Complex union fight playing out in old Mpls. restaurant

Murray's Restaurant
Executive chef John VanHouse (left) prepares food at Murray's Restaurant in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 15, 2010.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

In downtown Minneapolis, at a place better known for its pricey steak than labor disputes, a complicated labor dynamic has emerged that involves the owners of Murray's restaurant, the union representing workers there, and a warring restaurant staff.

Murray's is an iconic Twin Cities high-end steak house. In the dining area, Frank Sinatra pipes in through speakers, evoking the era when Murray's was founded back in 1946. The family-run restaurant has been a union shop from its inception. Management and the union have mostly gotten along well--until recently.

"They wanted to break the union down there," said Nancy Goldman, the president of UNITE HERE Local 17, the union representing workers at Murray's steakhouse.

Goldman said the rapport between Murray's management and the union deteriorated last fall when workers' contracts expired. The restaurant's owners wanted a new contract that would slash wages and benefits, eliminating health care for most workers. Staff voted down two proposed contracts.

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"They know us well enough to know that there's no sense for the union to take a contract that has no benefits and is equivalent to any non-union restaurant and maybe not even that good," Goldman said.

After several rounds of negotiations, Murray's management declared an impasse and imposed a cost-cutting contract. The legality of that contract is now before the National Labor Relations Board, which has already sided once with the union on the issue.

Tim Murray, the president and general manager of Murray's restaurant, said his business took a beating in the recession and can't afford its previous health care options.

Tim Murray
Tim Murray, president of Murray's Restaurant in Minneapolis. Murray says that a drop in revenues forced the company to impose a cost-cutting contract. However the union says the restaurant doesn't need to cut labor costs so dramatically.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"There's been losses and substantial losses since 2006, I believe," Murray said.

The union said sales of Murray's steak sandwiches at the Twins Stadium are boosting revenues, and the restaurant doesn't need to cut labor costs so dramatically. Management denies that revenues have spiked much.

It's the standard labor versus management antagonism.

But it gets more complicated due to a deep rancor is building between workers who support the union, and those who don't.

Marcia Freeman, Shane McCaffrey
Marcia Freeman (left) and Shane McCaffrey work and Murray's Restaurant in Minneapolis. Both have taken issue with UNITE HERE, the labor union representing workers of ther restaurant. McCaffrey spearheaded an effort to decertify the union that did not succeed.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"We never really had a need for the union," said Shane McCaffrey, a server at Murray's.

Shane McCaffrey works about 25 hours a week and pulls in as much as $50,000 a year. McCaffrey is leading efforts to decertify the union but has to wait until the contract issue is resolved.

"How we feel now is we've been held hostage by the union," he said.

Another server, Marcia Freeman agrees. She and her husband, a butcher, have each worked at Murray's for more than three decades. Freeman thinks the union asked for too much, considering the bad economy, and she accuses the union of holding secret meetings -- one of which she attended. She said the union was scheming to go after Murray's money and orchestrate a boycott to drive the restaurant out of business.

"That is really a threat to our family's livelihood," Freeman said. "We're the sacrificial lambs for the union, which makes no sense to me."

Nancy Goldman of Local 17 said the union isn't trying to shut Murray's down, but said the restaurant's work environment has grown so hostile that workers may well be better off elsewhere. One worker has quit; others, like Kathy Halonen, are unhappy. Halonen said the anti-union workers are harassing her.

"I want to cry every time I go into work because they're so mean," Halonen said.

Halonen, 58, is losing her health insurance. She thinks the union will fight to keep it, so she wants Local 17 to stay. She said anti-union workers are not the ones losing their health insurance. A handful of workers who get scheduled for enough hours still have coverage.

Tim Murray said he won't object if workers ultimately decide to decertify the union.

"If that's what they choose, so be it," Murray said. "I'll abide by and stand by whichever way they choose on this."

Meanwhile, he said the restaurant's losses have been abating, but a full turnaround will take a long time.