Under different circumstances Mary O’Connor would be a union organizer’s dream. Imposing, tenacious, smart, and liberal in her use of both cigarettes and expletives, she’s the kind of natural leader organizers look for when starting a campaign. She started working as a cashier at the Treasure Island store on Broadway while in high school, and in 22 years she’s risen to head cashier and bookkeeper. The oldest child of a carpenter who lives off a union pension, she’s also a natural union supporter. “I grew up in a union household,” she says. “So when I was told I had to join the union, I didn’t have a problem with that.”

In fact O’Connor is now a union foe. She’s so angry at her representatives in the United Food and Commercial Workers local 881 that she has taken the unusual step of trying to get rid of them. In March she filed a petition with the local office of the National Labor Relations Board to decertify local 881 as the representative for the 420 employees in the chain’s bargaining collective. The union says O’Connor and her cohort are “handpicked goon squads” who have orchestrated a campaign of antiunion intimidation at management’s behest, and over the past few months the conflict between the union, management, and pro- and antiunion employees has gotten ugly. Not to mention confusing.

You may have seen evidence of this turmoil outside the company’s six stores. Union members urging a boycott of the stores pass out flyers that slam Treasure Island for attempting to “pad its bottom line at the expense of its workers and their families,” but their message is undermined somewhat by the large white signs stuck to walls and fences next to the boycotters bearing all-caps messages like “BOYCOTTERS ARE NOT OUR EMPLOYEES,” “SHOP SHOP SHOP,” and “WE LOVE TREASURE ISLAND.”

Amid all the accusations and counteraccusations, one thing is clear: the union is in trouble.

The employees behind the decertification maneuver, all union members, range from cashiers and baggers to grocery managers and bookkeepers (though, notably, the most vocal are supervisors). Some, like O’Connor and Tim Connolly, a tall, mustachioed deli manager at the Wells Street store, have worked at Treasure Island for more than 15 years; others are relative newcomers. They all agree, however, that even before the current blowup there was simmering discontent with a union they say has been ineffective and unresponsive. “In 22 and a half years I have lost a week’s vacation,” says O’Connor. “I have lost 50 cents an hour. I have lost a personal day. My union was never able to get that back for me. . . . Whatever we’ve gotten in contracts over the past few years was due to the goodwill of Treasure Island itself.”

“I was having problems with my manager,” says Michele, a part-time cashier who didn’t want her last name used, “and I asked [the union rep] if they could transfer me to a different store. They said that I would have to talk to the owners in order to do that. I thought the union represented me, so they would do that for me. My point is, then, why have a union at all, if you have to represent yourself?”

“I’d say I’m prounion but anti-local 881,” says Connolly. “My father was a plumber, my brother was in heating and air conditioning all through the construction industry, and they were very proud to belong to those unions. I, for the life of me, can’t see what they saw. This union is so weak and so terrible.”

Not everyone in the union feels that way. Mary Valenti, a youthful, petite woman who worked as a cashier at the Broadway store for 29 years, says the union was a good advocate for workers’ interests. “Any time I had a question or a comment,” she says, “they were right there with an answer.” Another employee who’s worked at Treasure Island for almost 30 years says, “If we lost ground it’s because everyone’s losing ground in this country. Mary O’Connor has made us lose ground much more quickly. Mary O’Connor is kissing the owners’ ass. . . . I cannot see any reason anyone would support the cause she’s supporting.” (That employee prefers to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation from the company.)

It isn’t easy to be a food workers’ union these days. As nonunion chains like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart proliferate, union stores are under increasing pressure to boost their bottom line by cutting wages and decreasing subsidies for health care. This puts unions in a tight spot: they can either concede their hard-fought gains–a living wage, affordable health insurance, pension plans–or go to war.

In October, UFCW chose war. Nearly 60,000 UFCW members went on strike against three of California’s largest grocery chains (some were locked out) over objections to proposed higher health care premiums and reduced benefits. The main argument those chains offered to justify their contract demands was that the impending construction in southern California of 40 Wal-Mart supercenters, which sell groceries in addition to the usual range of Wal-Mart goods, would drastically cut their profit margins.

The California strike lasted 139 days, and the companies say it cost them $1 billion in lost revenue. Eventually the union agreed to a new three-year contract, but it differed little from the original offer the union had opposed: a two-tiered wage system, a cap on employers’ share of health costs, employee-paid health insurance premiums, and no raises in the immediate future. When the dust had settled, it looked like the union had gotten whupped.

