workplace, but here's the twist: Byerly's not a factory worker, or a Teamster, or an electrician. He's a cook at Mountain Cafe, a small, all-organic eatery on Langdon Street in downtown Montpelier. All 10 cafe employees are members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or U.E. Their local, number 221, is Mont-pelier's Downtown Workers Union.
U.E. organizers, who say Byerly's story is all too common, are trying something new in Vermont's capital city. Rather than organize each occupation separately -- retail clerks in one union, cooks in another -- the U.E. is grouping various service-sector employees together into one collective body.
Organizers use words like "radical" and "revolutionary" to describe this approach, which at the very least is innovative. Though small-business service-sector jobs are among the fastest-growing segments of the economy, they are rarely under union contract. Exceptions in Vermont include positions at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier and Burlington's City Market, both of which have U.E. contracts.
Union boosters say they're now reaching a group of workers, like Byerly, who are desperately in need of protection from unfair labor practices of small businesses, even ones as crunchy as an organic cafe.
But the union drive hasn't been as successful as organizers had hoped. Last fall they announced plans to sign contracts at five local shops, but so far they've only signed two, at Mountain Cafe and at indie moviehouse The Savoy. They've run into an unexpected backlash.
Though the union has been a shot in the arm for organizers and beleaguered workers, others say it's a shot of poison for the fragile downtown economy. Business owners -- and some of their employees -- wonder why the union has picked a fight with them rather than with large corporations such as Wal-Mart. Even some who call themselves pro-union wonder, do workers in Montpelier's small businesses really need a union?
Dustin Byerly, who calls the union "a blessing," is glad he belongs to one. Though he likes his boss, he says having two union stewards mediate a meeting between them helped to diffuse the tension. In the end, Byerly agreed to a smaller pay cut and a reduction in hours. Both he and owner Sondra "Chu" Sipka say they were happy with the compromise. "I just wanted to feel like I had a voice," says Byerly.
Sipka also found it helpful to have union stewards involved. She had tried to cut Byerly's pay, not to screw him over, but because she thought she could no longer afford to pay him. "There's a perspective that I may not be seeing, and [the employee] may not be seeing," she says, "but there's this third party that sees a solution we may not have come to."
Not surprisingly, Sipka is no big-shot CEO -- the first-time restaurateur is only 22. She bought the cafe seven months ago after working there for eight months.
When a majority of Sipka's employees approached her and asked her to recognize the union, she said yes. Legally, she couldn't exactly refuse. Thanks to the country's labor movement decades ago, the right for workers to organize is protected by law. But Sipka could have put them off. She could have called for an official election mediated by the National Labor Relations Board to determine the union's support. Or she could have bargained for an election held by a neutral third party. But drawing out the procedure would have been expensive and time-consuming. Besides, Sipka supports the union.
The Mountain Cafe contract -- like the one workers are bringing to businesses all over town -- provides a one-time 50-cent-per-hour raise and gives workers protections from unjust discipline and firing.
"I signed it because I want my employees to feel that, no matter what they believe or want, I'm not going to discriminate against them," says Sipka. Were she still a worker herself, she adds, she would probably join a union, too.
But Sipka also admits that some things about this arrangement make her uneasy. For example, though she's glad the union was there to help Byerly get what he needed, she says she could have used some support, too. "I've got no one on my side to protect me," she says. She's also unsure how easy it will be to hire new help, now that incoming staff will be forced to join the union.
Sipka has had at least one negative interaction with union supporters. She ran into a group of them at a concert recently and describes them as "charged." "They kept saying, 'The bosses are the enemy,'" she recalls. They didn't know she was a boss. When she mentioned that she owns a business, they called her the enemy. "They were joking," she says cautiously, "but that kinda scared me at first."
Such a confrontational stance is endemic to the labor movement -- a remnant of bitter, often deadly, clashes with mining companies and auto barons.
