Bohemian Blues

Conspiracies and labor angst at a Minneapolis hipster mecca

When James Flemming heard his boss's anxious voice on the answering machine saying he had something urgent to talk about, he stopped listening to his messages and immediately picked up the phone to call work. It was Monday morning, September 17, and Flemming worried that the Loring Bar and Cafe, where he had been a waiter for the past six years, might have been broken into or vandalized. Less than a week before, he had been asked to work an extra shift as a sort of backup security guard because Jason McLean, owner of the popular spot, had feared that the place's ethnically diverse crowd might erupt in violence following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Flemming says that McLean answered in the first couple of rings, but his boss's voice was muffled. "What? I can't hear what you're saying," the confused waiter said. "Could you say that again?"

McLean repeated what he had said. "You're terminated," he said flatly. "Come in and get your stuff." If Flemming wanted to know why he was fired, McLean continued, he should submit a written request for an explanation and a written response would be given to him.

Flemming was stunned. He and McLean had had their problems in the past, but nothing recent. He paced around the house for a bit trying to piece together the events of the past several weeks when the phone rang again. It was a friend who also worked at the café. He too had been fired.

Throughout the day more calls came in. By nightfall it was clear that 13 staffers from the Loring Bar and Cafe had been fired that morning. Four of those who lost their jobs were relatively recent hires. But nine had worked for McLean for years; one woman had started bartending there just months after the place opened 14 years ago. Almost all of them had learned of their firing via their answering machines, and, like Flemming, most were told they could submit a written request for a written explanation.

"I've been around [McLean] for years and I know he's capable of making these kinds of decisions even if it means terminating close friends," says Flemming. "But this seems particularly harsh. No one knew this was coming, and it's a really terrible time in the world right now with everything going on in New York. And the economy is really bad. It's horrible."

In the wake of the firings, McClean closed the bar and restaurant for two days. When Flemming and the other fired workers went to pick up their last paychecks on the 17th and 18th, they noted signs on the door telling customers that the place was closed for repairs because of "leaks."

Flemming was among those who asked for an explanation. "The business of the Loring Cafe/Bar has been in jeopardy for sometime," the handwritten note he got from McLean starts out. "We have been unable to show a profit for a couple of years. Especially this year, as you can plainly see, there has been a sharp decline in the café's sales." McLean wrote that he had long been concerned about liquor costs and had hired "investigative agencies" to observe employees on the job. The investigators, he claimed, noticed that money that was supposed to make it to the cash drawer didn't always get there.

Flemming wasn't a bartender, and he says he was not accused of stealing himself. But he was still fired. "I have held the belief that such widespread corruption within the business is perpetuated with some awareness by even those who are not directly involved," McLean wrote. "It is my belief that you participated in the code of silence that I believe permeates the senior ranks of Loring personnel. By terminating your employment, I hope to stem the tide of dysfunction of this business and get it back on the up and up."

Flemming is quick to acknowledge that bartenders in lots of restaurants are known to make sure good customers get the occasional free drink. But he says he knew nothing about any theft going on at the Loring and that prior to his firing McLean never asked him about it. And while it's true that business has been slow, he doubts that that is the reason why he and the others lost their jobs.

He is one of a number of former and current employees who charge that McLean wanted to clean house in order to get rid of several longtime employees. At least seven of the fired workers were among the last of those who worked for McLean during an employee campaign to unionize in 1997 and 1998. "I think he wanted to get rid of us so he wouldn't have any opposition to some of the new policies he wants to start," Flemming says. "The funny thing is that I don't think anyone would have honestly tried to organize again after all we went through the first time. But this was his preemptive strike against opposition."

If Flemming's recollection is right, two days before Christmas 1997, McLean distributed a memo outlining a plan to begin charging all customers a mandatory 17 percent tip. That "service compris," as McLean called it, would then be divided equally among employees. The idea, McLean argued, would ensure equal pay for all employees. (At the Loring, as is the case with most restaurants and bars, waiters and bartenders have traditionally made minimum wage plus tips, while the kitchen staff get no tips but a higher hourly rate.) McLean's plan would have meant that everyone received the same hourly pay and a portion of the tips on top of that. This would have meant a pay raise for kitchen staff, but it was a substantial pay cut for waiters and bartenders, who earn the bulk of their wages from tips; and they objected to the change.

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