Workers at Houston’s Night Owls print shop unionized before learning business had been sold

The business, popular with punk and indie musicians, had been accused of union-busting by employees. Management says legal repercussions kept them from communicating the acquisition.

By Raul AlonzoApril 12, 2024 4:35 pm, ,

Since 2010, Houston’s Night Owls print shop has grown from a small project built around the DIY punk and indie music scene, to a popular institution with a rabid social media following.

That, combined with the company’s eco-friendly water-based printing of hats and other merchandise, garnered it a robust clientele including popular musicians in the punk community such as AJJ, Joyce Manor, Laura Jane Grace and Jeff Rosenstock.

They also printed up merchandise for visual artists with large followings on social media, like the formerly Houston-based Super Yaki and Wizard of Barge.

So when workers at Night Owls print shop launched a unionization drive last fall, its fan base took notice.

Tyler Conner was one of those workers.

“The main thing that kind of drew me to Night Owls initially is the work that they did for a lot of punk bands that that I was a huge fan of,” Conner said.

Ramelle Ramos joined the Night Owls crew around the same time, and they, too, were initially enamored. But that soon changed.

“Like if you’re on the press for hours without breaks or like being able to step away, that’s tough –  physically and mentally,” Ramos said.

In the fall, Ramos, Conner and other employees joined together to change that. They created a union they called Night Owls United.

Ramos says it wasn’t just the grueling conditions they wanted changed. They also felt there was little room for advancement and no one to listen to their complaints.

“There’s not a lot of structure, and I think a lot of us wanted that addressed,” Ramos said. “We wanted the pay addressed, we wanted the work conditions addressed as well. And, I mean, personally for me like respect, as well.”

Eric Solomon, who founded and owned Night Owls with his wife, Val, said in an email they felt “blindsided by any insinuation of overworked, unhappy employees.”

He went on to say most full-time employees didn’t work a whole 40-hour week by choice, and he described it as nearly a “come-and-go-as-you-please” type of arrangement. He also shared documentation showing Night Owls employees over a 5-month period worked an average of more than 37 hours a week. The average hourly pay was more than $18.

The Night Owls employees wanted the Solomons to voluntarily recognize their union. That didn’t happen, so instead the union petitioned for a National Labor Relations Board vote to formally affiliate with the Communications Workers of America.

Night Owls United members say that the shop engaged in union-busting tactics from the start. A timeline the union posted on their Instagram page describes meetings the shop organized with representatives of the Labor Relations Institute, an organization which has been criticized for “union-busting” tactics.

Solomon said in an email that management also allowed representatives from the CWA to speak to workers on the clock.

“We were told that even allowing the Union to speak on company time, much less in the building and on the clock, was unheard of, and no one could ever remember a company doing that before,” Solomon said.

But Ramos said that the representatives were brought in following pressure from the workers.

“We all asked like, ‘well, why can’t we get a CWA rep in here?’ And it was unanimous. Like everyone wanted that. So we pushed for that and we were able to get that,” Ramos said.

In December, an overwhelming majority of the employees voted to formalize and become affiliated with the CWA. But before the newly-formed union could enter into collective bargaining, another shoe dropped: Night Owls print shop announced it had sold its business to Thrive Screen Printing, based in Phoenix, Arizona.

“We heard about the acquisition from a customer, not even from ownership,” Conner said.  “We learned about it because somebody DM’d, our union social media account saying, ‘hey, how is this acquisition going to affect you guys?’ We just said, ‘what acquisition?’”

Soon after, the workers say they received emails that the print shop had begun filing for unemployment on their behalf with the Texas Workforce Commission.

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Night Owls owner Eric Solomon sent out a statement to clients – and reiterated as much in emails with Texas Standard – explaining that the decision to close down the Houston facility was one that they were unable to communicate directly to workers sooner for legal reasons.

“By the time these talks had started and had progressed, some of the staff made it clear that they’d like to unionize. After receiving that letter from the labor board, lawyers and union people began calling the shots,” Solomon said in an email. “We were told we couldn’t so much as talk to anyone in the bargaining unit, and everything needed to go through attorneys.”

But Conner says communication through union representatives didn’t happen either. He said Night Owls United’s CWA representative had been in contact with Solomon to set a bargaining date, but had been just as “blindsided” by the Thrive acquisition and subsequent layoffs as the workers were.

“If his excuse is that they weren’t allowed to communicate with us directly because of some rule, then they weren’t even communicating with the CWA union representatives either,” Conner said.

But with the acquisition announced and the process of closing down the Houston facility initiated, workers and their CWA representatives turned to negotiating severance in February. At the end of those negotiations, a deal was reached but one last sticking point ultimately led to workers walking away from the offer.

Union members announced on their Instagram page that they had chosen to forgo the severance offer over a requirement that they delete certain posts from the union Instagram page, drop all Unfair Labor Practices charges and cease airing the grievances they levied at Night Owls.

“Ultimately we didn’t feel that it was worth giving up like our one platform that we had to kind of talk about our situation,” Conner said.

Solomon released a video statement following the conclusion of the negotiations, in which he said he was finally able to speak out because he claimed CWA representatives said they could no longer back Night Owls United because of “unreasonable expectations of labor negotiations.”

“We were told the employees changed their minds because they would have to legally agree to never lie or disparage Night Owls or Val or I personally. And they were unwilling to promise to do that,” Solomon said in the statement.

But CWA District 6 released its own statement saying they remained the recognized bargaining agent for Night Owls employees and would “continue to stand behind them in their fight for justice.”

Amid all this, some Night Owls clients have cut ties with the print shop, including the band Speedy Ortiz and merch shop Super Yaki. And social media comments that once lauded the designs or expressed a desire to work at the shop have largely given way to accusations of union-busting.

Both Night Owls management and the union say they would like to move on. Solomon said management would be willing to continue working with the union, but Ramos said that’s off the table if they can’t speak their truths.

“We don’t want to continue fighting them, but we want to be able to have our voices and be able to tell people, like in our personal lives mainly, what our experiences were,” Ramos said.

Solomon said he would continue his work in screen-printing with Thrive and that at some point in the future “Night Owls” as an entity would cease to exist as part of the sale.

As for Night Owls United, members have indicated they would leave up their Instagram page to share their experience and raise funds for the laid off workers.

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