April 2004

In April 2004, we lauded Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia's White Dog Café, as one of "25 Entrepreneurs We Love," noting that she had instituted "more progressive business practices per square foot than any other entrepreneur." Given her rep as a model boss, it was surprising when her workers began an effort to unionize last fall.

A group of servers, backed by the hospitality union Unite Here, complained that policies to foster a communal work environment were window-dressing and that the starting salary of $8 an hour was not enough to live on. "There was a disconnect between her and the employees," says Jenny Rachor-Dowd, a former server who now works for Unite Here. "I do support unions in most situations," says Wicks, "but unions aren't necessary in progressive companies where owners want to give employees as much as they can afford." By last October, most employees had signed union cards. Wicks claims some workers were coerced, a charge the union denies.

Wicks says the union effort has died out in recent months, since Rachor-Dowd and another key organizer left. (Unite Here contends they were fired as payback, but the National Labor Relations Board ruled otherwise.) Wicks says that at times the ordeal made her question her involvement in the company, and she is considering selling it to her employees through an ESOP. Meanwhile, the union vows to keep up the pressure. "I don't see why unions and her business model should be mutually exclusive," says Lynne Fox, of Unite Here.