Opinion Columns & Blogs

Misguided union action a disservice

Here’s what I don’t get about the union local that was picketing Doc Burnstein’s last month: Why the Doc? Wasn’t Santa available?

Oh, right — December. The Jolly Old Elf is hard to pin down.

But seriously, carpenter union dudes — who does your advance work? Standing in front of the uber-popular Arroyo Grande ice cream shop and dissing its community-minded owner is like Clarence pushing Jimmy Stewart off the bridge and into the river.

No wings for you guys.

For those of you who may have been too busy imbuing the Christmas spirit to notice, Carpenters Union Local 150 has been waving banners and handing out leaflets in front of the family themed shop in the Village.

The leaflets accuse the owner of Doc Burnstein, Greg Steinberger, of “desecration of the American Way of Life.”

If Steinberger is desecrating the American way of life, I have to wonder what it takes to honor it.

Steinberger donates thousands of dollars a year in scholarships to local schools and his college-bound employees. He sponsors weekly Children’s Book Readings at his ice cream emporium. Since 2003, he and his customers have donated enormously to blood drives he organizes every two months for United Blood Services.

OK, I’ll concede that even pillars of the community can do bad things sometimes. So what is Steinberger’s crime?

He is adding a store at the Santa Maria Town Center mall, whose owner is in a dispute with Local 150.

What does that have to do with Steinberger? Very little.

Greg Kozak, the mall co-owner who is remodeling so that Doc Burnstein and others can locate at the Town Center, is using nonunion labor.

Steinberger had nothing to do with that decision, and he has no power to change it. When the mall owner recruited him to open a shop there, he “didn’t even give it a thought,” he told me Wednesday.

Steinberger, who describes himself as “very much free market,” says if the subject had come up when he was negotiating, he would not have done anything differently, nor would he ask Kozak to give in to the union demand.

But that is all irrelevant. The union’s beef is clearly with the mall owner.

Nevertheless, the tactic here is to go after the peripheral players, like Steinberger.

The union has repeatedly declined to answer phone calls about the hard-to-grasp logic behind its move. But its picketers have riled up the locals, who don’t like what they see and have organized counter-protests.

Renee Westerhuis, who owns the Green Room barber shop a few doors down from Doc Burnstein, says people in the Village know who Steinberger is and what he has done for others. But casual observers driving by could think, erroneously, that he isn’t paying his employees or has sinned against workers in some other way, she says.

Westerhuis hastens to add that she is not anti-union and that many of her customers belong to unions.

That brings me to the second victim of Local 150’s picketing: The union movement.

I am a union guy. I’ve belonged to a few, and was glad I did. I know the indispensable role they have played in the history of this country, and that every employee in every workplace, private or public sector, would be worse off if union men and women had not sacrificed what they did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Like other Americans with a sense of history, I have watched with dismay as unions have continued their 30-year fade, which gathered steam when President Reagan dismantled the air traffic controllers union in 1981.

That move gave the nation’s power structure the signal to treat unions the way Jigsaw treats his victims in “Saw.”

But I also am a newsman. And I have watched, again with dismay, as unions slid a knife across their own throats.

Treatises have been written about this, but just to mention one giant problem, too many unions have become too selfish and self-absorbed and removed themselves from the larger needs of society. The prison guard and teachers unions are Exhibits A and B.

And now in Arroyo Grande, we have Local 150 whacking itself over the head with a frying pan, picketing a good guy for a bad reason.

Observers are going to take two things away from Local 150’s struggle with Doc Burnstein: Greg Steinberger was unjustly targeted. And unions are bullies.

Nice going, Larry, Curly and Moe. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.