Almost six months ago, a group of mystery men showed up to the suburb of Ardmore to stand on the sidewalk in front of MilkBoy Coffee. The rotating cast of two to three men have been there every weekday morning ever since. They toss trash on the ground and rarely speak. The first big banner they held read: “Shame on MilkBoy Coffee.”
On the busy commercial strip of Lancaster Avenue, the vague, menacing statement reaches hundreds of people a day, suggesting that MilkBoy is up to something shady.
“We were mortified,” says Philly resident Jamie Lokoff, who co-owns MilkBoy Coffee with Ardmore resident Tommy Joyner.
Turns out, the men are representatives of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Philly’s Carpenters union.
“This is an appeal to the general public,” reads the flier the men have been handing out. “Please do not patronize Milkboy Coffee. Tommy Joyner and Jamie Lokoff owners of Milkboy Coffee have engaged AM Painting and Mapo Builders to construct their new establishment at 1100 Chestnut Street in Center City, Philadelphia.”
It goes on to declare that AM Painting and Mapo Builders contribute to “the destruction of the area wage and benefit standards by paying its employees substantially less than those rates established by members of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters.”
“Have they forgotten who there [sic] patrons are? … Your refusal to enter These Coffee Shop’s [sic] in the Future sends an important message to these Contractors that they are not welcomed in our community.”
After establishing MilkBoy recording studio in 1994 (also in Ardmore), MilkBoy Coffee in 2006 and a smaller Bryn Mawr coffeeshop in 2007, Joyner and Lokoff plan to expand the MilkBoy brand into Philly with a new establishment at 11th and Chestnut. Scheduled to open late spring, it will be a two-story live-music venue complete with coffee and cocktail bars.
The project came about because the city offered the building owners, U3 Ventures, a loan to fit-out the building pending their finding a suitable tenant, who, in keeping with the city’s goal of revitalizing an oddly neglected and downtrodden strip of Chestnut Street, had to be approved by the city. Enter MilkBoy. As property owners, U3 Ventures handled hiring contractors, which includes a mix of union and nonunion workers—but not the carpenter’s union.
U3 Ventures did not return requests for comment, but Lokoff and Joyner say it was a practical decision. With rates generally estimated to be between two and three times the rate of equally capable nonunion shops, it’s simply cost-prohibitive to hire all-union workers.
“We were just trying to get it done with the budget we were given,” Lokoff says. “[We have] no input into hiring anyway.”
Now, with most of the construction complete, protesters continue to picket outside the construction site and the Ardmore coffeeshop.
“We were hoping it was going to go away,” says Joyner. “They made their point. [They] have a First Amendment right to make it, but they haven’t stopped making their point. Their goal is to hurt us, and they are hurting us. These guys think we’re millionaires.”
The point isn’t, as it says on the flier, to send a message to the subcontractors who already finished the work. The punitive message clearly targets MilkBoy and signals to other business entrepreneurs who may not already know: you conduct business in Philadelphia, you’re going to have to hire us—or else.
It doesn’t take long fireside chats with local business owners and contractors to hear horror stories about the ramifications of hiring nonunion workers in Philadelphia: picketing campaigns that stretch endlessly through the seasons; physical intimidation; glue finding its way into door locks, electrical wiring neatly uninstalled just in time for opening day.
According to Joyner and Lokoff, an S-lock mysteriously appeared in a hinge, temporarily locking nonunion workers inside the construction site. (Ed Coryell, longtime business manager of the Brotherhood, did not respond to PW’s multiple requests for comment.
A local ex-contractor who requested to remain anonymous describes “a cat and mouse game” between nonunion and union workers that entails gaming the system by, for example, using variations on company names on building permits.
“[The unions] have people in City Hall just watching permits,” he says. “They’re supposed to be drumming up work but all they really do is hassle you and threaten you.”
Trade unions’ traditional war tactics rely on a balance of unabashed intimidation and harassment, murky political connections and public-relations campaigns that cast them as the victims.
It’s a recent afternoon inside the new downtown MilkBoy location, a two-floor space at 11th and Chestnut streets that will be coffee bar by morning, pub by afternoon and music venue by night, and co-owner Tommy Joyner is hustling to get the place in shape to open up next week.