Schoolhouse Electric hires unionbusters

SCHOOLHOUSE: A showroom. A design studio. An assembly space. And now, a site of antiunion meetings.

By DON McINTOSH

Eight months after Portland home goods maker Schoolhouse was sold to a new owner, its workers are ready for a union. A majority of its 68 assembly and shipping workers signed cards saying they want to join International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48. Schoolhouse refused to recognize the union, so on Aug. 8, Local 48 asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to schedule an election.

Founded in 2003 as Schoolhouse Electric Supply Co., the company is famed as a purveyor of beautifully designed lighting fixtures and home furnishings. In December, it was acquired for $48 million by Food52, an online recipe publisher and home goods marketplace—with funding from that company’s majority owner, Los Angeles-based private equity firm The Chernin Group.

Soon the mandate came down from on high: Production must increase by a third by the end of 2022. But production staff, and production space, would remain the same. In the company’s century-old four-story brick building at 2181 NW Nicolai St., inventory stacked up—filling shelves, overflowing into aisles, and even blocking bathroom and exit doors.

It felt awkward, even unsafe. Several workers say they voiced concerns to management and were ignored. 

Some of them started talking about forming a union. Then came a chance encounter. 

After watching basketball with friends at a sports bar, Schoolhouse worker Elliott Kropp was heading to a light rail stop when he came upon a union rally. It was March 19, 2022, and Oregon AFL-CIO convention delegates were assembled next to the Oregon Convention Center. Kropp told a rally-goer that he and his coworkers were looking to start a union. The rally-goer happened to be Willy Myers, executive secretary-treasurer of the local building trades union council. Myers introduced him to IBEW organizer Joe Bond, who explained IBEW’s mission: “to unionize all electrical workers in manufacturing, construction and line work.”  

After talking with IBEW organizers, Kropp and other workers formed a volunteer organizing committee and launched a campaign.

Committee members say they like working at Schoolhouse, and they’re not asking for much. They want some say over their working conditions. They want an end to inconsistent schedules and inconsistently enforced rules. They’d like a pay scale instead of seemingly random pay disparities among workers. And they’d like raises. Workers say wages at the factory average $20 an hour, and even the most senior don’t make over $23.25.

Schoolhouse brands itself as a “lifestyle goods company dedicated to the preservation of American manufacturing, thoughtful living, and purposeful design.” But any progressive patina the company may have wanted for its brand image was undermined the moment the union was announced. Responding to its employees’ union effort, Schoolhouse hired attorneys based in Seattle and San Francisco with the marquee employment law firm Littler Mendelson, the same firm that’s representing Starbucks in its effort to squash unionization. It also brought in professional union-busters, Libra Management Consulting Inc., to hold small group anti-union meetings. At the meetings, which last 90 to 120 minutes, consultant Eduardo Padilla does the talking, and another consultant named Alex takes notes. Once a week, workers are being asked to sign up for the meetings; management then schedules them in groups of six to nine. 

A week after they requested the union election, workers were informed that an all-hands meeting would take place Aug. 17 in Schoolhouse’s first-floor showroom, led by Sara Fritsch, the company’s charismatic and well-liked president. But organizing committee members suspected the union would be on top of her agenda.

“The whole world is watching”

By 5:30 the morning of the all-hands meeting, about 50 union supporters from IBEW and half a dozen other unions lined both sides of the street outside in the dark—to deliver cheerful greetings to workers as they arrived over the next half hour, and an implied message: Schoolhouse workers will have the support of local union movement.

It was still dark as a crowd of 50 union supporters assembled outside Schoolhouse Electric. As the 6 a.m. start time neared, workers were greeted as they started trickling in. The gathering was meant as a way to let workers know they would not be alone that morning when they filed into an “all-hands” meeting where the company president was expected to throw shade on plans to unionize.

Going into the meeting, pro-union workers brought bingo cards, prepared to keep the mood light. Consultant-led union-busting campaigns have become so rote and predictable that a common union tactic today is to make a sport of it—by distributing bingo cards listing antiunion talking points. Every time you hear one of the points, you mark the bingo card. But Schoolhouse workers say Fritsch, the company president, brought up the cards right away, and was not amused.

“This is not a game,” she reportedly told employees, and, more ominously, “Play at your own risk.” She warned workers not to record the meeting, saying it’s against state law to record without her consent, and she wasn’t giving consent.

Workers say over the next hour-plus, Fritch mostly read from written notes. She said it was her opinion that a union would not be good for the company or for its workers. And she refused to call the union by its name (IBEW), instead referring to it repeatedly as “the brotherhood.”

Kropp spoke out against that.

“I said, ‘I think you’re trying to put some stink on the name by calling them the brotherhood. We don’t call them that. They don’t call themselves that.’ Then somebody in the back chimed in, ‘Well, it’s in their name.’ And then she made a point basically that it was a name that excluded women.”

Fritsch also cast herself as a victim, saying her character had been attacked by the union committee via its Instagram account, @schoolhouseunionpdx.  

“Nobody on the pro-union side had any idea what she was talking about,” says Schoolhouse worker Conrad Kirby. That’s because the worker-led union organizing committee from the beginning had adopted and maintained a resolutely positive tone, not only on social media but in interviews for this story. [Not one of the seven workers who spoke with the Labor Press said anything that could be construed as attacking the company or its leaders.]

“We’ve been accused of bashing Schoolhouse,” said Fin Gutmann, whose job involves sandblasting brass components. “All of us love Schoolhouse. There’s a difference between honestly criticizing something in an attempt to make it better, and disparaging. We’re all trying to make Schoolhouse a better place because we think it’s already a good place.”

If Schoolhouse’s image ends up tarnished, it won’t be because workers or the union trash it; it’ll be because the public becomes aware of the company’s own decisions. Rather than respecting its workers’ right to make their own decision about whether they want union representation, Schoolhouse top leadership showed their true colors, hiring lawyers and union-busters to wage the same kind of  antiunion campaign as some of the worst corporations in America.

In response to a message the Labor Press left with Schoolhouse president Sara Fritsch, a spokesperson for Food52 said the company wouldn’t be commenting for the story.

As of press time, no date had yet been set for the upcoming union election.

CROWDED SCHOOLHOUSE In this image shared by a union supporter, employee bathroom doors open, just … not all the way, thanks to stacked-up pallets. Employees say they were alarmed, and objected, but were ignored.
DUELING FLIERS Outside Schoolhouse, fliers greet workers as they arrive, some pro-union and some anti-union.

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