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  • Writer's pictureJack Metz

Labored Union

In a country built on capitalism, collective bargaining has always been one of the thornier topics.

Sometimes, negotiations showcase the very best of what unions can do to improve the lives of their members. For instance, United Parcel Service and the Teamsters hammered out a tentative agreement last week that seems to be a win for all parties involved, including everyone who relies on timely package delivery. Hundreds of thousands of workers will see a significant jump in pay and better working conditions thanks to prudent stewardship. With the exception of the almost certain price increases borne by the consumer down the line, this parley has all the markings of a capstone class on successful mediation.

Other times, organized labor's demands are anything but practical. I want to examine one of these scenarios -- not because I am anti-union, but because I believe an honest conversation about reducing unreasonable asks will lead to less contentious deliberations going forward.

Compliments Only

If you like a good sandwich and you live in DC, you've probably made the pilgrimage to Compliments Only. Their subs are so delicious that the public just voted them 2023's "Hottest Sandwich Shop." From a culinary perspective, things at this restaurant have never been better.

You'd think that kind of news would leap to the top of any search result for this small business. Sadly, that's not the case. Instead, the headlines are dominated by articles regarding an ongoing push for union recognition there. It's this coverage (and the details behind it) that caught my eye.

The Law of Tiny Numbers

Compliments Only is not a big place. The only thing smaller than the staff, which barely cracks double digits, is the number of tables in the P St NW dining establishment. Nothing about this single-location sandwich purveyor gives off the slightest hint of evil corporate monolith.

Yet the media, the union, and the employees' recorded statements use much the same language when describing this situation as they would in a UPS-level negotiation. Shockingly, there is little distinction in the messaging associated with the two disparate drives, even though one involves eight total employees seeking recognition while the other is determining the fate of over a third of a million brown-uniformed workers. Therein lies the main problem, in my opinion.

Shouldn't unionization be frowned upon when staff size falls below a minimum threshold?

I'm open to suggestion on what that floor might be, but it feels like any number you can count on your fingers and toes is too low given the regulatory/legal burden it places on proprietors. It's not some nominal change; it's a complete business model paradigm shift.

The store in question averages selling a few dozen subs each hour; it is not an international concern listed on the NYSE with a market cap in the billions. Do these picketers truly not grasp the basic economic realities involved or is it merely not in their interest to admit them openly?

Here's a partial list of the (overlapping) financial facets that take a backseat during wage talks: fixed costs, competitive pricing, margins, food costs, insurance, rent, advertising, time value of money, turnover expenses, disability coverage, expired and damaged inventory, theft, unforeseen slow sales days, and taxes. These things are unavoidable; so why are they treated like nonfactors?

Sure, a minor bump across an eight-hour workday sounds doable on the surface. At a deli where a handful of people are working at any given moment, the added expense only amounts to about $150 more in incremental combined wages daily. And given a median sub price in the $15 range, a simplistic view would equate it to giving away roughly one free sub per hour. Three caveats...

Speaking of free sandwiches, the staff already gets food comped. Thus, it's a tad irksome when walkout participants keep forgetting to mention that perk in interviews, like the guy who said he "can't afford $17 sandwiches like the shop sells." Furthermore, according to one employee I spoke with, workers are also known to do "trades" with local retailers... like, for instance, a nearby dispensary. [Whether or not the owners are aware of this barter arrangement is unclear; either way, there's a cost associated with that aspect as well.] Lastly, it's important to note that Compliments Only also has a tip jar by the register. But as is the case with many labor disputes, there is a propensity for one side to dismiss this supplemental monetary pool as insignificant. Add it all up and that $150 in extra daily wages is dwarfed by the in-kind benefits employees already receive.

I'm no arbitration expert, but wouldn't one solution be to eliminate this trifecta of generous policies in exchange for management's agreement to the bargaining agent's current terms? But that would only be acceptable if the owners are willing to resign themselves to union shop status. And, again, that is a big 'if' for most partnerships and LLCs.