Wal-Mart now has plans to build a store in Lincoln Park. The company already sells more groceries than anyone else in the country, and its supercenters are the fastest growing part of the business. With its aggressive union busting, paltry benefits, and low wages, the nation’s number one employer and the world’s largest company is a dark specter that looms over the entire labor movement. Unions like UFCW, who led the anti-Wal-Mart campaign in Chicago, see themselves as the last bulwark against complete Wal-Mart hegemony. It’s just about the worst time for UFCW to lose the support of its own workers in a store that’s been unionized for 41 years.

Since it opened its first location in 1963, Treasure Island has been a kind of anti-Wal-Mart in its approach to both its customers and its workers. Started by Christ Kamberos and his older brother Frank, Treasure Island was a union shop from day one. Under the most recent contract, all employees who averaged more than 12 hours a week received health insurance completely funded by the company; 90 percent were vested in a union pension; and the most senior workers made more than $15 an hour. It was, by all accounts, a harmonious employer-employee relationship.

Treasure Island was also a pioneering business. It identified and exploited a market for specialty, gourmet, and imported foods decades before balsamic vinegar became as common as ketchup in middle-class American kitchens. This niche marketing engendered a fiercely loyal customer base, from Jews who depended on the store for matzo-ball soup and other kosher products to early foodies who went there for Mediterranean olives and European cheeses.

But now that there’s a gourmet food shop in nearly every north-side neighborhood, Treasure Island has, according to the union, taken a page out of Wal-Mart’s book.

In late February, with its three-year labor contract due to expire on March 7 and management and the union in negotiations, Treasure Island’s owners took the unprecedented step of convening meetings with full-time employees to plead its case. The meetings were “very procompany,” according to Valenti. Management compared Treasure Island’s situation to the California strike, she says, “and this was funny to me. They stressed about how for three or four months or however long it went on the employees got no paycheck, no insurance, no nothing. But they didn’t say a word about the billions of dollars that the company lost.”

The main issue discussed in the meetings was the cost of health care. “The health insurance went from $1.81 per hour three years ago to $4.31 per hour,” says Christ Kamberos’s wife, Maria, who co-owns the chain. (The union health care fund bills companies per labor hour for each insured employee.) “We said to the union the insurance was costing us an additional 1.5 million a year. Where is this money supposed to come from?”

In response to the rising costs, management proposed withdrawing from the union’s health and welfare fund and enrolling full-time employees in a private health insurance plan with premiums ranging from $10 a week for single coverage for existing employees to $60 a week for new hires with families. Citing concerns with the long-term fiscal viability of the union pension fund, Treasure Island also wanted to withdraw from the fund and replace it with privately held 401(k)s. And, most significant for the 40 percent of store employees who work part-time, the company wanted to increase the minimum average weekly hours workers had to log to be eligible for health insurance from 12 to 32.

The union, not surprisingly, didn’t like any of these proposals. But to O’Connor, Connolly, and the other employees who organized the petition to decertify (most of whom are full-time) it seemed eminently reasonable. “It’s just a sign of the times,” says Connolly. “Even the best companies out there have cut back on health and welfare.”

These meetings marked a turning point for relations between the workers and the union and a missed opportunity for the local. Since the union wasn’t regularly meeting with workers to inform them about the ongoing negotiations, employees got only one side of the story. Worse for the union, employees left those meetings thinking the store was in dire financial straits and favorably disposed toward any compromise that would save the company and their jobs. “People were freaked out,” says Valenti. “They were afraid that if we didn’t go along with this plan, we wouldn’t have a job.”

In a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board by UFCW, the union accuses Treasure Island of threatening employees with store closure, but Maria Kamberos denies the allegation. Either way it’s clear that the message got through. “You can also draw your own conclusions,” says Connolly. “If you have to pay so much more for health and welfare, and you have only so much money coming in and more money going out, what’s gonna happen?”

As negotiations continued and management fed employees its pitch, the union kept silent, effectively alienating many workers. “After seeing the proposal we had an idea where Treasure Island stood as far as us the employees were concerned,” says O’Connor. “And you know, you go back to your union rep and ask him, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ‘Well I don’t know, I can’t say.’ And you get this three days running, four days running, and then you get the fifth day and he still can’t answer you.”

The union says this is standard operating procedure. Maynard Jerome, local 881’s executive vice president, says “the employer would go goofy” if the union reps reported back on negotiations to members. But organizers from several other unions say keeping members in the dark is highly unusual. “You don’t tell people every little detail,” says one local union spokesperson (also speaking on the condition of anonymity), “but usually there’s a bottom line–we’re talking about wages today, or we finished the wage negotiations, now we’re talking about benefits. That’s standard operating procedure.”

