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Labor leaders, furloughed and former Perks workers urge transparency, respect for union

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Local organized labor leaders joined furloughed and former employees of a local coffee shop chain, urging its owner to be more open about future plans for the shops, and warning against any effort to circumvent the union its workers voted to form before the pandemic put their jobs on hold.

About 20 people stood outside the Perks location at Elmwood Avenue and Bryant Street, which remains closed since the COVID pandemic resulted in the "New York on PAUSE" order in March. Former workers are accusing the company of firing those who were trying to form a union among its three Buffalo locations.

"Myself, several other employees, almost like 50 percent recently started getting together to talk about our own experiences, things that we wanted to see happen in our workplace," said Sid Roberts, a former employee.

Organizers say they submitted owner Robert Newman a signed letter explaining their interest in forming a union and invited him to sit for discussions. Those meetings, they said, never happened but instead they received what was described as false claims of negative economic impacts and other forms of coercion. Organizers claim some were fired for trying to put a union together.

A complaint was filed with the National Labor Relations Board which, in April, found enough evidence to charge Perks with several violations.

Owner Robert Newman, whom WBFO was unable to contact in multiple attempts Monday, has reportedly agreed to a settlement but former employees say they have again not had the opportunity to meet with him.

"We're still waiting to hear back, Bob," said Ace Doldan, another organizer and former employee. "But from here, we would like to negotiate if he is truly closing, if that's actually his plan. Then we want to talk about what that looks like: severance pay, what that looks like for potential, any back pay that may be owed. We're being heavily affected by this losing our jobs and the pandemic. We want to bargain."

Among the labor union representatives present to support the employees were Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York AFL-CIO, and Gary Bonadonna, Jr., leader of Workers United Upstate New York. Bonadonna spoke of continuing efforts on behalf of organized Perks workers.

"We've met stalling and delays. And so, where we stand now? We don't know," he said. "They he says he's permanently closing. We hear from his general manager that this is just temporary Is it a ruse, that he's trying to get out from being represented by a union? Either way, if he reopens Workers United and the Buffalo labor community is going to work hard to ensure that he respects these workers' rights."

UPDATE: Several hours after this story was posted, the Buffalo News reported that Newman, through a press release issued late Monday evening, announced the Perks locations would be closed permanently. According to the report, he cited reasons including a financial deficit upon reopening, a sense of negativity in the community and a 'prevalent anti-business attitude." He also reportedly advised Workers United and the union representing Perks staff of the decision.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.