Those battles eventually resulted in popular legislation standardizing 40-hour work weeks and overtime pay, and outlawing child labor. Somehow it doesn't seem wise to alienate Montpelier's potentially pro-union small-business owners by attacking them en masse. Nevertheless, this confrontational attitude is proudly on display at the Vermont Worker's Center, a nonprofit employee-support organization that serves as a kind of home base for the downtown union.
Pro-union posters decorate the walls of the Center's Court Street office. In one, a smiley-faced stick man dressed in a suit kicks a worker in the ass under the slogan, "To management, all workers are temporary." In another, a group of workers standing atop a block labeled "fair wages" supports a town above their heads. A smiley-faced boss prepares to bulldoze the lot of them. The caption reads: "Union busters = Com-munity Wreckers. It's that simple."
To an outsider, it's difficult to apply this logic to a town of 8000, where more often than not employers work side-by-side with their employees, and at least as hard.
The negative rhetoric deeply offends Sandra Nall, who might otherwise have been a natural ally. Nall is the development director of a civil-liberties organization, and for the past six years has worked part-time as a retail clerk in a downtown store. "We see them bury their children, care for their sick parents," she says of small-business owners. "This is not Wal-Mart. These are people you run into every day."
Nall considers herself pro-union -- her mother belonged to one for years -- but she accuses Montpelier's union supporters of being "arrogant," and using "cloak and dagger" tactics; she calls them "bellicose union cowboys."
Nall claims that pro-union people have tried to intimidate local businesses by barging in and being rude to owners. Some of her complaints stem from the union's highly publicized conflict with J. Morgan's steakhouse. Workers there announced their intention to unionize last fall, insisting that they were disciplined unfairly, made to pay for their own uniforms, and were required to cover meals when customers left without paying. They say the Bashara family, who owns the restaurant, opposed their efforts, reducing the hours of pro-union workers and switching them to less profitable shifts.
When talks with the owners broke down, workers and their supporters took to the streets and picketed the State Street steakhouse. One rally drew 150 people during a December snowstorm. They also held Friday night coffee-ins, where supporters flooded the restaurant and ordered only coffee.
The National Labor Relations Board found enough evidence of union-busting tactics to prepare a lawsuit against the Basharas, but the two parties settled out of court. The family agreed to pay some damages to workers, and will now display a sign that says they will not stand in the way should employees wish to unionize.
This might seem like an unequivocal victory for the union, but the whole affair was a public-relations disaster. It was the first time many downtown business owners had heard about the union, and it scared them off. Even some workers joined the backlash. During the conflict, employees at the Coffee Corner diner on Main Street posted an anti-union sign in the window.
Business owners such as Lowell Smith, who owns Capital Video, are now solidly anti-union. "It would make me afraid of getting rid of anybody," he says. Not that he lets many people go; Smith reports few problems with employees in the 20 years since he opened the store. He runs his business "like a family," and hopes his employees would talk to him directly if they had a problem. "Any one of them could come to me for anything," he insists. "I would do anything for them."
Still, Smith says, "I would want the right to be able to get rid of an employee without some strike team picketing outside my business. Employees don't like working under the threat of intimidation. Well, employers don't like it, either."
Sandra Nall agrees. "They're driving a wedge into this community," she says angrily.
Ask union organizers if they're dividing the community and they'll say the divide was already there, and that people like Lowell Smith and Sandra Nall just didn't see it.
In arguing against the downtown union, both Smith and Nall imply not only that the union will hurt business owners, but also that low-wage service-sector jobs aren't really worth the union's effort. "It's not rocket science to be a downtown retail clerk," says Nall. "Most people know, you get a retail job, it's a stepping stone."
Sean Damon, a 26-year-old union steward, disagrees. Damon, who moved to Montpelier in August 2003 from Philadelphia, dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D. He works at Brooks Pharmacy, and speaks via cell phone after his shift. He looks young -- in a newsletter photo, he's wearing a backwards baseball cap -- but he's been in retail for 11 years.
