Food Fight

Pols feel pressure to feast at the union trough

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Commissioner Jane Campbell's birthday party came with surprises. - Walter  Novak
Commissioner Jane Campbell's birthday party came with surprises.
Every spring, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell throws herself a birthday party that doubles as a political fund-raiser. Never too fancy, the affairs typically are held at a local restaurant or bar, decorated with a few signs and balloons. Guests trade political contributions for warm pasta, finger sandwiches, and the chance to schmooze a commissioner.

Last year, for her 46th birthday, Campbell planned a modest affair at Massimo da Milano, at the corner of West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue, where she'd held successful fund-raisers before. Popular with many county Democrats, the restaurant is accessible, offers plenty of free parking, and caters such events for about 8 to 10 bucks a head. The deal is hard to beat, says Campbell.

But Campbell changed plans after receiving a call from Local 10 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, also known by its acronym HERE. According to Campbell, Local 10 President Ken Ilg asked her to move the fund-raiser to a union shop -- a restaurant or hotel where workers are represented by HERE. If she didn't, Campbell says, the union threatened to protest her event.

Campbell was among the first targets of a Local 10 campaign to organize non-union bars and restaurants, especially those popular with county Democrats, who seek -- and almost always receive -- labor's endorsement. To add leverage to its cause, the union last year began pushing Democrats to steer fund-raisers away from traditional non-union haunts, sometimes with the threat of a boycott.

"Everything was set to roll at Massimo, [but] I was the first one that Ken's operation decided to make an issue of," says Campbell. "They called and threatened me, and said they were going to picket. So I changed [the event], because fund-raisers are about making friends, not making controversy."

Campbell agreed to move her party to Ferris Steak House at Gateway, which, at the time, was not organized, but was on the union's approved list because it was open to negotiating. Campbell says the location hurt her fund-raiser, because "the price was four bucks more [per head] than at Massimo, and there was no free parking, and so the number [of guests] went down."

Still, Campbell says she was criticized by some of the building trades because the building that houses Ferris Steak House wasn't renovated with all-union labor. "Here I was just trying to raise money. It wasn't a big ticket fund-raiser, and I couldn't please anyone," she says. "It was a mess."

Campbell held her 47th birthday party last month at Massimo da Milano, this time with HERE's blessing. Massimo is now negotiating a possible union contract, and Massimo owner Tony DiIorio says he is considering a union proposal involving the catering side of his restaurant's business. "We are trying to come up with something," he says.

But some Democratic politicians are bristling at Ilg's aggressive tactics to expand the union's membership. "He's got to understand that you can't change things overnight," says county Democratic Party Chairman Jimmy Dimora.

Despite his strong support of unions, Dimora takes issue with HERE's ongoing effort to pressure politicians to patronize only union shops. "There are only a dozen or so places available, most of them downtown. Mayors and councilpeople are going to want to have fund-raisers in their respective neighborhoods," he says.

Local 10 represents about 3,000 employees at 60 locations in Northeast Ohio, including a large number of foodservice workers at the city's stadiums. Since the organizing campaign began more than a year ago, the union has secured contracts with Sforzo's, a popular restaurant among West Side Democrats, and with a small caterer and pub.

But even with more union choices, politicians are still hard-pressed to pass on a free meal from a non-union shop, says Dimora. "Sometimes you get a place where the owner throws the fund-raisers for you as an in-kind [contribution]. How do you turn that down?" he asks. "You are not paying anything. All the proceeds are going to your campaign fund."

Dimora believes that the union's tactics are forcing politicians to do the union's business. "I've tried to tell Ilg that, if you have a particular [bar or restaurant] that throws you [the union] out, we should know that. But if you haven't gone to the place, you can't expect us to do the organizing. You can't blame us if you haven't talked to them. It is not our responsibility, even though we support unions."

"We're not asking them to organize anything for us," counters Gina LaCava, HERE's Ohio legislative and political director. "We are just asking them to patronize places that we have organized. Politicians in general are supported by labor, and when they ask for our endorsement, our members want to be supported by them when it comes time to dish out money for a fund-raiser."

Complicating matters for Local 10 is a potential turf battle with Local 1 of the Textile Processors union, which is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO and is trying itself to organize two high-profile restaurants popular with politicians: The Treehouse in Tremont and Ferris Steak House at Gateway.

Local 1's acting president is Robert Tate, the former vice president of HERE's Local 10. In 1998, Tate and former Local 10 President Dennis Francis agreed to a lifetime banishment from HERE to avoid internal charges resulting from a federal probe of the union. (Tate did not return repeated calls.)

The textile union's foray into HERE territory is producing friction between the two unions. "I have dealt with restaurant owners who have met with Bob Tate. It seems he wasn't real big on organizing restaurants when he was with Local 10, but all of sudden he seems to think it is his territory," says LaCava.

The turf battle has also drawn politicians into the fray. Earlier this year, Local 10 put pressure on Cuyahoga County Engineer Robert Klaiber Jr. to cancel a fund-raiser at Ferris Steak House, which initially was negotiating with Local 10, but is now considering a contract with Local 1.

Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne got involved in the dispute on Klaiber's behalf. "I called Ken Ilg and told him that Klaiber booked that event with the understanding that those [restaurant] workers were represented by a union, and therefore he wasn't going to cancel," Coyne says.

Ferris Steak House is viewed as a particularly important restaurant because its co-owner is developer and prominent fund-raiser Tony George.

George says he is "pro-union" and wants to unionize Ferris Steak House so he can direct his political functions to it, but resents any suggestion that he must sign with Local 10. "If I'm going to be a union shop, I'm going to pick the union," he says. "I'm going with the union that is best for my business and employees."

George says he has signed "a letter of intent to negotiate with Local 1, and that's where it stands." He laments: "First I'm criticized for not being union, now I'm being criticized because I'm not with the right one."

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