By Jeffrey Zaslow, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
LOBATA, W.Va.- For his first seven years as a caterer, Gardner Stern Jr. never had to pack a pistol or wear a bulletproof vest. Even when dinner guests didn't like his stuffed mushrooms, he never felt his life was in danger.
These days, though, he caters far more perilous occasions than bar mitzvahs or retirement dinners. "In the summer, snipers can hide in the trees," he says, as he drives to his latest engagement. "But in the winter, it's safer. You can see them against the snow."
Fear of snipers comes with the menu in Mr. Stern's Chicago-based business. He is known as "the scab caterer" because he feeds strikebreakers during labor walkouts. And picket-line violence often reaches his chow line.
For much of the United Mine Workers' 10-month strike against A.T. Massey Coal Co. mines here, Mr. Stern has transported food by truck and helicopter to substitute workers, supervisors and armed guards. As he speeds past picketers, he describes the worst reception of his catering career-the one his crew got on its arrival here last January. "We were surrounded by hundreds of screaming guys carrying axes, tire irons, chains, baseball bats with spikes in them - stuff you see in Li'l Abner comics," he recalls. "We ended up with a crowbar in our car windshield and a bullet hole in the catering truck."
Still, the job has its rewards. For the 57-year-old Mr. Stern and a handful of competitors, "mercenary catering" is an increasingly lucrative departure from traditional food service. "There's going to be much more labor unrest in the years ahead," he predicts. "Unions are fighting for survival, and managements are getting tougher. Companies that used to close plants during strikes will be keeping them running."
Mr. Stern's first taste of strike catering came in 1977, when he was the president of Gaper's Caterers in Chicago. A chemical plant in Ohio, operating with strike-breakers, called him in desperation. "They'd been feeding everyone TV dinners for two weeks," he says. "That's bad for morale."
His idea to start his own business came five years later, when Gaper's fired him. Burned out by an endless procession of shrimp cocktails and flaming desserts, he knew that 'conventional catering no longer interested him. He decided he would rather be a middle-aged adventurer, living life on the edge. He saw strikebreakers as a macho breed. "They don't eat little tiny potatoes stuffed with sour cream and caviar," he says.
Serving such clients as Dow Chemical Co., Allied Corp. and FMC Corp., Gardner Stern Jr. Co. posts annual revenue of $500,-000. The caterer woos business by keeping tabs on union contracts about to expire. He contacts the companies involved and, for $1,250, offers them a contingency plan for feeding and sleeping locked-in workers. The plans he comes up with are sometimes rather grandiose: For a paper plant in Maine, he considered bringing in barges from the Mediterranean to sleep 300.
"Companies are smarter now. They use contingency planning like an insurance policy," says Alexander Greist, an officer of Wackenhut Corp.'s strike-catering division. Wackenhut, which also provides guards for strikes, is Mr. Stern's main competitor.
Catering fees increase sharply as strike deadlines near. In Mr. Stern's "readiness phase," he has had trucks full of food arrive at plants hours before contracts were settled. Strike or no strike, he collects. But he says that some companies ask that his setting up operations be conspicuous. "I'm told to ostentatiously bring in equipment and personnel" so that unions see steps are being taken to keep plants running.
"Our intention was to show our resolve in operating our mill, no matter what," says Patrick Simpson, who served as Inland Container Corp.'s strike coordinator during last year's walkout by paper-workers in New Johnsonville, Tenn. Hiring Mr. Stern showed that "we were playing for keeps," Mr. Simpson adds. "After seeing our preparations, the union came to a settlement."
The United Paper workers International strike against Inland lasted just one day, yet Mr. Stern's bill for food, trucks, beds and personnel came to about $100,000 - "a small amount compared with the potential loss of not running a plant," says Mr. Simpson.
All this planning may seem harshly focused on the bottom line, but Mr. Stern stresses his softer side. He isn't heartless, he says; why he sometimes even sends food to picket lines. Companies, too, stress their big-heartedness. Most choose Mr. Stern's "deluxe" meal plan over his "regular one." "These are anxiety-provoking situations, and they want their workers to be well-fed and happy," says Mr. Stern.
Here at Massey's Rawl Sales & Processing Co. unit, super-deluxe meals would definitely be in order. The strike has resulted in one death, 12 serious injuries, 472 smashed coal-truck windows, and 458 slashed tires. When you are locked in here, you eat to forget.
"I usually eat a big breakfast because I don't know when I'll eat again," says Steve Thompson, a guard who rides shotgun with scab coal-truck drivers. Known as a "baby sitter," he videotapes acts of violence against truckers so that Massey can better prosecute attackers. But his bulletproof vest doesn't completely protect him from shattered windshield glass or slingshots.
Mr. Stern's cooks pack lunches for drivers. "It's too dangerous for them to stop somewhere to eat - they could be ambushed," says Arch Runyon, Rawl's director of employee relations.
The drivers, who say that they need the work to feed their families, realize that any meal could be their last. Strikers call Mr. Thompson by name on his citizens' band radio, he says. "They say they'll kill me and then go for the driver."
Violence prompted Mr. Stern to negotiate an extra $200 in "combat pay" for each of his three cooks. He has on call about 12 men - mostly tough retired military cooks. They normally earn about $600 a week. They were airlifted here for their two-month stints.
They, too, have had close calls. Last spring, while people wearing ski masks lobbed ball bearings at the facility, the cooks spent a night in a drainage ditch. State troopers were of little help. "They say, 'We're neutral. We're referees,' " explains Mr. Stern.
When the kitchen telephone rings, the call is likely to be a threat. Even friendly calls are best ignored. "Ladies have called and said that if we want a date, we should meet them at the gate," says Phillip Williams, the chef supervisor. "If we had gone, they [strikers] probably would have whupped us."
The strike here has grown bitter over a technical point: Massey wants separate contracts for its subsidiaries. Workers see that as a ploy to bust the union. Mr. Stern doesn't always know the issues of strikes he caters, "but generally, I find the unions are wrong," he says.
Until the strike, Karen Manning was a union member working as a mine han-dywoman. Angry at the violence, she now is a company receptionist. "I'm what they call an ultimate scab," she says. She appreciates the free food provided by the company through Mr. Stern. "Lunch is everyone's highlight of the day." Still, she adds softly, "I'd rather pay to eat out than go through this strike."
Mr. Stern, of course, is eager to go through more strikes. Driving out of the plant, he confides that a certain cement company has been placing blind ads in several newspapers, in an effort to lure strikebreakers. Contract talks are failing, he says. "We're on a standby basis."
The uncertainty, the intrigue, the ad venture-Mr. Stern glories in it. "It's a far cry," he says, "from doing a wedding in a guy's backyard."
August 2, 1985 - Wall Street Journal