"I work with people who have been at Brooks for an average of five years," Damon says. "A lot of folks are, like, that's their only job. For some people's kids it's a stepping stone to something bigger, but for a lot of the population, this is what we do. I can tell you, I'm not hoping to make a career out of running a register, but this is what I'm doing now, and what I've been doing through my teenage years and my adult life."
The same is true of 22-year-old Kristin Warner, the Montpelier union's chief steward, who works as a server at Mountain Cafe with Dustin Byerly. Sitting on the stone steps of a downtown church after work, she says the middle and the upper-middle classes are out of touch. "These people don't have to make $6.75 an hour at a job where you're on your feet all day, and you're just hoping you get good tips because you really need that extra $30," she says. "They're just generally disconnected to the lower class."
A Montpelier native, Warner is a thin, seemingly laid-back woman who wears two gold nose rings and ends nearly every sentence with a questioning tone. But she speaks with a passion and intensity that springs from experience: She took her first Montpelier service job in 1997 at the age of 16, and made only $3.90 an hour. By the time she was 17, she was on her own, supporting herself while trying to finish high school. "I grew up really poor," she says, "and you just didn't have any choice but to work."
Warner says she has been fired twice, unfairly, because her employers wouldn't let her change her schedule to accommodate her educational responsibilities, like taking time off for final exams. "A lot of times, when you're young, you just take it," she says. "You aren't prepared to demand back pay."
Warner admits that liberal Montpelier isn't the worst place in the world to work, but she insists there's room for improvement, particularly when small-business owners are ignorant of employment laws and don't understand their workers' rights.
"Sure, this community is ahead of others," Warner concedes, "but there are huge issues here. It's really naive to think there aren't problems."
She points to the situation with Byerly, which she helped resolve. She praises Sipka as "fantastic," but says the restaurateur just didn't know that cutting Byerly's hours and pay on short notice was a violation of his rights. She lists other grievances the union is trying to resolve. Most of them involve back-pay demands, firing or alleged union-busting tactics, such as reducing the hours of pro-union employees in hopes that they'll quit.
Warner says the vast majority of these issues -- 90 percent or more -- are resolved in meetings with the boss, the employer and a steward, which is in everyone's best interest. Employees, she stresses, are the last people who want to see a business fail. They're often willing to work out a compromise, but they want to have a say. She also points out that unions don't cause problems. "If you're running a good shop, and you're following the rules, then there's not going to be any issue."
If employees can't negotiate a solution, however, the union will use public pressure. They'll call in their newly formed Worker Defense Squad, a group composed of union and community members. The Defense Squad might enter a workplace during busy times to confront the employer, or write angry letters to the editor at local papers. "It's basically a means of shaking the boss up a little," says Warner, though she emphasizes it's a last resort. "There's definitely a lot of communication that goes on before we call the Defense Squad."
Warner and her union comrades are unapologetic about their adversarial tactics. James Haslam, director of the Vermont Worker's Center, says conflict is sometimes necessary. "Justice doesn't come easy. Progress doesn't come easy," says the soft-spoken twentysomething activist.
Haslam is no longer involved in the union, but he's one of its creators. He and Tenaya Lafore, a former Worker's Center employee, worked with U.E. organizer Kim Lawson to get the union off the ground.
Describing resistance to the union, Haslam sounds resigned. "When people seek basic, common things, it becomes a conflict," he says. "It's unfortunate." But his tone contrasts sharply with a list tacked to his bulletin board. It recommends chants for "a lively picket." Half-way down the page, one reads, "On strike, shut it down! [Blank] is a union town!"
Lawson, the U.E.'s 44-year-old veteran organizer, is well-versed in these in-your-face tactics. She grew up walking picket lines with her parents in Gary, Indiana, and has been working for the union for 16 years. She undoubtedly has more experience with unions and union-busting than any of the new union members or their bosses. In conversation, Lawson comes across as laudably tough, but her off-handed reference to "management types" tags her as someone who may be too cynical to win the hearts of timid business owners, who desperately want reassurance that they're not the enemy.
