MilkBoy's Union Saga, Part 2

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 20 | Posted Aug. 3, 2011

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In concert: Co-owners Tommy Joyner (left) and Jamie Lokoff are eager to open up their new downtown coffee shop/music venue.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

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. 

“We’ve been doing some of this work ourselves to give it some heart,” says Joyner, gesturing around. He points at the coffee tables, which he carved out of chunks of oak butcher block and then stained chocolate brown. “When you’re out of money, you find ways to make it happen.”

Upstairs, the stage that’s about to be installed will complete the space’s conversion from its former life as a book and magazine shop into a 200-capacity concert space reminiscent of the old Upstairs at Nick’s (the venue that used to be above Nick’s Roast Beef on Second Street in Old City that closed in 1999). Downstairs, artsy glass garage-door walls that will roll up on 11th Street, hardwood floors discovered beneath six inches of linoleum and restored terrazzo tile obliterates any remnants of the former beauty supply shop. 

After almost a year of work, the space is positively transformed—and so is Joyner. 

As PW first reported back in March, Joyner and business partner Jamie Lokoff have been wading in shark-infested waters from almost the moment MilkBoy announced plans to expand its brand—music studios and then two coffee shops founded in the suburbs—into Philadelphia. 

To recap: U3 Ventures owns the property and is leasing it to MilkBoy through a deal with the city, which offered U3 Ventures a loan pending approval of the tenant in an effort to revitalize a particularly bedraggled strip of Chestnut Street. In other words, MilkBoy was personally approved by the city in good faith as a business that will work to class up the joint. 

But U3 Ventures didn’t hire all union workers so, in retaliation, the Philadelphia Carpenter’s Union dispatched a goon squad to MilkBoy Coffee in Ardmore. Since last fall, picketers have stood outside MilkBoy holding signs and handing out fliers enblazoned with spurious statements about Joyner and Lokoff. 

The picketers had an impact on the coffee shop’s bottom line, setting profits off by about 15 percent. Joyner and Lokoff had expected some hassle at the downtown worksite, but they hadn’t anticipated guys with Jersey plates to drive out to Ardmore every day, spitting and throwing trash on the sidewalk in front of their business. 

Suddenly, these mild-mannered artists-turned-entrepreneurs (both members of a musician's union) were caught in the middle of a public debate about the role of unions in the U.S. After trying to keep it light by responding with funny T-shirts parodying the picketers’ absurd “Shame on MilkBoy” sign, Joyner and Lokoff spoke out, vocalizing the open dirty secret of Philadelphia entrepreneurship—if you don’t hire all union to build in this city you will be harassed, or worse.

Against the backdrop of the union debacle going down in Wisconsin at the time (Gov. Scott Walker passed a budget that included stripping bargaining rights from state employees), the story went viral, saturating local media. 

CBS quoted Pat Gillespie, head of the Building and Trades Council, as saying, “The carpenters won’t let up because there’s much more at stake.”

He’s right. They didn’t let up. 

Five months later and on the verge of opening the new joint, Joyner wonders if speaking out was a good idea. 

“Has it helped me? I don’t know. It helped me feel like I’m not a schmuck. But has it actually helped me? I don’t think so,” says Joyner. “Because honestly we feel like we’re being picked on by a large, highly funded, highly organized organization, not to be redundant. There’s just no way to get back at them because you think you’re getting somewhere, and [then] your place gets lit on fire.”

According to Capt. Jeffrey Thompson of the Philadelphia Fire Department, fire trucks were dispatched to 1100 Chestnut St. at 4:32 p.m. on Friday, June 17. A passer-by had noticed flames and called 911. 

“The fire marshal concluded that the cause was incendiary,” says Thompson. “It was intentionally set.” Meaning: arson.

According to the fire marshal report, the fire originated in the center of the floor. The arsonist made a nest of debris, doused it with accelerant and dropped a match. 

