Electrifying Protest Against New Restaurant
Union members criticize "sweetheart deal" made by Habco Partnership Inc. Electric and Local No. 57.
A line of people outside a new restaurant could signal a culinary coup, or not. For Florissant's 54th Street Grill & Bar, the crowd signifies union protestors angry about what they call unfair labor practices.
Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 1 have been protesting outside the 54th Street Grill & Bar since its grand opening on Aug. 23. Located near Lindbergh and New Halls Ferry, the restaurant has come under fire from the IBEW for hiring Habco Partnership Inc. to do the building's electrical work.
Formerly a non-union electrical workers' organization, Habco signed what IBEW Business Manager Steve Schoemehl calls a "sweetheart deal" with local carpenters to join their union, paying approximately 25 percent less than the industry standard.
"They did it in order to enter into markets they couldn't before," Schoemehl said. "We have an issue with anyone who works at 25 percent less than we do."
Local No. 1 represents IBEW's Eastern Missouri region, which stretches from Lincoln County to Missouri's border with Arkansas.
Schoemehl said IBEW has the right to protest against labor performed for significantly lower wages than the area standard. "The 6,900 members I represent that work in Eastern Missouri are going to work to inform the public," he said.
Local No. 1's primary method of informing the public has been staking out the restaurant to distribute handbills. Union members ask that customers either refrain from patronizing the business or else request a 25 percent discount on their food orders.
Management from the 54th Street Grill & Bar declined to comment on the protests.
Habco President Andrew Habel takes exception to IBEW's accusations. As members of Local Union No. 57, which employs 17,000 floor layers, millwrights, carpenters and electricians, Habco field workers earn $33.52 per hour before pension and health care benefits.
"They have a much more expensive benefits package," Habel said. "The total package we spend is $43 per hour, and theirs is $53 per hour."
The difference in prices for similar benefits may be due to the size of their respective unions, Habel said.
"Our health care package is outstanding. I haven't heard a complaint from any of my people. I'm on the plan, too," he said. "When you put all four groups of our laborers together, we have significantly better buying power.
"The fact of the matter is that both of these unions have very good pay for their people." Habel said. "They can say what they want, but their claim of substandard payment is misleading."
So are 54th Street Grill and Bar customers listening to the claim?
"We heard they did from patrons and people working there," Schoemehl said. "Some of the employees were agitated. I understand that, but they have to understand that I'm agitated, too."
IBEW members initially protested at the restaurant seven days a week but have since scaled down to Friday and Saturday nights, said IBEW North County Business Representative Tom Sansuvier.
"There has been a lot of positive response from customers. Of course, there has been some negative response, but it has been mostly positive," Sansuvier said. "At first, some of the restaurant's employees were upset, but then they realized we weren't there to hurt them."
The electrical workers have passed out "thousands upon thousands" of handbills since the restaurant opened, Sansuvier said.
Among those passing out handbills are Becky Johnson, Cameron Oris and Darla Donnell, three IBEW Local 1 electrical workers who have manned the post outside of 54th Street. Some passing cars beeped in support.
"We get a lot of union members that come in and didn't know it was built the way it was," Oris said. "They thank us and say they will patronize other restaurants. But some people will drive by and say 'Get a job!'"
"The best feeling in the world is when you get a response where people support us and get what we're saying," Donnell said.
Habel, on the other hand, doubts IBEW's strikes are having any effect.
"Every time I've seen them out there with handbills, the parking lot has been pretty full," he said. "I don't think they're preventing anyone from going to 54th Street Grill."
Two customers, both Florissant residents, agreed with Habel's take on the situation.
"I see it as more power to [Habco] that they built it," Pat McDonald said. "If you're trained in that field and you can do the work, you should be able to do it no matter what union you're in."
"We're gonna eat where we're gonna eat. We don't really care," Samantha Dunn said.
Habel finds the quarrel between the two unions unnecessary.
"We're not here to say anything bad about Local 1," he said. "We're just here to do our jobs, and we don't have a problem with them. We wish they could say the same about us."