Union withdraws interest in West St. Paul restaurant

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After nearly 40 years of serving steaks, chops and cocktails in West St. Paul, Caspers’ Cherokee Sirloin Room closed July 12. The restaurant had employed 24 members of UNITE HERE Local 17.

Cherokee Sirloin Room co-owner Rick Casper told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the Smith Avenue space will reopen later this summer, after getting a three-week makeover, as the Cherokee Tavern.

Nancy Goldman, Local 17 president, said her union chose to “withdraw interest” in maintaining representation at the new restaurant. Workers will have to re-apply for positions at the Cherokee Tavern.

Goldman, who had been involved in negotiations with the Caspers on a new contract for more than a year, said the owners’ financial struggles left Local 17 no choice but to end its relationship with the Cherokee.

The final straw came several months ago, when members overwhelmingly voted to reject a concessions package that, Goldman said, would have “gutted the contract.”

“To me, that made it inevitable that we would part ways,” she said. “They are, indeed, struggling – and have been for many years – to stay afloat. They truly can’t afford a union contract anymore.”

Fighting to keep the establishment union when it reopens as the Cherokee Tavern, Goldman added, would have been fruitless and counterproductive, putting workers’ severance packages at risk.

“The union could easily say, ‘Go ahead and close and remodel, but you’re taking all the workers back and the contract,’” she said. “But if we did that, they would never reopen.”

Goldman commended the Caspers for being “upstanding in wrapping up the terms of the previous contract” and negotiating severance packages with the union.

But she doubts whether many workers – including three with 30-plus years of experience and a cook with 41 years of experience – will find a home at the new Cherokee Tavern.

The owners have indicated publicly they will seek some turnover to give the place a more hip feel that attract a younger clientele.

“They have some idea – I don’t know how valid it is – of reopening as a trendy hot spot,” Goldman said. “I can understand what they think they’re going to try to do, but my concern is there’s some really senior, longtime workers, and how many Mother’s Days and Thanksgivings have (they) sacrificed to wait on that family’s restaurant?”

Of course, the Twin Cities has plenty of restauranteurs who don’t let union contracts get in the way of attracting hip, trendy crowds. Among them: Bradstreet and Nye’s in Minneapolis and Pazaluna and Mancini’s in St. Paul.

For more information on patronizing union restaurants, go to Local 17’s Web site: www.uniteherelocal17.org. Click on the “Restaurants” link.

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.

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