The air inside Murray's Restaurant at lunchtime Tuesday was redolent of red meat, garlic toast, power and thick drapery. Frank Sinatra sang "There's No Business Like Show Business" as servers in black and white caromed around the room amid the clank of heavy cutlery.
Table advertisements showed off the adapted Murray's Steak Sandwich that is now being sold at the new Twins stadium. At least one customer ordered the famous Silver Butterknife Steak, a 28-ounce monster that goes for $94, a sign that this recession has not landed equally on everyone.
There was little to suggest that it has fallen particularly hard on the waitstaff, many of whom recently took pay cuts and lost health insurance due to a battle between the Murray family and the union, UNITE HERE Local 17.
Murray's is the last stand-alone restaurant in downtown Minneapolis that has union workers, but that is in danger of changing, the union said.
After union members rejected a contract offer, Murray's imposed a contract on its employees, some of whom have been with the family establishment more than 30 years, and now refuses to take union dues out of checks. Union leaders have called for a boycott of the restaurant, but because they represent vendors at the ballpark, they have not asked for a boycott of the sandwich.
Nancy Goldman, president of UNITE HERE Local 17, said the Murray family never really tried to bargain with the union, and thinks they want to drive it out. "They are whining and crying about it not being a level playing field," said Goldman. "But other restaurants have survived because they are union, like Mancini's and Jax."
Goldman said that Murray's imposed a contract that cut wages 10 percent for some employees, such as dishwashers. Employees who have worked for the family for decades had their vacations cut from four weeks to one or two, Goldman said, and health insurance was cut dramatically.
Murray's issued a statement that said, in part: "Like all downtown restaurants, Murray's has faced a challenging marketplace over the last several years. The parties started bargaining in September 2009 and continued through January 2010, when negotiations became deadlocked. The Union was unwilling to make any significant changes that Murray's believed it needed."
According to the restaurant's statement, Murray's employees on March 31 petitioned Region 18 of the National Labor Relations Board for an election to decertify UNITE HERE Local 17 as their bargaining representative. Region 18 concluded that the petition was valid and an election is scheduled for May 12.
For many years, any employee who worked at least 75 hours a month received health care, and the company paid 80 percent of premiums. Under the current imposed contract, employees need to be full time (120 hours per month) and the company pays a maximum of $100 a month. Only a few of the 36 employees work that much, she said.
"There are all these servers who are in their 50s and 60s who have worked there for decades," Goldman said. "They've had health care and are looking to retirement but they need to buy their own insurance outside the restaurant. The Murrays are fighting those [employees] who want to bump up their hours."
Goldman said the union's accountant went through the restaurant's books, and its difficulties were not due to excessive union wages. "Their problems were going on long before the economy hit the skids," she said.
Goldman said the union even tried to persuade the family that a move to a new location might increase business.
One employee, who asked for anonymity, said "it was very disheartening that they wanted to take it all. A lot of us wanted to work with them and meet them halfway, but they didn't want to negotiate at all."
The employee, who has been at Murray's for many years, said he has had health care through the restaurant, but no longer does. "I'm looking for health care but I'm currently uninsured, so I just hope I don't get in an accident or get sick."
The employee disputes Murray's claims that business is down. "Business has been great, in my opinion."
"They may say the union wasn't willing to compromise," said Goldman. "We were willing, but we aren't willing to do it blindly, forever."
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