Rancor Lingers Over Union Posters
Given a choice, Tony Cuccio prefers not to have signs of any kind in the windows of his cafe in the shadow of the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
But Cuccio has learned the hard way that there’s a price to pay for having refused to display a poster supporting local dockworkers during their just-ended contract talks with the shipping lines.
“I’ve been blackballed,” said Cuccio, who has watched his union clientele abruptly vanish, along with 20% of his average daily sales. “It feels like the last of the 1930s.”
His Fantastic Cafe on Gaffey Street is among four San Pedro businesses hit by an informal boycott by union members and backers, evidently peeved about what they see as a lack of respect.
With the announcement Saturday of a tentative contract between West Coast shipping companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the signs bearing pro-union messages -- “An injury to one is an injury to all” some declared -- have started coming down from restaurant and shop windows throughout San Pedro and Wilmington.
But the rancor lingers. Halfway up a hill from Cuccio’s place, a delicatessen owner who initially scoffed at hanging a pro-union sign also is struggling. He eventually relented, putting up a sign near his main entrance. But for some union members it was too late. They still haven’t returned.
Scott Mann, a spokesman for ILWU Local 13, stressed that the boycotts are not formal union actions and that it was strictly up to the business owners whether to hang a sign. “The union supports all local businesses,” he said.
For some, however, it’s not so simple. Take, for instance, Yoshi Toshiro, whose small sushi restaurant was a favorite ILWU hangout until he ignored union members who suggested over the summer that he hang up one of the posters.
Toshiro said he had noticed a drop in business but hadn’t tied it to his refusal to hang up a sign. Finally, in mid-November, he too gave in and put one up. But some union supporters say they continue to shun his restaurant.
“It’s just a piece of paper but a very strong one,” said Toshiro, a fixture in the community for 14 years and a longtime supporter of local civic activities. “I can’t believe this has happened.”
Toshiro said he has felt trapped between the union and other customers who belong to the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represented the shipping firms in the labor dispute and “doesn’t like those signs.”
Leslie Smith, executive director of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, called the flap over the signs “disappointing.”
“I think it should be a matter of personal choice whether or not to put up a sign in a window,” he said. “But I also understand that if you are a union member who feels you are not being supported, then it’s your choice not to patronize someone.”
Union supporters point out that the ILWU’s work force, which includes some of the highest-paid hourly employees in the country, pumps hundreds of dollars each day into those and other local businesses.
Asking them to temporarily hang a sign, they argue, would seem a small favor to ask.
“When the union went on strike in 1948 and 1971, mom-and-pop stores that depended on union incomes would donate to strike lines and run tabs for union families,” said Shannon Donato of the Harry Bridges Community Labor Center, an ILWU support group. “That was their way of saying, ‘Hey, we know this is a temporary situation, and we know you’ll still be customers when it’s over.’
“Nowadays,” she continued, “all the union asks is that businesses hang a poster.”
Marta Valladolid, owner of Bringleson Jewelers on 6th Street, would not argue with that.
“We had two signs in front and one in back,” she said. “After all, 30% of my clientele is ILWU. Of course, now that there’s a contract, the signs came down, and everyone is happy, as they should be.”
Thousands of the posters were distributed shortly after the contract between the shipping lines and the 10,500 longshore workers expired. The blue, gold and white posters, 18 by 24 inches, featured a globe-shaped union logo. Across the logo appeared union phrases and rallying cries, including, “We support the ILWU” and “Contract 2002.”
More often than not, the posters went up without a fuss. Even a former Hanjin Shipping Co. manager who now owns a beauty supply store not far from Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn’s San Pedro home had one hanging by the door.
“The fact that we have an ILWU sign up is not to suggest that we have taken sides,” said the store owner, who asked that his name not be used. “It simply shows our support for a community in which there are lots of ILWU members.”
But several businesses rejected the posters, sometimes because their lease agreements prohibited such displays.
“I just happen to have a thing against signs on my windows,” said one store owner, who added that he complained to ILWU officials.
“I told them that it sounded like blackmail to me,” recalled the man, who asked to remain anonymous. “They said, ‘We don’t use those terms. We put a lot of money into this community. We help our friends.’ ”
Cuccio, the owner of Fantastic Cafe, is a former Teamster and could sympathize with the ILWU’s position. He said he was hopeful about the future. “It’ll take some time,” he said, “but everything is going to be fine.... They need us, and we need them.”
Nonetheless, an anonymous flier recently passed around town could mean more bad news for Cuccio.
Titled “Just Say No to Fantastic Cafe,” it said in part: “People and businesses who profit off us but won’t do something as simple as putting up a sign of support, should be 86’d for life.... Spread the word to everyone and then take your appetite elsewhere!!!!!!!”