Customers of Arroyo ice cream shop back owner in union dispute at second site

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

Arroyo Grande business people are rallying around the owner of a popular ice cream shop in the city who says he is being unfairly targeted in a protest by a carpenters union.

Greg Steinberger, the owner of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in the Arroyo Grande Village, said the union activists have been posted outside his shop for two months despite repeated attempts to make it clear that he doesn’t have anything to do with what they say they are protesting.

The Camarillo-based union claims that the labor dispute was launched because nonunion carpenters are being used to construct interior improvements at the ice cream shop’s second location at the Santa Maria Town Center mall.

Steinberger said he is baffled by the protest of his business because the mall, not he, is paying for the renovations.

“The real story here is that they are protesting innocent people who did not do any of the hiring of the contractors — I did,” said Greg Kozak, one of the mall’s owners. “My concern is that I should be able to hire whoever I want to hire and not be protested by anybody. The tenants are not the ones who have hired contractors and they shouldn’t have the ability to picket them — it is harassment and just insane.”

Kozak said he hires contractors based on a competitive bidding system and has no plans to change the process.

“They could put 20 banners around the mall property,” Kozak said. “I’ve been doing this for more than 22 years, and I’m not going to change how I do things because a couple of ding-dongs go out and hire some people to stand there and hold a banner.”

Repeated phone calls to Carpenters Local 150 were not returned.

Men hired by the union to hold a banner saying “Shame on Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab” have been posted from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day in front of the Arroyo Grande ice cream shop since October.

Now they have company. Nearby business owners and loyal customers of Doc Burnstein’s have launched a counterprotest to show their support of Steinberger.

Their banner, donated by a local company, reads “We love Doc Burnstein’s. Thank you for all you do for our community. No labor dispute.”

Standing curbside with a sign of support for the ice cream shop, Pamela Dennis, longtime owner of nearby Klondike’s Pizza, said the union’s sign is unfairly hurting businesses in the Village.

“They are hurting our local economy — those dollars that they are taking away from Doc Burnstein’s and other small businesses are going to directly hurt the community,” Dennis said. “It could be any business in town that they do this to — next time it could be mine. And we aren’t going to stand for it.”

Steinberger said he has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board but has yet to hear a definitive response. He said the breaking point happened last week when the protesters didn’t budge during the business’ bimonthly blood drive.

“That is when I decided to take the customers up on their offer to do a counterdemonstration,” Steinberger said. “It is overwhelming to see all of these people wanting to support us.”

Dedicated customers say they will stand in support as long as it takes. Arroyo Grande resident Patty Welsh said she will continue to hold signs in support of the business until the labor dispute sign is taken down.“They are befouling the city I live in, and I can’t allow that,” Welsh said.