June 15-21, 2006
Cover StoryBite The Hand
Everybody loves Judy Wicks. So why do some White Dog Cafe employees want to unionize?
It was the 2006 Greater Philadelphia Sustainable Business Network Conference, and to get things started right, a member of the Delaware Valley's indigenous Lenape tribe had been invited to lead the attendees in the construction of a "prayer bundle." Working without irony, the idealistic businesspeople took pinches of tobacco and tied them up in colorful fabrics, then infused their tiny creations with prayers. These prayers, the speaker explained, would be bound together in a sacred prayer bundle, which would need a "keeper"someone to carry the bundle with her always.
: Michael T. Regan
No discussion was needed to determine who that keeper would be. Judy Wicks founded the SBN in 2001; the White Dog, which she opened on the bottom floor of her home at 34th and Sansom streets in 1983, is considered a shining example of a sustainable business, one of the country's most prominent adherents to the "triple bottom line" of people, planet and profit. That means it buys organic, local food when it can and pays "fair trade" prices for imported goods like chocolate, coffee and tea. It uses 100 percent wind power and recycles religiously. And in 1999, it made a commitment to pay employees, at minimum, a "living wage" of $8 an hour, as well as offering health benefits, paid vacation and other perks rarely found in the food-service industry. In short, it's what other sustainable business owners hope to build.
"If anyone has any objection to Judy Wicks being the keeper of that bundle " the Lenape speaker said, but, of course, there was silence.
Like pilgrims, the conference attendees carried their prayers up to Wicks, bearing witness to her earthly skin tone and sun-white hair. As they dropped the little bags in front of her, she smiled softly and looked down at her table. Afterward, she received a warm ovation for her introductory remarks about her lifelong fight against corporate interests.
This is who Judy Wicks is.
So why is itno, how can it bethat across town at Sixth and Chestnut streets in the seventh floor regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, there sat a file containing a slew of unfair labor practices with which Wicks is chargedpractices that, if true, would amount to union busting?
Several of the original organizers had backgrounds in activism. Joanna Kete-Walker, a nose-ring-wearing 24-year-old from Maryland, came to Philly in 2003 to organize with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU). She had been waiting tables at the Cafe for a year and a half, and, along with her fellow organizers, was fed up with what she saw as "a history of inconsistent changes in policies" and what she felt was a skimpy definition of a living wage. More than any one grievance, though, what the organizers say they wanted out of a union was a voice.
"Our biggest issue is that [the] people most affected by their jobs should be in leadership," Kete-Walker says.
There had been occasional union talk at the White Dog before, but it had never amounted to anything serious. This time, spurred on by employee dissatisfaction with high manager turnover, the organizers actually reached out to national labor unions to see if any would be interested in representing the 100-person shop. The Service Employees International Union never returned their call, and the Teamsters, after a meeting, turned them down. But UNITE HERE, a 440,000-member union that often represents the hotel and food service industries, agreed to take them on.
The next step was to spread word to the rest of the staff. This task would prove different at the White Dog than it might at other restaurants. True, White Dog employees had it good, compared to many of their counterparts. But the organizers had the Cafe's political atmosphere working in their favor.
Wicks had created a business very much in her own image. The White Dog frequently hosts "table talks," seminars with prominent progressives, to which employees are invited; it shows art by progressive artists in the bar; the menu boasts of practices that are "ecologically sound, economically viable, equitable, [and] humane." What's more, any employee has the authority to call for a "bark" (a staff meeting), and all staffers are invited to the annual "howl," when the White Dog opens its books.
All this is reflected in the Cafe's workforce.
"When you're young and a server, you don't expect your job-job to be any place you practice your politics," says Kete-Walker. "People are drawn there."
They also draw their friendsat the time of the unionization drive, there were four employees on staff with ties to KWRU. Even those employees who are apolitical when they arrive stand a decent chance of being converted. In a way, an organizing effort seemed inevitable: Put a bunch of young liberal activists together in a job, preach constantly to them about the plight of the American worker, and really, what do you expect?
Carefully, out of earshot of managers, the organizers began sidling up to their fellow employees and asking them how they'd feel about a union at the White Dog. Some people were enthusiastically in favor; others just didn't see the point.
Only one conversation from this period really sticks out in Kete-Walker's mind.
"I remember being scared to approach Jenny," she says.
Jenny Rachor-Dowd, a 30-year old server with an alpha personality, was a powerful presence in the restaurant whose support would mean a lot to the union effort. She was an activist, too: Her MySpace page plays Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." when opened, and lists her occupation as "rabble rouser, whistle blower." But Kete-Walker wasn't sure how she would feel about a union at the Cafe.
Rachor-Dowd, it turned out, thought that many of the practices the White Dog was respected for were just window dressing on a typical business.