When union foes complain about "outsiders" coming in to radicalize workers, they're talking about Lawson. It's a claim she vehemently denies -- after all, the union is basically just a collection of workers who are already on the job. Still, Lawson fits the bill. She doesn't even live in Vermont -- she commutes from upstate New York via the ferry. And she dismisses the argument that Montpelier's workers should simply trust their bosses to be fair. No matter how sincere and well-meaning business owners are, she says, workers will always be at a disadvantage.
"When people know that you have the power to fire them, or change their jobs," she says, "that's not an equal relationship."
Lawson also dismisses the idea that people who are truly pro-union oppose this drive. She calls them union-busters. "When they say that, for me, it's really code that they don't want workers to organize," she asserts. "When it hits home, it becomes a little uncomfortable."
Union steward Kristin Warner is glad to have Lawson on her side, and doesn't mind if her presence makes some people squirm. "Community support would be great," she says, "but my primary concern is the workers... You pull the workers out of your community, what do you have? Your grocery shelves are empty, your coffee cup goes unfilled. It's time that the community recognizes how important the workers are."
For all the union bluster, steward Sean Damon acknowledges that confrontation has, if not hampered their efforts, at least distracted some people from the issue of workers' rights.
In the backlash over J. Morgan's actions, he says, "The issues got pushed aside."
To refocus, organizers took a break this spring from pushing for contracts. Instead, they distributed a survey to downtown workers asking them what they felt they lacked. Respondents' top concern: creating a means for addressing grievances in the workplace. As a result, the union implemented a steward system -- there are four, each of whom has a downtown territory. Now any worker, unionized or not, can contact his or her steward with any complaints. Since this system was put in place earlier this summer, union membership has grown; 54 workers now pay $12 monthly dues. This includes 24 at the two union shops and 30 individuals scattered among a dozen downtown businesses.
Though some of the negotiations the stewards undertake on members' behalf lack the legal imprint of a union contract, Damon and Warner are optimistic about the system's potential. They describe it as a downtown business association for workers.
This new tack has received a more positive response in the community. Linda Leehan, a manager at Bear Pond Books, is receptive. She calls the early organizing effort "challenging," but believes the union is figuring out how best to meet the needs of Montpelier's workers. "They've been listening; they're working creatively with who we are to speak to our community... This new direction is less powerful, but it's a really neat first step, it seems to me."
Montpelier Mayor Mary Hooper agrees. She chooses her words carefully when describing the union's controversial past, suggesting its adversarial stance may not have helped the cause. "It created an atmosphere where it was hard for employers to really hear what they were saying," she says. But Hooper likes what she's hearing now. "I'm very impressed with what they're doing."
Union supporters hoping for an end to the rhetoric of class warfare might want the story to end here, but there's more. Stewards Damon and Warner say they haven't actually given up their original strategy, they've only put it on hold. If all goes according to plan, things should heat up again this fall. The owners don't know it yet, Warner says, but workers at two downtown businesses are "getting up the courage to confront their bosses and demand recognition."
It's difficult to tell if the sweetly smiling Warner knows how threatening she sounds. She seems not to notice business owners' reactions to this sort of rhetoric, though it's difficult to tell whether her obliviousness stems from her years of perceived mistreatment as an employee or is a result of toeing the union line.
Lately Warner has been traveling across the country speaking to union audiences about the Downtown Worker's Union. She and fellow steward Ellen Thompson got a great reception in Olympia, Washington. "We were just swarmed with people from the labor movement telling us that this is such an innovative project," Warner says. With almost missionary zeal, she speaks of spreading the idea to other towns. "There are thousands of Montpeliers across the country," she says. "Thousands of them."
But Damon insists that this union drive is not all about spreading the union model. "The point is to have a dialogue," he says. "Before we were around, there was virtually no dialogue about low-wage service-sector workers and their concerns. We've created that dialogue."
He admits that the conversation hasn't always been positive, but says that's okay. "Even if people disagree with us vehemently," he suggests, "they're thinking about it. We're not invisible any longer. That's a victory."