When Abey Kassa peered out the window of Treats, his West End lunch shop, one day in late May, he couldn’t believe his eyes. More than 20 protesters from Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union—betterknown as “Justice For Janitors”—were waging a noisy, traffic-stopping demonstration against his business.
The protesters marched in front of his 2445 M Street restaurant for most of the noon hour. They buttonholed passers-by, handing them fliers that blasted Treats for a poor performance during a February health inspection. (The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had cited—but not closed—Treats for improper food storage and dirty floors. The inspectors gave the restaurant passing grades at a follow-up several weeks later.) The Justice for Janitors pickets continued on and off for the next three weeks. Kassa’s business dipped; potential customers saw the marchers, glanced at the leaflets, shied away from Treats, and headed elsewhere for a sandwich or a slice of pizza.
So how had Treats aggrieved Justice for Janitors? Did Kassa and his partner Solomon Osman fire unionized staffers? Did they employ nonunion workers to clean their shop?
“Our only crime seems to be that we are an Oliver Carr tenant,” says Osman. Treats’ owners have been paying rent to the mega-developer’s Carr Real Estate Services since the restaurant opened in 1989. Justice for Janitors is campaigning to unionize the custodial workers in D.C.’s commercial office buildings. For years, the union has been waging a well-publicized crusade against Carr, who manages 55 properties totaling about 11.5 million square feet of commercial space in the metropolitan area. His firm, like many in D.C., hires outside contractors to clean its buildings. Most contractors employ nonunion janitors. Carr Real Estate Services claims that union shops do 30 percent of its cleaning.
Kassa and Osman don’t use any janitor service, union or otherwise, to tidy up the premises. They clean Treats themselves. And Osman says Justice for Janitors never even asked him which side he is on in the dispute between the local and Carr.
“This would be much easier to take if somebody from that group had approached me as a way of soliciting support, and I’d refused to join in their fight,” Osman says. “But nobody ever came to me to talk about their grievances with Oliver Carr. We never talked to anybody with the union until they were outside our door.”
The union’s anti-Treats handouts don’t mention Carr, and Local 82 Executive Director Jay Hessey declares that Treats’ landlord was irrelevant to the M Street maneuvers.
“All we’re doing is getting information from public health files out to the public,” Hessey says. “We have people here who do research, and they find out this information, and we get it out to the public. There is no other reason we target businesses. This is just something we do, and…the only goal is public information.”
And Carr has absolutely nothing to do with the protest?
“As I’ve already said, we’re doing this for public information,” Hessey says. “That’s all I’ll say about it.”
But the owners and their neighbors aren’t buying Hessey’s spiel. The union has not, after all, attacked any of the dozens of D.C. restaurants closed for health violations. Dennis Roche, owner of Roche Hair, Skin & Nails, a salon in the same building as Treats, says that Justice for Janitors staffers weren’t so elusive about their real target when he asked them to call off the troops.
“I [told] them…I thought it was ridiculous and mean that they would stoop so low as to pass out fliers that say Treats almost failed an inspection,” says Roche. “I asked them what right they had to try to ruin this guy just because he’s an Oliver Carr tenant. We don’t hire janitors, and they know it. They told me it didn’t matter, and that they would do whatever it takes to get Carr.”
The anti-Treats campaign reflects the increasing acrimony between the union and Carr. In December, the developer won an injunction that prohibits the local from mounting any rallies within 20 feet of the entrance of any Carr business property or 500 feet of the residence of any Carr employee. And in early June, Carr filed an unfair labor practices charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Though the complaint wasn’t sparked by the Treats protests, Carr’s firm contends that the union has subjected other tenants to similar attacks.
“In our filing with the NLRB, we contend that this sort of “secondary’ labor activity is illegal,” says Carr Real Estate Services spokeswoman Karen Widmayer. “When the union decides to go after our tenants with this sort of protest, they are trying to negatively affect their businesses as a way of getting our tenants to put pressure on us.”
The tactic seems to have failed at Treats, however. The union stopped marching a few weeks ago, and business has returned to its pre- picket levels. And though Kassa and Osman fear Justice for Janitors might reprise the protests, they say they have no intention of breaking their lease with Carr, which doesn’t expire until 1999. “We’re not going anywhere,” Kassa says.
The owners still can’t believe that the union tried to ruin their business simply to wound Carr. “It’s not really that their actions have made me unhappy; it’s more that I just don’t understand what’s going on,” Osman says. “Why are they are trying so hard to hurt me? What good does it do them to crush one small guy?”