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Closed for Business 3/2/2011

By: Ricardo Torres

I recently read with interest about the Tavern on the Green restaurant (a New York City landmark) which was forced to cease operations during contract negotiations with the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council union (AFL-CIO). The owner, Dean Poll, owns another restaurant in Central Park called the Boathouse. Poll leases both restaurants from the city and currently is faced with the same union as they are currently trying to organize workers at the Boathouse.

The Tavern on the Green has had financial problems for several years because of the high cost associated with the union contract where some senior members of the wait staff have been reported to earn more than $60,000. Poll proposed many deep cuts as the only solutions to the viability of the restaurant. This was the union’s response:

This proposal is an insult, an atrocity and a slap in the face of not only this union but every New Yorker... We will strike this guy for a hundred years over this, and we will never, ever give in.”

The union is also planning a series of protest at the Boathouse as part of their attempt to put pressure on Poll to give in and recognize the union without an election. The union has filed many NLRB unfair labor practice charges against him. I am not taking a position on whether Poll has violated the National Labor Relations Act or to what extent, but it is standard practice for unions to publicly attack the company and management with multiple charges to destroy their corporate image and reduce their ability to make a profit. Right out of the union playbook, they will destroy the ability to do business while forcing a company to succumb to union demands. This is a very effective tool for the union, if used correctly.

I wrote an article a week ago that talked about the realities of union organizing and how the standard perception of an “ignorant” union organizer is a shortcut to thinking. Make no mistake, their only job is to win against you and even the “ignorant” ones can cost your company a lot of good will amongst your employees not to mention a lot of money. The cost of defending yourself in a protracted fight with NLRB unfair labor practice charges can break the bank for you while barely costing the union anything.

Poll lost his lease for the Tavern on the Green. The city could not politically allow this public duel between Poll and the union to continue, and this cost the workers their jobs. The real story here (the eye opener) is when you learn another reality. The union thinks the pulling of the lease for (and closing of the) Tavern on the Green Restaurant and the loss of jobs is an enormous victory. This mindset offends common sense and logic for most people (a large majority except for the union). The union thought process is different. This takes us into a much bigger topic which is “union strategy.”

During my years as a union official, I found myself in many predicaments where common logic didn’t apply. During major strikes, like in the Detroit Newspaper Strike) we would (on a regular basis) shut down every expressway going in or out of Detroit to cause chaos and to pressure politicians to force the company to give in to our demands. As a strike coordinator and also as an organizer director, we would often push a company to the point where they had two choices. They could give in to us or shut down operations. In fact when we knew we were losing, as was the case with the Detroit Newspaper Strike where it took almost seven years from the time the workers went on strike to settling on a contract, we would develop an alternative plan. During this strike we made it our goal to shut down the target company. We estimated the Detroit Newspaper Strike cost them approximately $500,000,000 not including the projected profit margin. They managed to survive but just barely. I was directly responsible for the closing of several companies who did not have the amount of cash on reserve to fight the unions. Several causalities came as a result of orders made by me. These days, I am on the opposite side of the spectrum. I am helping management fight off the unions. I have been asked many times since I started working with management to help them with positive employee relations and staying union free. While talking with clients, strikes and the true power of the union often come up. I often discuss the union’s ability to shut down a company to make an example out of them. I am often asked, “How would closing down a company help the workers if there was no job to return to?” The real answer is that it doesn’t help the workers out at all. But when I wear my old hat (my union official hat) I know what the union’s true goal is. If the union is going to lose then they are going to leave carnage in the street, they are going to make sure they bring a story to tell. The union organizers that reported to me had a powerful tool after inflicting so much damage to the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. They were able to let employers in future organizing campaigns and strike situations know what “could” happen if they don’t give in to demands. Believe me, a lot of powerful men bend to tactics that effect their bottom line. The long term goal of the union was more important than any group of strikers or workers involved with an organizing campaign. In fact, one of the reasons Mr. Poll was in the position to get awarded the leasing rights to the famous Tavern on the Green restaurant in the first place was because the previous owners vacated it after many strikes caused them to lose up to 60% of their business when picketers verbally assaulted customers entering the restaurant with their families to enjoy a meal. Many customers never returned. In many cases across the country these tactics defy logic because it puts employers in the position where they are forced to close their doors or cut back on their employees. In essence, the union’s plan defies logic. Employees seeking more from their employer are forcing him to reduce or eliminated jobs and benefits.

Using similar tactics, UNITE HERE recently won a handful of victories at Hilton Hotels. It seems that they (Hilton workers) have discovered that doing damage to the business (in their own workplace) and if necessary causing financial damage and risking the possibility of closing the business down works for UNITE HERE. They know it increases the odds that a new owner or new management will take charge and that they don’t want the same fate as their predecessors. New management will more than likely cave in to union demands knowing the history of leadership in a company.

A perfect example of this theory came from former SEIU official, Stephen Lerner, who was caught on tape (which was just recently made public) calling for unions to bring the U.S banking system to their knees. Many union leaders believe that victory comes from chaos. If you look at how John Sweeny came into power of the AFL/CIO; Andrew Stern came into power of the SEIU and many other union leaders before and since then have risen within their ranks by trying to destroy their own leadership or union system from within and then coming to the rescue of their own destruction, you will find a parallel to a rouge fireman who “discovers” a fire he started and puts the fire out as part of his plan to become a hero. Lerner is advocating the takedown of the banking system and plans were made to execute this plan in May of this year calling for a “mortgage and student loan strike.” He wants to create a crisis in this country based on a failed banking system (a union created failure), followed by civil disobedience and an attack on corporate America. He recants the anger and violence directed at banking executives during the last banking crisis and, just like in Europe, there would be rioting in the streets and the opportunity to forever change the balance between unions and major corporations. It would take between a half million to a million people participating to succeed. This is not a pipe dream but a well thought out plan that was ready to be acted upon to bring down Wall Street and the American way of life. It was his plan to then ride in on their collective white horses to save the day. It was to be a major power play (until the tape was released). On the tape, Lerner can be heard saying that he didn’t want go in to detail with specifics about his plan in case there were police in attendance at the meeting. This might be more gripping, but the SEIU fired Lerner in November for trying to spend millions of dollars on this endeavor. The union does not want their dirty laundry aired to the public. But even more importantly, they don’t want American Terrorists getting caught using their money! And even more important to the union is this. Union leaders have very long leashes. They can do whatever they want to move the “cause” in their direction. They just CAN’T GET CAUGHT!

To many people this is insane but to the union this is “victory by any means necessary!” To the union it doesn’t matter if it destroys the rest of us. One can only imagine what would happen if this guy was smart enough not to get caught.

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