Beyond Finance

No matter what anyone says, small business unionization isn't as turnkey as it is made out to be. So far, we've only examined the fiscal ramifications. Now it's time to move onto the major qualitative issues surrounding this hoagie hubbub. To be clear, these circumstances have their own pecuniary effects on the business, albeit more indirect.

First of all, it's rather odd that this Bread Gutters Union drive is happening at all. Based on the quotes of various members, Compliments Only is great employer. One of the walkout workers referenced in DCist expressed "deep respect" for the owners. Another disclosed to me how he "love(s) everything" and "thinks (he's) treated perfectly." [He also disclosed a feeling of self-imposed pressure to join the collective in order to support coworkers.] These guys admit to knowing the owners "don't have enough money to do what we want them to do" while claiming their push is not "targeted" towards ownership, to boot. Um, who else would be targeted then?

Additionally, they, along with everyone else supporting them, conveniently omit stuff that might make them look less noble. For illustration: not one publication or social media account I've come across chose to be forthcoming about the "sick-out" employees engaged in the Saturday before. Do you think leaving their employer in the lurch might have swayed community opinion if the average DC resident knew they engaged in such ploys?

I think it's fair to say that these eight picketers' communications conflict with their lived experience to some degree. What's far more troubling to me is the behavior of the much larger entity they've tapped as their bargaining agent. When Big Labor rallies unaffiliated protestors to picket small business, doesn't it reek of overkill to you? Look, I support their right to draw attention to the plight of large workforces via the public airing of grievances. But the venom spewed by "resist everything" boycotters bouncing from restaurant to restaurant is a bad look in my book.

Shouldn't there be a less aggressive gameplan for mom-and-pop shoppes?

You would think the backlash to these tactics would naturally force unions to course correct. Unfortunately, that has yet to transpire with any regularity. Why? Could it have something to do with journalists' penchant to side with organized labor against management?

[Even when current employee members file a decertification petition to disband from their union (and allude to the very concepts I've emphasized), the media still casts its lot with the system.]

As an example, consider the way Amanda Gomez reported the sandwich story. This lover of organized labor (she frequently includes a mention in her bio) just so happened to be there on July 15th for the walkout. Either that's one crazy coincidence or she was tipped off by a union contact. She then went on to post a very sympathetic live thread before adding her formal account to her employer's NPR-linked site on July 18th. It took until the day after publication for her, a woman "interested in covering food, with a focus on the economics and labor behind a meal," to seek confirmation on her (obvious to most) hunch that restauranteurs might poke holes in the unionization effort. Of course, she didn't see the need to update her story with this newfound July 19th revelation (even though an unrelated edit was made on July 20th). No, only those lucky enough to catch her Twitter mea culpa (with a visible shelf life of roughly one day) are aware of this key narrative. Tough break for the folks who own Compliments Only, huh?!

Solidarity Is The Key To Victory

Until this kind of treatment ceases to be commonplace, not much will change. News pieces with slanted angles will persist in pushing a huge chunk of consumers to punish small business for perceived sleights that lack nuance. Union representatives and their rank and file have no incentive to curtail spreading half-truths and partial pictures that further cement this fate.

There is a way to stop it. We can demand a new path forward. We can pillory miniscule unionization efforts or simply point out how enervating they are for everyone involved. Instead of being afraid to cross the picket line, we could show up in support of reasonableness to help local entrepreneurs stay afloat. None of this means we are against employees fighting for higher wages. That said, sometimes people need to be willing to move onto greener pastures as opposed to trying to squeeze the last drops out of an already juiced piece of fruit.

Unions made this country great. But so did small businesses. Both can continue to thrive as long as they don't overlap; otherwise, the end result is often overwhelmingly onerous for neighborhood job creators. [I can virtually guarantee that if you polled a hundred random store owners about their original business plans, not one will have included a section celebrating the possibility of stressful meetings with the National Labor Relations Board.]

In short, we need to set ground rules for what makes an operation too tiny for organized labor. The alternative is a potential strike three for a substantial portion of the tax base and the economy. Which is why we must stand united in support of small business. Do I think we can do it?

Yes, we can!

Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.


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