Also, unlike many other unions, which include employees on the bargaining team, local 881’s bargaining team is composed entirely of paid union staff. If union reps weren’t updating members, members had no way of knowing what was going on. “They’ve done a very poor job communicating to us what they intended to do with this contract and what they wanted to do for us with the company,” says Dan Schalin, a grocery manager at the Lake Shore Drive store for two years. “Had they communicated better perhaps it wouldn’t have got where it is right now.”

By the time the union convened its first meeting on March 7, a significant percentage of employees were in favor of accepting a proposal from the company before they’d even seen one. The union, not surprisingly, had other ideas, and spent much of the meeting trying to persuade the membership not to support management’s proposal.

According to the petitions’ organizers, the idea of decertifying was hatched soon after that meeting. It was a “grassroots-type thing,” says Connolly, that began simultaneously in a number of different stores where angry employees independently contacted the National Labor Relations Board to find out what their options were. Local 881 spokesperson Elizabeth Drea points out that employees at the Potash Brothers grocery store, who are also represented by local 881 and whose owners are represented by the same lawyer as Treasure Island’s, filed a decertification petition the day after their contract expired (on March 8), suggesting that the decertification drive was a top-down ploy engineered by management. O’Connor says she never spoke to or coordinated with anyone from either Treasure Island management or Potash Brothers.

If the decertification idea did spring up organically and independently at several stores at the same time, as O’Connor suggests, it would be quite a coincidence. Decertification is a fairly rare event. The Chicago office of the NLRB receives about 900 petitions each year to certify new union locals and only about 35 to decertify existing ones. There are several ways for the decertification process to be triggered, but the one the Treasure Island employees originally pursued required them to present a petition signed by at least 30 percent of the members of the bargaining unit expressing their desire to no longer be represented by the current union. Barring objections, the NLRB would then schedule an election, and if a majority of employees voted to decertify (again barring any postelection objections or challenges by either party), the union would be decertified. It’s a lengthy, time-consuming process, and you’d have to be pretty motivated to undertake it.

While the decertification petition circulated, contract negotiations stalemated, and as a one-week extension drew to a close, the union agreed that if Treasure Island provided them with a proposal, they’d put it up for a vote–though they said they would strongly urge their members to vote against it.

The showdown was scheduled for Sunday, March 14. There were to be two meetings, one in the morning and one in the evening, both at the Claridge Hotel on the Gold Coast. Before the first one started, a lot of members were already angry. Originally they’d been told the meetings would be purely informational, but word got out Friday night that the union had put up flyers in the stores announcing a vote on Sunday. “Now, I’m a full-timer,” says O’Connor. “I work Monday to Friday, 44 hours a week. I work a second job on Sunday. I happen to have Saturdays off.” She says most full-time employees work during the week and have the weekends off, “so all of my part-timers at my particular location would have probably known about this vote meeting and probably would have shown up. Whereas the full-timers, a good majority of them would not have known if somebody hadn’t picked up the phone and called. So I had to call my other job and say I desperately need Sunday off.”

It wasn’t a surprise, then, that the morning meeting on the 14th was raucous. After a five-minute introduction, Maynard Jerome informed the crowd the vote had been canceled. The response was predictable. Valenti, who attended the evening meeting, says many members were “blaming the union because there was nothing to vote on.”

Jerome and Jeff Jayko, the bargaining team’s lead negotiator, talked through some of the clauses in the Treasure Island proposal and then discussed the union’s offer, which was to maintain the status quo: health care paid 100 percent by the employer through the union trust fund, union pension and single coverage for part-timers starting at 12 hours a week. As a concession to the store’s cost concerns they offered a 3.5 percent wage reduction for ten months. This, say O’Connor and others, did not go over well.

“The room started getting a little loud at this point,” O’Connor says. “And Maynard Jerome said that for our own good they would start an informational boycott against Treasure Island in front of each and every one of the stores. A produce guy said, ‘Look, can we take a vote on it?’ and was flat-out told no, we cannot vote, they’ve already decided this. That was when we pretty much all got up,” ending the meeting. O’Connor waited outside and collected signatures for the petition from disgruntled employees.

The union says it was set up. Jerome notes that unlike in previous negotiations, when Treasure Island agreed to extend the contract for months at a time while negotiations were under way, this time management agreed to only a one-week extension, creating a crisis atmosphere and putting pressure on the union to sign a contract prematurely. Kamberos says she wouldn’t allow a longer extension because the company couldn’t afford to keep paying the high health care costs.

