Dealing with union aggression has become an occupational hazard of opening up a restaurant in Center City. Off the top, Brauhaus Schmitz, Marc Vetri’s Amis, Devil’s Alley, Smokin’ Betty’s and Barbuzzo are just a few recent examples of restaurants that drew protests for not hiring all union. Down in South Philly, the electrician’s union trotted out their 14-foot buck-toothed blow-up rat for Bistro la Minette.
Most of these are small-business enterprises. Stories get crazier as the jobs get bigger. Perhaps the most notorious one, the only-in-Philly parable told with the same tone as the old “Philly pelted Santa Claus with snowballs” trope (except this one’s true) went down in 2006 during construction of the Comcast Center.
In an effort to “green” the building and obtain LEED certification, architects incorporated waterless urinals. But the plumber’s union, Local 690, protested the plan—waterless urinals use less pipes, which means less work for plumbers.
The compromise? The Comcast Center installed the waterless toilets. But they also got a complete network of pipes that aren’t connected to anything “in case” the building wants to convert back to old-style toilets: a 975-foot tall monument to the power of union muscle in Philadelphia.
‘If we don’t laugh’
Joyner and Lokoff estimate that since the picketing began back in November, sales are down by about 5 percent—a big deal when profit margins are based on cups of coffee and sandwiches.
“We went through a slump with the recession, so the last two years were pretty dicey,” says Joyner. “We finally turned the corner and were trending upwards and we were like, thank god … Then the picketing started and business slowed back down when it should have been increasing.”
“There have been people that bought a cup of coffee and then gave it back and asked for their money back,” says Lokoff. “It’s crazy.”
Lokoff says an acquaintance wrote him an email to let him know that he had reservations about attending a MilkBoy event. Lokoff was asked for his “stance on unions.”
“I said I didn’t know I had a stance,” says Lokoff. “I was raised like everyone else that unions are good and certainly played an important role in our country’s history and how could you not be pro-union? And that was it.”
Locally, opposing perspectives have played out publicly on the Save Ardmore Coalition blog, where discussion about the protests at MilkBoy frequently evolve into pro- and anti-union political debate.
In real life face to face, people are uneasy talking about unions.
“Without knowing the details, I’m sure they both have a point,” says Harry of Harry’s Treasure and Collectibles, up the street from MilkBoy. “[MilkBoy] is a local business. I’m not going to say anything bad about a local business. And I’m not going to say anything bad about the union because I don’t want them in front of my store.”
Christine Vilardo, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative—the suburb’s equivalent of Center City District—says she doesn’t know the details either but she’s sure of one thing: The message that Lokoff, Joyner or MilkBoy is somehow bad for Ardmore is not only strangely irrelevant to the carpenter’s union supposed point, it’s absurdly incorrect.
“[The current banner that says] ‘MilkBoy hurts the community’ is really insulting,” says Vilardo. “They are so involved in the community in so many ways. They [participate in] First Friday, host activities for kids and families. They hire local people. They help brand and give our town an identity.”
Vilardo describes MilkBoy Coffee as an “anchor” in the revitalization of the downtown commercial strip of Lancaster Avenue.
“When people think about Ardmore, they think of MilkBoy, and MilkBoy worked to make that connection,” she says. “They’re one of the original cheerleaders for the town, and they remain that.”
Joyner’s email tagline is “sent from Ardmore, center of the universe.” Joyner is ex-president of the Ardmore Business Association and remains on the board. Lokoff is on the board of the Ardmore Initiative.
MilkBoy sells Ardmore hoodies.
But these days, Joyner is wearing a brand new shirt, hot off the presses. It reads: “Menace to Ardmore”—the message of the second-to-last protest banner in front of his shop.
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.