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Union Blues

Local Matters


Published January 26, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

If the events of the past two weeks are any indication, 2005 could be a rocky year for Montpelier's innovative downtown union. Its five dozen or so members -- a collection of service and retail employees from various downtown businesses -- belong to Local 221 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or U.E. They seek to improve working conditions, raise pay, formalize grievance processes, and educate workers about their rights.

In the fall of 2003, organizers announced a campaign to sign union contracts at five downtown businesses. A year and a half later, they've secured two, the artsy Savoy Theater and Mountain Cafe, an all-organic eatery on Langdon Street. And they've encountered a backlash: Some workers and business owners, many of whom call themselves pro-union, wonder why workers are trying to organize in small businesses rather than at corporations such as Wal-Mart.

Recent events at one of the union's two shops will undoubtedly give activists on both sides something to talk about. On Friday, January 14, Mountain Cafe owner Sondra "Chu" Sipka fired union shop steward Kristin Warner. The two had praised each other in a Seven Days story about the union last August. Sipka, 23, also reports a new grievance with Dustin Byerly, a cook who last summer credited the union with helping him resolve a previous grievance at the restaurant.

Sipka, who signed her one-year contract with the union last June, is reluctant to speak about the conflicts, which she hopes to resolve. She met Monday night with James Haslam of the Vermont Workers' Center to discuss the situation. "It was really good talking to him," she said afterward. "There have definitely been problems, and we're going to try to work them out... We're trying to negotiate so everyone can walk away feeling satisfied. I do want what's best for them." Warner could not be reached for a comment.

Sipka also insisted that she's not anti-union -- when she welcomed the union to her restaurant last summer, she indicated she would probably have joined if she were a worker instead of a boss. "They have done a lot of great work in this town," she said.

But Sipka's kind words for the workers' organization likely won't stop the union from initiating a costly legal challenge to Warner's dismissal if they feel it was unjust. When Sipka meets with Warner and U.E. representative Kim Lawson on Friday, she'll have a lawyer by her side.

Lawson is optimistic about Friday's meeting, and she gently corrects Sipka's interpretation of the situation. According to her, Warner was not "fired" -- her employment is merely "under consideration." "The strength of the collective bargaining agreement, and the state and federal laws, are on our side," said Lawson. "And once Chu understands that, I think we should be able to come to a resolution that's satisfactory for all parties involved."