Each side also blames the other for the canceled vote. Jayko says he couldn’t get assurances from Treasure Island’s lawyer, John Schauer, that he wouldn’t try to change the terms of the contract after it was voted on, but Schauer says that’s a red herring: “I believe that when they sat back, they believed that [management’s] proposal would have been accepted over their recommendation, and they did not want that to happen.” Jerome concedes that given the number of antiunion employees at the Claridge that day the union would likely have lost the vote. “I can tell you when we got there, we walked into a stacked audience,” he says.

The next day O’Connor filed the decertification petition with the NLRB. The same morning, union pickets set up outside all six area stores with signs and flyers urging customers to shop elsewhere. The petition organizers say the boycott angered employees and pushed many who had been on the fence to support decertification. “They got the reverse of what they wanted,” says Connolly. “They wanted to see what the response was going to be and the employees spoke and said no, we don’t want this, we’ll sign a petition, we want these people out of the front of the store. . . . It backfired on them.” Insulted by the boycotting and fed up with the union, O’Connor and others decided to collect signatures on a second decertification petition. They circulated it for a week or so throughout the six stores and eventually received signatures from about 80 percent of employees.

The union says both petitions are bogus because they believe workers were coerced into signing them. Valenti says she was approached by a supervisor who asked her if she supported the union. When she told him she did, she says, his response was, “Well, let me tell you something. I’m not threatening you, I’m not telling you what to do, but you have to back the company. You’ve got to support the company or this place will go out of business. You won’t have a job.” Other employees say they witnessed similar scenes.

“A lot of us didn’t want to sign it because we wanted more time to think about it,” says one part-timer who has worked for the company for a year and a half (and asked not to be named). “I signed it and one of my friends signed it and now we feel kind of stupid about it because we didn’t get all the information that we needed and [coworkers] were bothering us to sign it, so it was kind of forced.” (The petition organizers strongly deny coercing anyone to sign the document.)

Both the pro- and antiunion employees say that the first few weeks of the boycott, when the second petition was circulated, was a tense time inside the store. “The store was divided,” says Valenti. “A lot of people weren’t speaking. A lot of people were arguing. There was a lot of anger, a lot of hurt feelings. I was very careful of what I said to who. I pretty much didn’t say anything to anybody.”

Valenti felt she needed to do something. She and a coworker, Chuck Patterson, wrote a letter in support of the union that was sent to homes near Treasure Island stores on April 17. “As soon as it came out, it was really bad,” she recalls. “It was a Saturday and I was at work, and when I came into the store I immediately knew because everybody got very, very hostile. . . . People started actually yelling at me. Two women in particular were saying, ‘How could you write something like this? Who do you think you are?’ with a lot of vulgar words in there. . . . As I was working on the register I was getting a lot of comments, a lot of hostility, a lot of very nasty looks. When I left that day I knew I wasn’t coming back. And the next day, which was my birthday, I faxed in my letter of resignation.”

Valenti feels like the full-timers threw their part-time colleagues off the boat. After the letter was sent out, she says, “two people came up and hugged me and both of them were part-timers who said I was the only one who stood up for them. The full-timers were not happy with me.”

The full-timers’ financial circumstances wouldn’t change radically if the union were decertified: they would have a 401(k) instead of a pension and HMO or PPO health care instead of the union’s health insurance. Though they would be paying between $40 and $160 a month for health insurance, they would no longer be paying $32.50 in union dues. The part-timers, on the other hand, stood to lose their health insurance, though Treasure Island said it would offer extra shifts to part-timers so that they could meet the 32-hour requirement. “Treasure Island has done that to some extent,” says the anonymous 30-year employee. “But under their way of doing things there’s no guarantee these people would get these hours. Without a union Treasure Island can do anything they want to. There’s no guarantee of anything.”

Employees who support management say it’s unreasonable for the company to pay health insurance for part-timers, many of whom are students or have other access to coverage. “There were part-timers who had full-time jobs elsewhere and didn’t take their insurance and were just working [at Treasure Island] for the insurance,” says part-timer Michele. “So why should Treasure Island have to pay insurance for them?”

On March 17 the union filed the first of several unfair-labor-practices complaints with the regional offices of the NLRB. The complaints charge Treasure Island with sponsoring, directing, and financing anti-union picketing by its employees, unlawfully interrogating employees about their support of the union, unlawfully withdrawing recognition from the union, and other violations of the National Labor Relations Act.

