Carolina Country Kitchen in Brownsville is supposed to have the best soul food in Brooklyn, but the 15 men gathered in the back room of this restaurant one freezing January night are following up their dinner with a round of bellyaching.
They’re grousing about their employer, who they say gave them nothing but grief during the recent holidays. “It’s Christmas evening, [the boss] is sitting at home with his family, and I’m snaking out a line,” says Jeff Edwards, remembering a holiday spent ankle-deep in sewer water. “They didn’t give us a balloon, not a candy, nothing!” chimes in Reggie Tinnin. It’s not just that they didn’t get a Christmas card or a fat bonus. The men are ticked off because their jobs–as porters, handymen or buildings supers, making $7.50 to $10.50 an hour–lack basic benefits like a decent, accessible health plan, regularly scheduled raises and well-defined job duties. “Guys [are] working in health hazards, working with improper materials, and they don’t even give us a six-month checkup!” exclaims Edwards.
That’s what has them shouting down to the end of the long, narrow table in the back of Carolina, where Teamsters Local 966 organizer Ben Weinthal sits taking notes. For these workers at the legendary Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, it just doesn’t seem fair that an organization founded by Bobby Kennedy on the principles of charity, community development and economic revitalization would be so hard-line with its own staff. Restoration’s mission: to “be the catalyst for the progressive improvement of the quality of life for the people of Bedford-Stuyvesant.” But ever since the staff at Fulton Street’s Restoration Plaza complex and at least 10 Restoration-owned housing developments in Bed-Stuy started to unionize in December, Restoration has fought back like a lean, profit-driven corporate machine.
They hired a law firm, Clifton Budd & DeMaria, that literally wrote the book on derailing organizing drives. According to the workers, the Bed-Stuy management has also disciplined and in one case threatened to fire workers who were trying to organize. (So far, Weinthal says, he has filed six complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.)
Neither Restoration President Roderick “Rocky” Mitchell nor the organization’s board members would return repeated phone calls from City Limits for comment. Money, though, seems to be at the heart of this battle. Bed-Stuy Restoration was reportedly faltering in the early 1990s before Mitchell stepped in to salvage it. According to U.S. Congressman Major Owens, a longtime ally who safeguarded Restoration’s funding during a nasty federal budget battle, Mitchell feels that paying top dollar for labor and services would be wasting the community’s money. “He put it in a way that…he has to defend the long-term and short-term interests of the community,” says Owens, who nonetheless has urged Mitchell to recognize the union.
For nonprofits that fear any threat to the bottom line, a union drive can seem like a nightmare on the order of a tax audit. When faced with an organizing drive, they may fight back no differently than any corporate behemoth. Unlike corporations, nonprofits usually feel it’s their mission–rather than the need to protect profits– that justifies getting tough.
To the workers, though, the mission doesn’t justify the means. For the men who fix the boilers, sweep the floors and paint the walls at Restoration’s hundreds of units of low-income housing, they’re helping to fulfill that mission–and they want that to be acknowledged. “Restoration tries to give the impression that ‘we’re helping you out by giving you a job,'” says Edwards. “It’s not that they act like they appreciate the work you’re doing for the company–it’s not like that.”
Like any other nonprofit, Restoration can make the case that protecting its cash flow is part of its mission. The first community development corporation in the country, Restoration brought money into the neighborhood for decades by renovating and renting out empty buildings, nurturing local businesses and luring in for-profit businesses like Kaplan Learning Center.
Bed-Stuy leaders credit Mitchell with bringing the group back from the brink of fiscal crisis, and point out that he stands up for the neighborhood’s interests. Errol Louis, co-founder of the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, recalls that it was Mitchell who took on Chemical Bank when it tried to expand its Restoration Plaza branch using out-of-town contractors. Rocky got his way in the end, and the bank hired contractors from Bed-Stuy. “That, to me, is an example of having that balance between a community service mission and a tough business style,” says Louis. “If you’re doing business with Rocky, you’re doing business.”
Now Mitchell, who earned $135,000 in 1997, is using that tough business style with people like building painter David Brathwaite, who lives in Bed-Stuy and has worked for Restoration since 1992.
In January, Brathwaite and some fifty employees got an unsettling letter from a Restoration subsidiary. It discussed at some length a bitter union fight 10 years ago at a Restoration-owned property. “If I go on strike, can the Company hire a replacement to fill my job as previously occurred in 1990 at Vernon Avenue Houses?” was among the questions the letter suggested they “think about.” Another hypothetical: “If I am receiving nothing or only a few dollars per week from the Teamsters while I am on strike, how will my family and I pay for groceries, rent or mortgage payments, and car payments?” For Brathwaite, it’s no idle question: With a wife and six children, he says he’s barely getting by on his $10-an-hour wages.