"She said, "Yeah, that's awesome, we really need one,'" Kete-Walker recalls. Soon, Rachor-Dowd was using her considerable persistence to recruit people herself.
Each time the organizers persuaded a worker, they had him or her sign an "authorization card" indicating their desire for a union. Generally, the waitstaff was more supportive than anyone else (this, in spite of the fact that dishwashers are universally agreed to have the worst job at the restaurant: They work in a small, hot, stuffy room). But over several months, the organizers collected signed cards from a majority of the approximately 70 eligible workers, more than enough for the union to petition for an election.
In October, Lynne Fox, regional director of UNITE HERE, sent a letter to Wicks, calling on her to recognize the union and commence collective bargaining. It was the first Wicks had heard of the nascent union.
Though it is now better known for a crab-crusted St. Peter's fish than for muffins, Wicks still treats the White Dog as if it were home. She walks around in jeans, chatting comfortably with employees and patrons, and a picture on the bar wall shows her smiling while being placed under arrest at a government building the day after the United States invaded Iraq.
Wicks is proud of her political persona. So when asked about the effort to unionize the White Dog, she makes a point of saying that she is not anti-union.
"I've always been a pro-labor person," she says, citing as evidence frequent "table talks" with union speakersincluding, in 2000, Lynne Fox of UNITE HERE. "I just never dreamed in a million years that people would want a union [at the White Dog]. I support unions in other situations, like large corporations, or when employees have no direct contact with the boss. But I feel like I created a business model where a union isn't necessary."
Wicks suspects that the movement at the White Dog occurred because she took a four-month sabbatical, during which a "leadership vacuum" in the dining room caused conditions to deteriorate. When she got back, she says, she fixed the problem, and she really didn't want a union.
: Michael T. Regan
To that end, on Oct. 27, Wicks posted a two-page letter addressed to "White Dog Staff" on the blue employee bulletin board at the top of the stairs to the kitchen. It began:
There is an outside union that wants to organize the employees of the White Dog Cafe and represent you against me.
It is a hurtful thing to me personally that anyone would think they need an outside agent to deal with me. Over the last 22 years, I have tried to build a community here, a White Dog family, and until this week, I thought that I had been successful in doing so.
The letter went on to state that, while employees had the right to support a union, they also had the right not to, and proceeded to argue that if they unionized, employees could "end up with less. Remember the current benefits you enjoy were not negotiated, but given freely by me. If a union represents you, what you have now is all "on the table' and subject to negotiation." She ended the letter by thanking "those who have shown their support for me during this difficult time," and telling staff that her door was open.
For a week, Wicks heard nothing from the organizers. Then, on Nov. 3, a letter addressed to "Judy" appeared on the same corkboard where she had posted hers. It explained that organizing the White Dog was important because "this restaurant must continue to be a model for socially responsible business," and called on Judy to "live up to [her] values." The signature read, "White Dog Organized for Leadership in Foodservice (W.O.L.F.)."
A sort of leftier-than-thou back-and-forth ensued. Wicks posted another letter, this one five pages, attacking the union:
Last night I went to hear John Wilhelm, the national head of [UNITE HERE], speak at Penn. In a way, I went to see who it is that some of my staff look up to more than me. True, he did go to Yale, and he is a white male. I can't say I have such credentials.
She continued to play on the theme of betrayal ("We have never had a "them' and "us' here"), and to argue that a union would make things worse, not better: It would charge unnecessary dues, she said, and add a bulky layer of bureaucracy that was not tenable in a small restaurant. ("If there is a worker who is not doing his share of work, we could not fire him. Other staff will have to pull the weight of the slacker. If a kitchen worker is outstanding [executive chef] Andy [Brown] will not be able to give that person a raise.")
The organizers, Wicks had decided, were misguided in their progressivism. "I think some of the union people felt it was a logical step. They thought, "If I'm truly a progressive person I should be unionized.'"
As for the union, Michael Mullins, a UNITE HERE organizer who worked on the White Dog campaign, says Wicks' appeals to family and loyalty are "boilerplate": startlingly similar to the anti-union rhetoric organizers are accustomed to seeing from the likes of Wal-Mart. And her contention that a union won't work in a restaurant, he says, is a classic canard: Small restaurants are not a "growth market" for unions, he concedes, but, "Hotels used to say that unions were good for autoworkers, automakers used to say [unions] were good for meatpackers." To union advocates, Wicks' argument sounded a heck of a lot like "not in my backyard."
The battle climaxed with the departure of Jenny Rachor-Dowd, whom Wicks and the managers had come to view (correctly) as one of the union's strongest advocates. On Nov. 8, Rachor-Dowd arrived at work to find she had been "cut" from her shift by a manager, meaning there wasn't enough work for her to stick around; as she prepared to leave, another manager told her to stay, and invoked a new scheduling policy Rachor-Dowd had never heard of. Rachor-Dowd told the second manager that she was leaving, and when the manager protested, Rachor-Dowd quit.