After collecting signatures from approximately 80 percent of the company’s employees, O’Connor presented the decertification petition to Maria Kamberos on March 29. The next day all Treasure Island employees received letters attached to their paychecks informing them that Treasure Island had “withdrawn its recognition” of local 881, that members would “no longer have to pay union dues,” and that full-timers had been enrolled in a Humana health care plan and a 401(k).

Treasure Island says they can withdraw recognition because NLRB courts have in the past ruled in favor of employers who do so after being presented with a “a numerical loss of majority status,” a demonstration that a majority of the workers no longer want to be represented by the union. But the union points out that there’s a big difference between signing a petition in front of your supervisors and casting a secret ballot in a certified election. “If it went to an official vote,” says the longtime employee, “where they could vote in private, [workers] have told me they would vote in favor of the union.”

The fact that many of the petitions’ organizers are supervisors suggests that even if there were no explicit threats or coercion, employees may have felt pressured to sign. While supervisors cannot fire employees, they can make life difficult for those under them. Connolly counters that if workers really believed the union had their best interests in mind, they’d all be out on the picket line. “If this was the best thing in the employees’ eyes, why wouldn’t they be out there at the drop of a hat, saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’re behind you. We gotta do this. You’re saving our health and welfare, you’re saving our jobs, let’s get out there and show the company how we feel’? That’s not what’s happening.”

After investigating the claims and confidentially interviewing employees who say they experienced or witnessed the illegal activities, the NLRB’s regional office found the union’s complaint to have merit, which means there was enough evidence for the NLRB to issue a formal complaint. The finding is akin to an indictment in a criminal case. If the two sides don’t settle (and it doesn’t look like they will), there will be a hearing before an administrative law judge. If the hearing finds the company to be in violation of federal law, the union will probably be restored and Treasure Island required to make restitution, most likely by restoring membership in the union health and pension funds and making back payments to these funds for the last several months. (On June 4 O’Connor, Connolly, and others filed their own charges against the union, but the NLRB has yet to rule on them.)

Valenti and other employees allege that Treasure Island has manipulated its employees but concede that the majority of employees now blame the union for the current turmoil. The anonymous part-timer says that the future of the union in the store looks bleak. “I think because of this whole propaganda from other coworkers, some of us don’t want to deal with it,” she says. “We’re not going to work here for the rest of our lives. A lot of us don’t want to start a whole controversy and confrontation, so it’s just easier to go along with what the store’s doing.”

Despite the repeated assertions by the petitions’ organizers that the Kamberoses are model employers, she adds that things inside the store have already started to change. “I think it’s changing for the worse,” she says. “A manager was telling one of my coworkers to walk customers home in the rain, which doesn’t seem like it’s part of the job description. It just seems a little like anything goes, and it just doesn’t seem right.”

I asked O’Connor, Connolly, and others whether they’re scared that if their decertification efforts are successful, they’ll be left with no protection. What if once the union is gone, the owners decide to double health care premiums or cut wages? They say they intend to sign a three-year contract with the Kamberoses and see themselves as capable of fighting for their own interests. Says O’Connor, “We are organized enough where if things got really rough and bumpy down the road, I’m not saying that we would, but we could cause trouble.”

But even if they are organized, the competition is likely to get fiercer and the pressure to cut benefits and wages more intense. What if they end up like Wal-Mart employees?

“Are you kidding me?” says Connolly. “Can you tell me the difference between a balsamic vinegar that’s been [aged for] six months or for 12 years? The olive oil that comes from Naples and the olive oil that comes from Tuscany: what’s the difference? You’re gonna pay somebody $7 an hour to research and learn this craft and explain this to people? Who is gonna sell this? A 17-year-old kid for $7 an hour? Close your doors. Not in our niche.”

At the North Avenue Whole Foods, less than a mile from where Connolly works, employees can tell you the subtle differences between rare European cheeses, varieties of aged balsamic vinegars, and, yes, olive oil from Naples and olive oil from Tuscany. A lot of these employees make $9 an hour.

But Zoi Detsikas, who works in the flower department at the Broadway Treasure Island and helped organize the decertification, has been on both sides of the fence. When she moved to the suburbs several years ago she found the commute overwhelming and got a job at a Whole Foods closer to her house. After a year she left the nonunion Whole Foods and came back to Treasure Island. Why? “Most of the people that were working there were teenagers,” she says. “You know how teenagers are, they’re trying to escape from work all the time, so I was always chasing them down.

“Plus,” she says, “the pay wasn’t so good either.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.