Joyner couldn’t believe it. “Someone would have to hide in here or have the key and let themselves in,” he says. Luckily, the sprinkler system kicked in right away, so the fire didn’t do any real physical damage; the construction schedule was only set back one day. But it burnt an impression into Joyner’s mind.

“We didn’t really go public with it. It was one of the travails of getting the place open that we chalked up to experience. I talked to union guys afterward and I said, ‘I want you to know, we heard the message. We fucked up. We got it.’ And they were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no way we’d start a fire.’ I [said], ‘OK, but if there was a message in that, we got it.’”

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Comments 1 - 20 of 20
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1. bobguzzardi said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 08:26AM

“Posted at Save Ardmore Coalition Web Site

Job Creating, Risk taking small businessmen, who have to make a profit to meet a payroll, repay loans and pay a return to investors, co-owners Tommy Joyner and Jamie Lokoff are eager to open up their new downtown coffee shop/music venue. Philadelphia's government and the Unions don't make it easy. I hope they make a billion dollars.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 09:27AM

“As a dues-paying union member myself, I am appalled by the behavior of my fellow union workers. Sure, it blows that Milkboy didn't hire all union, but guess what? They admitted the error. There are a lot of organizations that don't step up their game and behave like adults, so kudos to them.

Furthermore, it's a free country, Milkboy was within their right to choose anyone they want to get the job done. Watching how unionized workers behaved in response to the construction only serves to verify that it was the right decision in the end. Can you imagine what antics would have ensued if they had gone all-union?

The places of unions in this country is a contentious debate, as evidenced by the events that unfolded in Wisconsion earlier this year. I believe that unions *are* good -- there are a lot of bad businesses out there who willingly take advantage of their employees and workers have the right to organize. However, resorting to antics borderling on violent is the wrong answer.”

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3. Rita said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 09:46AM

“All the union did is make me want to give Milkboy my business even more. Many unions have outlived their usefulness; they should protect their member but not become bullies.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 11:06AM

“Theoretically, couldn't Philly business owners form some kind of union and collectively agree not to employ any union labor until the unions apologize for these mafia antics and swear off acting like a bunch of thugs?”

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5. cooke said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 11:06AM

“ is hard to understand that this stuff still goes on but i do not live in Philly and I know Ms Murtha always does a solid investigation. This is so absurd and in the end the city should really get on top of this as this behavior will only huirt new business. The fact that union workers are getting paid 2-3 times the normal amount is usurious. Hats off to Milkboy for sticking to it!”

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6. Anonymous said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 04:49PM

“The Carpenters continue to picket in ARDMORE to this day! This morning they were blocking one of the doors which is totally not legal, right? They block parts of the sidewalk every day they are out there and if you ask them why are you in our community which has nothing to do with this, they will not speak to you, and will just shove a flyer in your hands. Why don't they picket the building OWNER in Philadelphia if they have a beef or Mayor Nutter's house since he's the Mayor of Philadelphia? Or maybe someone should get a group like to protest and picket the union HQ or homes of the heads of the union? You all reported that some unions were used in this building in Philadelphia, so that should count for something. The police don't do much because...they are in a union too. I don't know the MilkBoy people I just go there and shame on Philadelphia for not dealing with this!”

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7. contrarian said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 09:39PM

“Everything I've read on this sad saga has led me to conclude that these entrepreneurs have a double-minded view of unions: they seem to support them philosophically even as they have been bludgeoned by their goon-like intimidation.

It was very sad to read of their capitulation ("we definitely learned our lesson"), which will only embolden more unethical and perhaps illegal strong-arm job actions against other businesses.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Aug 4, 2011 at 09:11AM

“uinions lick balls. they are communist ball lickers. not a professional at all.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Aug 4, 2011 at 07:50PM

“I actually walk past these picketers every day. It just makes me so disappointed. If they want to stand up for injustice and fairness they should be standing up for the homeless woman who sits on the opposite corner from where they picket. Every day she is there and has to close off the permanent breathing tube in her throat so she can ask for some spare change. Frankly, that is an injustice and that is where the system is failing us. And at the end of the day, those particular picketers are only looking to make a buck - not actually make a difference in the world.”