She had quit once before, and subsequently been rehired; this time, she wasn't allowed to return. A few weeks later, Doug Sherrill fired a pro-union waitress named Maureen Sheehan for re-entering the bar after 2 a.m. (which was against regulations) and cursing him out.
The union's majority quickly evaporated. Wicks believes it never existed in the first place. Several workers had come to her saying they signed cards without realizing what it meant (Chef Brown also recalls two new dishwashers handing in union cards as part of their paperwork, thinking they were mandatory), and others, she says, had been badgered into signing. Organizers feel that an aggressive anti-union campaign by management, along with the "chilling effect" of the two discharges, was responsible for the shift.
"I don't think it's coincidental," says Kete-Walker, "that people changed their mind about wanting a union after it became public that the owner was against it."
Wicks had called for a one-time, secret-ballot election to settle the issue, but the union didn't like the idea: one-time events like elections, says Mullins, are susceptible to employer interference. Instead, the union asked for a "card check," in which a third party would come to the restaurant after a mutually agreed-upon period of time and count how many employees were carrying union cards. Wicks, believing that a card check would lead to further badgering, refused.
In January, UNITE HERE began filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board. There were two primary allegations: that Rachor-Dowd and Sheehan had been fired because of their support for the union, and that Wicks had "threatened or coerced" other employees in her struggle against the union.
The NLRB is kind of like a district attorney for labor violations: When it receives an allegation, it investigates, then decides whether to charge the accused. The allegations that Rachor-Dowd and Sheehan had been improperly discharged were dropped, though the union has since refiled them, and a decision is pending. Some of the allegations of threats and coercion, however, were found to have merit: Though the NLRB is not permitted to disclose precisely which of Wicks' statements it deems illegal, telling employees something like "bargaining starts from scratch" if they unionize can be considered threatening, and instituting a new grievance process to placate employee demands, as the White Dog did, can be seen as a buy off, a form of coercion.
Wicks considers the charges ridiculous. "Why can't I be a part of the dialogue?" she asks. But rather than take the fight to court, she recently decided to settle. If the union accepts the terms, says Dorothy L. Moore-Duncan, regional director for the NLRB, Wicks will have to post a notice on the employee board for 60 days saying that the restaurant will not engage in threatening and coercive behavior. It's not a harsh punishment, and indeed, the NLRB's lack of teeth is a frequent source of frustration for unions. The point, for the organizers, is that Wicks will have failed to clear her name.
Over the past several years, few progressive ideas can be said to have gained a lot of momentum. Sustainable businesses are an exception to this trend. More and more, says Rona Fried of SustainableBusiness.com, companies are voluntarily meeting the basic standard of sustainability, which she defines as "incorporat[ing] environmental and social responsibility into their missions and everyday practices." In this movement, Judy Wicks has been a pioneer. Not only is her business considered a prototype for sustainability; the sabbatical she took last year was to write a book (working title: Good Morning Beautiful Business) articulating her vision for a locally based economy with socially responsible owners.
Meanwhile, the old progressive business model of a unionized labor force is struggling to remain relevant. A good chunk of the manufacturing industry, once a union stronghold, has been lured overseas by lower wages and lax regulations; at home, new immigrants underbid union workers for the jobs that remain. As a result, the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions has fallen from 36 percent in the mid-'50s to 12.5 percent in 2005. The service workers' union, SEIU, has made some new inroads in its industry, but most unions have been reduced to holding on to what they've got (witness the recent, and pathetic, demands by Philly plumbers to install piping for waterless urinals).
Very rarely have the sustainable business model and the union model met. Workers at socially responsible businesses have generally not tried to unionize, figuring they had it better than their counterparts down the street. (A prominent exception is the occasional rumbling of union strife at Whole Foods, which is considered by some to be socially responsible. The company has resisted all such efforts.) But as more businesses go sustainable, these two pillar concepts of the left are sure to collide. The turmoil at the White Dog suggests, perhaps, a progressive identity crisis. Can unions and socially responsible businesses coexist?
There are two potential points of tension between the models, the first of which is a simple matter of economics. In a sustainable business, an owner pays a living wage because it's the right thing to do. The White Dog currently pays $9 an hour to beginning dishwashers who would presumably be making somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 or $7 an hour elsewhere. It also offers health benefits which, Wicks says, cost the company about $50,000 a year.
A union might well demand more. On Rachor-Dowd's MySpace page, Kete-Walker implies that a living wage would be $15 an hour, writing, "holler for a dollar (times 15 to make an actual living wage )," which Wicks says she can't afford.
