Clash of barbers: Should shops be closed on Mondays?

Much to his chagrin, Schenectady barber Richard DiCristofaro has watched more and more shops stay op

To Richard DiCristofaro, it was a “cardinal sin.” A barbershop in Rotterdam. Open on a Monday. And not just any Monday. Christmas Eve.

For years, DiCristofaro has watched more and more barbershops in the city disregard the long-held tradition of remaining closed on Mondays — one of the perks that are increasingly disappearing, like the labor unions that won them.

Now, in organized labor’s weakened and graying state, the Schenectady man who owns Wedgeway Barbershop is attempting to save Monday.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” DiCristofaro said of the decision by Renato’s Barbershop to stay open Dec. 24. (Generally, the Rotterdam shop remains closed Mondays, unlike nearby Andy’s Barbershop on Augustine Avenue.)

At least in Schenectady, Mondays are turning into the latest front in unions’ battle against the global and corporate forces that are trimming away the benefits organized workers fought for during much of the 20th century. At his 96-year-old shop on Erie Boulevard, DiCristofaro is mounting a spring campaign designed to turn union supporters against barbers who offer haircuts on Mondays.

For the past few weeks, DiCristofaro — the former president of the Schenectady Barbers’ Union Local 176 — has become more vocal about the Monday issue. He has run advertisements criticizing the practice in The Daily Gazette and sought support from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1.

“They’ve always done as they please, which is fine. What we want to do is make people aware that they’re not union,” DiCristofaro said.

Local 1 in Utica will increase its barber organizing efforts around Schenectady and encourage union members in other trades to not get haircuts at the shops open on Mondays. The local has 2,600 upstate members.

Quality-of-life issue?

DiCristofaro’s effort to save Monday — a day he typically likes to spend golfing or with his seven grandchildren — is pitting barbers’ desire to preserve a work-life balance against consumers’ unbalanced lives. Over 60 years ago, organized barbers banded together and agreed to not work on Mondays, affording them a five-day work week, according to DiCristofaro.

Barbers who have broken from an earlier generation’s pledge to not work on Mondays said they are just trying to better accommodate customers.

“My customers were appreciative that we were open that Monday,” said Renato Viscusi, who opened Renato’s six years ago.

Christmas Eve marked the first time Viscusi kept his barbershop open on a Monday. Viscusi, who has worked as a barber for 45 years, said he does not welcome the idea of routinely being open on Mondays. But he doubts organized labor’s ability to reverse the open Monday trend, because of labor’s diminished strength in the region.

Viscusi’s move to stay open on the Monday before Christmas is not an unheard-of practice. The practice was once sanctioned by Local 176, the city’s barbers’ union.

According to a 1953 Schenectady Gazette article, Local 176 approved a policy to allow shops to remain open on a Monday during a week with a holiday. By the early 1960s, organized barbers had returned to their practice of remaining closed on all Mondays, DiCristofaro said.

“We’re definitely with the tradition, and we’re with Rich DiCristofaro,” said Zelindo “Ziggy” Viscusi, Renato’s son, who also works at the Rotterdam barbershop.

Starting in 1907, Local 176 was a force to be reckoned with. The union’s membership included most city barbers and it vigilantly monitored their prices and hours. One of Local 176’s last hurrahs came in the 1980s when the union helped defeat state lawmakers’ attempt to charge sales tax on barbers’ services.

In 1988, the Schenectady union merged with UFCW. But many Local 176 members stopped paying union dues after the merger. Local 1’s ranks of barbers has dwindled to about 80, mostly in western New York, said Gregory Gorea, executive assistant to the president of Local 1.

“It’s a free country. They can do whatever they like. But that’s not going to change Monday. I think the unions are grasping at whatever they can get,” said Ralph DiGiuseppe, who owns barbershops in Watervliet and Schenectady that are open on Mondays.

During most of the 20th century, unions played an integral part in paring back workers’ hours and cementing the 40-hour work week. But around 1970, the share of men who worked over 50 hours weekly started increasing.

Between 1980 and 2001, the share of 25- to 64-year-old men who worked at least 50 hours per week at their main job rose from 14.7 percent to 18.5 percent. By 2002, the highest paid 20 percent of workers were twice as likely to work longer than the lowest paid 20 percent of workers — a reversal from conditions in 1983, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit organization.

Greed or survival?

“The world is changing,” said Ralph Fusco, owner of Ed’s Barbershop on Union Street in Schenectady.

A decade ago, Ed’s stopped observing the off-Monday tradition, yielding to competition from unisex and other hair styling shops. Some shops, such as Super Mario’s Barber Shop at Crossgates mall in Guilderland, are open seven days a week.

“They say it’s for convenience, but it’s not. It’s greed,” said DiCristofaro.

“It might be an example of greed in some cases, but it might be survival in others,” Union Graduate College professor Rudy Nydegger said of barbershops’ extended hours.

Nydegger, who teaches business management and psychology at the Schenectady college, said some barbers might opt to stay open on Mondays to differentiate themselves from competitors. That move could help them develop niche markets and help new businesses stay afloat.

DiGuiseppe is banking on that Monday strategy to give his barbershops a boost. In 2003, he opened Schuyler Barbershop in Watervliet and in August he opened the Schenectady Barbershop on Van Vranken Avenue.

By 2010, DiGiuseppe plans to open four more barbershops in the Capital Region, and they all will be open on Mondays. By that time, some of DiGuiseppe’s barbershops might be open seven days a week — an industry development he calls “inevitable.”

“If we don’t adapt to the job market, then we might end up closing down,” said DiGuiseppe, whose, father, uncle and grandfather were Schenectady barbers.

The decision to stay open on Monday has forced DiGuiseppe to sometimes work six-day weeks.

He considers the longer work week one of the sacrifices anyone running a business must make.

Nydegger warned that barbers could paint themselves into a corner by staying open longer. He said workers need to think more about their work-life balance and the value of banding together.

“Sometimes people think they can work six days a week, but after a while they realize they’re just like everyone else,” said Charles Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Association of Barber Boards of America in Arkadelphia, Ark.

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