The letter was signed by Dorothy Hill of CDR Management, a for-profit subsidiary of Restoration that manages some of its housing. But such indelicate threats are the signature of Clifton Budd & DeMaria, a Manhattan law firm so renowned for blocking union drives that corporate managers across the country pay upwards of $500 a day to listen to seminars given by senior partner Alfred T. DeMaria.
DeMaria has written seven books on how to fight unions–including one titled How Management Wins Organizing Campaigns–that are standard reading for companies looking to do just that. Replete with boilerplate anti-union flyers and letters, his newest book is Combating the Resurgence of Organized Labor: A Modern Guide to Union Prevention.
Clifton Budd’s most notorious local case was the strike at the Upper West Side food shop Citarella, where the owner fired three pro-union workers early on in the campaign. They were later rehired, but the shop remains, to use a favorite DeMaria term, “union-free.” Elliott Robinson, lead organizer for AFSCME District Council 1707–an umbrella council for nonprofits–knows the firm well. He went up against Clifton Budd over a year ago while trying to organize a local at a Job Corps site in the Bronx. Flyers warned workers of the dire consequences of unionizing. Although workers certified the union over a year ago, says Robinson, they haven’t won a contract yet, due to what he calls repeated stalling tactics. “It’s a very vicious company,” Robinson says bitterly.
Clifton Budd partner Peter Clark refused to comment on this case, but denied the accusations. “Untrue,” he says. “We may be known for all sorts of false things, but just because the union’s saying it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”
It is not uncommon, say organizers, for nonprofits to argue that they are too strapped to afford a union. Though it has generous foundation support, Restoration’s 1998 nonprofit tax return shows that the organization is asset-rich but cash-poor: Although its total wealth approached $15 million, it ran a deficit of about $1.6 million that year.
“They don’t have a lot of wiggle room over there,” says Louis. “Probably the most serious risk that the union runs is to assume that this is an organization with deep pockets. Rocky brought the place back from the brink, and it’s possible to capsize the boat, it really is.” But that argument doesn’t go far with union organizers. “This is a nonprofit, but they’re also a major landlord,” says Scott Sommer, an international representative in the United Auto Workers, which represents thousands of nonprofit workers in New York City. “When you employ people, you have to treat people properly…. If the current management can’t run the place in a manner to pay the workers a living wage, then, frankly, they should leave and people who can do it should take over.”
Rep. Owens believes that Bed-Stuy Restoration can work things out. “If they’re doing things right, a large majority of these workers ought to be part of the community, and their interests will coincide,” he says. “If the moral imperative is laid out that workers have to have those basics, it gets factored into the equation.”
Unions don’t just help nonprofit sector employees, Sommer points out; they also go to bat for employers. “The UAW actually maintains a very active lobbying arm with the Federal government to make sure employers get re-funded,” says Sommer, who formerly worked at a unionized nonprofit. “In fact,” he adds, “often the union has more political clout than the nonprofit’s board of directors.”
Mark Liss, formerly of District Council 1707, points to AFSCME Local 215’s successful quest for across-the-board funding hikes for mental health workers in the late 1980s. That increase, Liss recalls wryly, “ended up helping even non-union agencies.”
The workers at Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration might not have the money or the leverage to overwhelm this law firm, but some are already projecting victory. The organizing committee is trying to drum up local support. In January, workers began street pickets and leafleting tenants in the buildings. “Once we raise eyebrows, people are going to be asking Rocky, ‘What’s this?'” believes Edwards. “It would behoove him to have some answers.” Elected officials like Congressman Owens and State Assemblyman William Boyland have also responded to the letter campaign by contacting Mitchell on the workers’ behalf. The organizers’ next letter will be to Andrew Cuomo, pointing out that HUD money is being spent on a law firm they estimate charges about “$300 an hour.” At this point, the organizing committee seems more confident than scared.
Perhaps that’s because they don’t have a lot to lose. David Brathwaite may be making more than some of the others, but it’s still not enough for him to worry about the “car payments” mentioned in the letter from CDR Management. After the meeting at Carolina’s, he carefully wraps up his leftover fried chicken, and puts it in a plastic bag. Outside in the cold, he unlocks an old Ross 10-speed bike. Hanging his doggie bag from the handlebars, he begins the long ride back to Bed-Stuy.
Annia Ciezadlo is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.