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10. disgusted said... on Aug 8, 2011 at 08:55PM

“If I eat at McDonalds , I dont see the burger king people protesting my decision. This is america and we have a choice. Unions WERE a good idea but now they are a bunch of corrupt cowards , whining about a choice someone made about hiring labor. It amazes me that as far as we have come as a people that there is still an element of disgrace among us- the unuons.

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11. Anonymous said... on Aug 15, 2011 at 10:30AM

“We had a similar situation with the carpenter's union at our small business in South Philly. We worked with partial union labor - we made it clear that we wanted people who were local to the neighborhood to do the work, and not a ton of Jersey plates on site. The carpenter's picketed us for months. During this time, coincidentally, someone broke in to our building (during construction) and with a tiny drill bit, drilled through electrical conduits that were run and through an unused spindle that was about to be run. Only reason we caught it was because one of our workers noticed that the locked tool chest had been tampered with and saw a couple metal shavings on the floor near it.

Like MilkBoy, can't say one way or the other who did it, but between that and the same PGW problems (not to mention delivery companies who won't cross picket lines with the items you purchased), we were delayed about 4-6 months.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Aug 15, 2011 at 02:49PM

“The picketers will just make me support Milkboy even more. Way to go!!”

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13. Dana said... on Aug 17, 2011 at 11:10AM

“I think the best way to send a message to the union is to GO TO MILKBOY and buy a bunch of stuff. I'm certainly going to.”

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14. Stacy said... on Aug 18, 2011 at 09:47PM

“2. Anonymous --
It is not an ERROR not to hire union workers.

This is ridiculous! They can hire who they want. Unions have a monopoly on the city of Philadelphia and that is why it is bankrupt.

And it is funny that these union workers are sitting around picketing and not working -- are they getting paid to picket? Probably. Wasting money as unions generally do.

Do I have to add a "DUH" at the end of my comment? Yes.


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15. Medical said... on Sep 15, 2011 at 06:55PM

“I wouldn't have stopped at Milk Boy were it not for the intimidatingly beefy union guys handing out fliers just outside. I had read this article, and I don't like bullies, so I went in and got myself a delicious coffee.
As I came out, one of the union guys started yelling at me as I walked down the street. I turned around and tried to engage them in conversation, but all they could offer me were insults. The elder one actually told his subordinate to "keep your mouth shut, and don't say nothin'."
As a medical worker, I care for anyone and everyone - even the union guys and their families. I don't get a choice. And I don't get to picket other doctors who treat them. So please let me get my freakin' coffee.

I like to frequent small, independently owned businesses who engage in fair trade and who promote local art. MilkBoy does both, apparently.

Why don't the union boys pack up and picket outside of the viral Starbucks? Simple: They built it.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2011 at 09:08AM

“I hate to hear you say you've learned your lesson. I would be more determined to not give them any more business. Giving money to bullies doesn't make them go away! I will be more likely to go to MilkBoy now more than ever.”

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17. Union First said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 08:24PM

“Ok , I know a lot of people are out of work right now , some are in the mist of a career change , when you find a illegal or someone willing to do your job or the job your children would have had , for a lot less money , because they can , because the government you live in pays for they'er housing , gas , electric , food , children ect. ; then will come the time when you say UNION YES .”

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18. Anonymous said... on Apr 11, 2012 at 06:26AM

“I love how the person on the ladder is committing an OSHA violation. The sneakers and shorts are also very professional.”

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19. Pissed in Philly said... on Aug 24, 2012 at 03:51PM

“@ 18. Because the toothless tatt'ed trash from the unions really look the professional part. You are an asshat!

@ 17. Do you even know how the government works, do you think the construction worker taking your union job works for a dollar a day and gets welfare? You too are an asshat!


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20. former milk girl said... on Jul 3, 2015 at 03:02PM

“Unions aside, they don't pay their workers in a timely fashion. Fuck MilkBoy.”


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