If you live in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero or Paso Robles, you’ve no doubt driven past the “Shame On” banners alleging that the named business is embroiled in some form of unfair labor practice.
Here in the Village of Arroyo Grande, we have endured such a banner sponsored by the carpenters union for the past nine months. The allegation is that a very popular local business, Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, attempted to contract with a non-union drywall company. The allegation is patently false, and the carpenters union knows it.
Greg Steinberger, the owner of Doc Burnstein’s, was considering opening another store in the Santa Maria mall. He selected a store site and gave specifications to the leasing agent representing the mall. The mall, in turn, put the work out to bid, just as they have done in many other similar situations wherein prospective tenants require modifications to existing floor space.
Steinberger was not involved in the bidding process, nor does he have any authority to influence contracting policies at the Santa Maria mall. Yet he is now the victim of a practice known as a “secondary boycott.” It is an attempt by the union to coerce a neutral or third party into siding with it in a labor dispute.
As a city, we have spent many hours researching strategies that might allow us to take action. Our city attorney has examined similar situations existing in many other cities, both in California and across the nation. The bottom line (as frustrating and unfair as it is) is that this form of protest is constitutionally protected. Some cities have gone so far as to confiscate these banners, citing violations of local ordinances, only to find themselves embroiled in a costly federal lawsuit, one in which they did not prevail.
Having been involved in labor-management relations for a number of years, I felt compelled to make an attempt at a “meet and confer” with the carpenters union. Bringing all parties to the table in an attempt to resolve issues is the core process initiated by most unions when negotiating labor contracts or disputes.
I felt that perhaps a constructive and positive approach might lead us to a solution. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I began a three-week effort with the spokesperson from the Carpenters Local 1800 in Arroyo Grande to schedule a meeting. The gentleman was polite, sympathetic and returned my calls. He first agreed to a meeting, but then declined, indicating that he “had no authority” to make decisions regarding the banner.
I was referred to his superior at the Carpenters Union District Council in Carpenteria and again received a polite response and initial agreement to meet. Two meetings were scheduled, and two meetings were canceled by the District Council. The representative apologized and promised to get back with another potential meeting date.
Two weeks have passed, and we have heard nothing. It is evident that the carpenters union has no intention of engaging in any form of constructive communication and every intention of sustaining its groundless harassment of small businesses.
At what point does the carpenters union realize its protest is without foundation, and that it is the real perpetrator of an “unfair labor dispute”? At what point does the membership of the carpenters union stand up to its leaders and say, “Enough! You’re hurting, not helping, our cause?”
As dismal as this situation appears, there is something we as a community can do. We can continue to support Doc Burnstein’s by providing the rest of the story to those who see the banner and tend toward a prejudgment.
I also want to acknowledge the Tri-County Building and Construction Trades Council that represents 30 construction unions. Several months ago, the council purchased ice cream for more than 1,200 Arroyo Grande residents to publicize union opposition to the banner.
If I were a tradesman trying to make a living in today’s challenging economy, I would be joining the mantra uttered not only by our citizens, but by other labor unions across the country: “Shame on you, carpenters union!”
Tony Ferrara is the mayor of Arroyo Grande.