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PROTEST WARS :  After about two months of protests from the Carpenters Local 150, community members and employees of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo Grande fired back. Adrienne Garcia, pictured left, emphasizes that there’s no dispute. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PROTEST WARS : After about two months of protests from the Carpenters Local 150, community members and employees of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo Grande fired back. Adrienne Garcia, pictured left, emphasizes that there’s no dispute.
If you recently passed by Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo Grande, you might wonder why protesters were handing out flyers depicting a sniveling cartoon rat gnawing on a shredded American flag. Or you might wonder what the labor dispute is about. On Dec. 28, you would have been more confused when new protesters raised their own sign to protest the original protesters.

Kathy Trosper has worked at Doc Burnstein’s since it opened in 2003. On an overcast late morning across the street from the parlor, Trosper stood holding a sign alongside her brother Bud, who wore a tattered foam ice-cream-cone hat. Their sign read: “Thank you for all you do for our community. NO LABOR DISPUTE.”

Of course, they wouldn’t have held that sign if not for the two people next to them, who had been perched with their sign for about two months. In large, red capital letters, it read: “SHAME ON DOC BURNSTEIN’S ICE CREAM LAB.” Those words were bordered on either side by the phrase “LABOR DISPUTE.” The flyers they passed out also criticized the ice-cream parlor “for desecration of the American way of life.”

Standing within earshot of people who were protesting her employer, Trosper wasn’t quiet with her opinions.

“I’m tired of it,” she said. “They’ve been here for two months. I’m sick of looking at them. … If it were true, then we could fight it. But it’s all a lie.”

In fact, if you ask one of the protesters—the ones on the “labor dispute” side—they have a hard time explaining what they’re protesting, mostly because they’re not allowed to.

One protester wearing thick winter garb, sunglasses, and a Carpenters Local 150 hat, was quick to hand out flyers but had little in the way of answers. He declined to give his name and was clearly nervous to speak to a reporter. Let’s call him Joe.

“Anything I say, you can’t use anyway,” Joe said.

Joe is a retired member of the Carpenters Local 150 union out of Camarillo. The union pulled him out of retirement to stand by the banner and pass out flyers for an hourly wage, he said, but declined to say how much.

“They said, ‘Do this,’” he said. “I said, ‘Sure.’”

After reluctantly answering a few questions, Joe made a phone call and attempted to defer questions to someone who had actual answers.

“Because he’s just standing here writing stuff,” Joe said into the phone. “I’ll just pass him on.” The caller on the other end apparently didn’t want to speak with a reporter either.

Calls to Carpenter Local 150 weren’t returned as of press time.

It gets more confusing. The Local 150 wasn’t picketing the parlor, Joe said, or telling people not to go there. He called it “information only.”

Protesters have to be careful because of the possibility they might violate the National Labor Relations Act. In fact, the owners of Doc Burnstein’s filed charges with the L.A. regional office of the National Labor Relations Board against the Local 150, alleging it violated the act by protesting a business that doesn’t employ the union. But all such cases are on hold while the federal board grapples with a legal issue of whether there’s a conflict with the First Amendment, according to a labor board representative.

The Local 150 isn’t protesting the parlor because of egregious labor practices against its employees, but because Doc Burnstein’s is opening a new location in Santa Maria’s mall, which is using non-union contractors for renovations. The union is also protesting KT’s All Star Gymnastics Center in Santa Maria for the same reason. Both businesses are opening new locations in the Santa Maria Town Center.

Greg Kozak, one of the new mall owners, said they’d originally hired private contractors to do renovation work. Kozak said he was approached by the Local 150 and told them his first caveat—if they were to win the contract—was contractors had to be local. But none of the contractors the union suggested were from Santa Maria, Kozak said, so he hired local non-union contractors, and eventually switched to his own in-house crews. Then the protests started—against him and businesses in the mall, which actually didn’t have any role in the bidding or hiring process.

“Why an L.A. union feels like they should protest a small business in our Central Coast just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Doc Burnstein’s owner Greg Steinberger.

Steinberger didn’t pay the protesters much attention when they first set up shop across the street, he said. But when they had their sign in front of a blood mobile during a parlor-sponsored blood drive, he said, “enough is enough.”

Steinberger and his employees pride themselves on giving back to the community. The parlor set up a scholarship program; they host school fundraisers; they give out free ice cream twice a month.

Adrienne Garcia is a four-year employee and a recipient of the parlor’s scholarship. She’s now attending Syracuse University in New York and comes back to work over the summer.

“And part of the reason I keep coming back is because they give so much to the community,” she said. “It just feels good.”

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