But, as the organizers point out, it's not in workers' interest to shut down the White Dog. In fact, both sides agree that the clash between the socially responsible business model and the union model isn't really about money. It's about philosophy.
The union advocates, ironically mostly younger people, embrace the old-left philosophy, rooted still in the writings of Karl Marx, that workers are always vulnerable to their employers' whims, and need institutionalized forms of leveragelike collective bargainingin order to be treated equitably. This thinking doesn't allow for exceptions. Hence Rachor-Dowd's answer to the question, why the White Dog, why not Wal-Mart?
"Why not the White Dog, Wal-Mart and the place down the street?" she says.
Wicks has abandoned that paradigm. She believes that capital and labor don't have to struggle, so long as there are a lot of locally based, beneficent owners, practicing a cooperative form of capitalism. Unions, she says, create "an adversarial model. The assumption is that the owner is holding out on the staff. There's this built-in negative, adversarial relationship where the owner is seen in a negative way."
The organizers have tried to sell Wicks on the idea that if she cooperated with a union, they might together build the ultimate socially responsible model. But by implying that a union might be partner to the above-average conditions at the White Dog, the union camp might inadvertently be explaining why, when it comes down to it, the two models don't mesh that well.
What does Wicks, or any progressive owner, get out of the socially responsible model? The White Dog grosses about $5 million a year, and she takes home $30,000 in salary, $30,000 in dividends, plus the rent, since she owns the building. That's not bad, but she could easily take more. The national average ratio between a business' highest paid and lowest paid employee is 431 to 1. At the White Dog, this year, it's less than 4 to 1.
What Wicks gets in exchange for her financial sacrifice, along with maybe a better work environment and the vague sensation that she is building a better tomorrow, is credit for doing the right thing. She gets to be the keeper of the prayer bundle.
If other owners are going to adopt her model, they'll want those rewards, too.
"Why is this union going after the only restaurant in town that is a good model?" Wicks asked in her Nov. 10 letter to staff. "I finally think I have the answerthe union will take your money, destroy the business model that has worked so well for all of us for so long, and take credit for the economic fairness that was here before they came."
If her place were unionized, Wicks fears, she would become an enemy in her own home; if her place were unionized, her model would become less appealing to others.
"If my place were unionized," she says, "it would be a sign of my failure."
"People are going to say Judy Wicks doesn't walk the talk," Wicks says. "I already know for a fact that there are people who don't come [to the White Dog] because I've been portrayed as a union buster."
For the record, the union organizers are not calling for a boycott, and though they've held the threat of public exposure over Wicks' head, they never went to the press. They don't want to affect the restaurant's bottom line, they saytheir friends still work there. They are still calling for a union, although the effort has lost much of its momentum.
"It's been pushed really far underground, and people are terrified," Rachor-Dowd says.
Where the fight rages on is outside the White Dog, both at the NLRB, and in the ironic bits of vitriol that the two sides hurl at one another. Rachor-Dowd, who now works for UNITE HERE, has made it her mission to organize her former workplace. She says that while she still respects the causes Wicks believes in, she views her old boss as no different from most other business owners.
"It would almost be more effective if we were fighting against Wal-Mart," she says. "It's the same fight. The elitists in any movement are going to stick together. Liberal elitists, their deeds are better, but the power structure is the same."
Joanna Kete-Walker still works at the White Dog, where she is the only openly pro-union employee of whom Wicks is aware (organizers say there are several others). For her, the effort at the White Dog has become a matter of great symbolic significance, an opportunity to change the very nature of food-service work.
"A lot of people say, "The White Dog is really good for a restaurant.' The White Dog is really good, but the key phrase is "for a restaurant,'" she says. "Stop thinking in terms of "for a restaurant' and think in terms of "for the way I live.'"
Wicks has become a sort of comic villain in this fight. In March, Kete-Walker sent Rachor-Dowd a MySpace message saying, "I want to hang out with you, but I just need to run it by my boss first. Does that make sense? She may be a hippy, but she's learned a thing or two from cointelpro."
Wicks, meanwhile, is planning her retirement from the White Dog (she'll turn 60 next year). It's important to her, she says, to leave the restaurant with its legacy intact. She's working out the kinks of an "employee ownership" program for after her departurethe future of progressivism is in ownership rather than organization, she says. And she'll continue to resist any efforts to unionize.
"All you're going to do by forming a union is destroy [the sustainable business model]," she says.
She's also trying to preserve the political atmosphere of the restaurant. Right now, for example, the bar features a photo exhibit from the progressive artist Harvey Finkle. There are photos of destitute Philadelphians, living in Philly's "tent city"; photos of people at anti-war protests. And in the bottom row center, in black and white, there's a photo of a crowd of men. They appear to be at some sort of function, and several are wearing matching caps. Toward the right of the picture, an unsmiling man stands holding a placard.
It reads: "UNION YES!"