Goon City — Part 2
How federal law and Philadelphia’s political structure contribute to union abuses

Carpenters union members protest outside Milkboy Coffee in Philadelphia.


Jillian Kay Melchior

Jamie Lokoff hung up his phone and rushed downtown on a summer day in 2011. An arsonist had targeted his new bar, MilkBoy, just weeks before it was scheduled to open. The butcher paper lining the windows had caught fire, alerting a passerby to call 911.

The incident marked a sinister turn in the MilkBoy owners’ ten-month battle with the carpenters’ union over the construction of the bar and music venue in downtown Philadelphia. Though Jamie Lokoff and his partner, Tommy Joyner, had used unionized labor on much of the project, the carpenters’ union was pressing them to hire some of its workers.

At first, Lokoff and Joyner tried to cope with the union picketing with humor. Union members protested outside their coffee shop, also named MilkBoy, in the suburb of Ardmore, toting signs that said, “Shame on MilkBoy.” Lokoff and Joyner printed T-shirts that also said “Shame on MilkBoy” — complete with a cup of coffee letting off a mushroom cloud of steam — and hawked them to patrons with a sense of irony, donating the proceeds to charity. The supply of T-shirts sold out twice.

The T-shirts’ popularity led the union to change its signs, this time claiming “MilkBoy is hurting the community.” Lokoff and Joyner ordered a new batch of T-shirts, which said, “Menace to Ardmore.” Those sold out, too.

“I think the people that knew us, our good customers, knew that we’re just two guys who were trying to do right by the community, run a coffee shop, and support music and the arts,” Lokoff says. “When we pushed back — and we pushed back in a funny way, but [it] had a little bit of an edge — people responded to it.”

But the protests continued and intensified. Lokoff says he’s certain someone from the carpenters’ union started the fire.

MilkBoy was relatively lucky. The flame, begun with debris from the site, an accelerant, and a match, was started on concrete rather than the wood floor nearby. The sprinklers went off as they were supposed to, and most of the damage was from the water. Fortunately, Lokoff and Joyner hadn’t moved any furniture in yet.

Still, it was a frightening incident, Lokoff says.

“I’ve got small kids who go to school in Philadelphia,” he explains. “I live in the city. You don’t know what people are capable of. . . . We’re music guys. We’re not looking to make a statement against unions, or to stand up and be that figure. So our approach was like, ‘This is f***ed up, let’s just get this place open.’”

Lokoff and Joyner cooperated with the police, answering all questions and submitting additional information. Still, no arrests were made, and no one was ever convicted for the arson.

“We physically don’t have any proof that it’s a union,” says Lokoff, “but of course it’s what we believe. . . . And I think the unions feed off any media. Even if it’s negative, it’s a win for them. They won. They got their message out that you should hire union workers.”

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Philadelphia’s unions usually get away with their many acts of harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and violence. The National Right to Work Committee’s study cited in part 1 of this article found that in 143 news reports regarding union troublemaking in Philadelphia, arrests were mentioned only 38 times, and only eight convictions were noted. It’s possible that some union members faced repercussions not mentioned in the news reports, but police and several of Philadelphia’s open-shop construction businessmen told me justice is rarely meted out in labor incidents.

Furthermore, NRTW’s study suggested that for each union incident reported in the news, at least ten similar incidents occur that never make the papers. If that’s correct, unions have caused property damage or personal injury nearly 45 times a year on average — for nearly four decades.

And there’s good reason to believe the illegal behavior is part of the institution, and that unions may protect individual members who commit crimes. In some instances, the offending member is even a part of the union leadership.

“Union violence and vandalism happen frequently enough for the union leadership to do something about it,” says Kevin Gillen, a senior research consultant with the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. “If they wanted to do something about it, they could.”