Bohemian Blues

Conspiracies and labor angst at a Minneapolis hipster mecca

But there was more to it than that, says Blake Harwell, who was a cook at the Loring at the time of the dispute. In his December memo, McLean estimated how much he thought would end up in the tip pools, and then threw out a few ideas about new hourly wages. But when staffers added up the numbers, Harwell says, they became convinced that there would be quite a bit of money from the 17 percent fee left over even after the wage increases and the tip split. "A bunch of us got together and wrote him a letter saying we were opposed to the idea and that it wasn't fair," Harwell recalls.

McLean wouldn't budge, though. So Harwell, Flemming, and about ten other employees--including several of those who were recently fired--contacted the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 17 for help. "We knew we couldn't afford a lawyer, so we thought maybe the union could help us," says Harwell, who now works as a research analyst for Local 17.

Months of bitter protests followed (see "When Poetry Hurts," August 12, 1998). After more than half of the employees at the Loring signed cards expressing their desire to unionize, union organizers claimed, McLean began campaigning to defeat the movement. Shortly before the March 4, 1998 vote on whether to allow the union in, McLean promised to drop the service-charge idea for good. (The National Labor Relations Board would later broker a settlement in response to employees' accusations that McLean had engaged in union-busting.) But by then many people sympathetic to the union effort had quit. Those who remained voted to reject union representation by a two-to-one margin. Several pro-union employees stayed on--at least until a couple of weeks ago.

James Flemming is one of 13 employees recently fired from the Loring Bar and Cafe
Darin Back
James Flemming is one of 13 employees recently fired from the Loring Bar and Cafe

Jason McLean dismisses claims by Flemming, Harwell, and others that the firings have anything to do with the old controversy. The way he sees it, they are trying to turn a sound business decision into a conspiracy. "It's true I let 13 go," McLean says. "And it's true that I called them on the phone to do it. But I can assure you that it's untrue that the past had anything to do with it. I have to do the things I have to do--unpleasant as they may be--to protect my business."

In either case, things are changing for the folks who weren't fired, says one current employee who agreed to talk under the condition of anonymity. Workers have been asked to sign an addendum to their employee handbook outlining new policies. Tip pooling is not among the changes, the employee says, but waiters and bartenders must now pay the two percent processing fee charged by credit card companies for each credit card tip they receive. Employees will no longer receive a free drink after their shifts or a free meal while they're working. Some people got new duties, as well: It is now the responsibility of waiters and bartenders to sweep and mop the floors before they go home at night. (McLean would not comment about recent changes in staff policy.)

"It's really tense around here right now," the employee says. "Everyone is wondering why they didn't get fired and whether they'll be next. We're all getting these new employee handbooks that have kids' drawings in there with descriptions like, 'Do smile and greet customers.' 'Don't carry a pepper mill under your arm.' 'Don't whine--whiners will get noticed and replaced.' It's really hard to work here right now, but this is my job. It's not like I can just walk out the door and quit. I've got bills to pay."

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