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The Commons
Photo 1

Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Charlie Lewis, center, speaks to the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s Board of Directors at a meeting Monday night.


Workers unionize at
Brattleboro Food Co-op

Organizers say a 'substantial' majority of staff supports efforts
Photo 2

Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Alex Gyori, general manager at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, listens to employees at a Board of Directors meeting on Monday night.

Originally published in The Commons issue #169 (Wednesday, September 12, 2012).

BRATTLEBORO—Workers at the Brattleboro Food Co-op have announced their intention to organize a union.

A group of workers formally made the request at the Co-op’s Board of Directors’ meeting on Monday night.

In a statement read by Co-op employee Charlie Lewis at the meeting, the decision made by a majority of the more than 160 members of the Co-op’s non-managerial staff to seek representation from Local 1459 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UCFW) stemmed from a number of factors.

According to the statement that was written by a group of employees, “we are tired of working in an environment that takes pride in calling itself a cooperative, but does not include staff in the cooperative community.”

Forming a union, they wrote, “will be the best way of securing the rights we seek.”

Alluding to the difficulties of the past year that included the slaying of Michael Martin by a co-worker and the transition to a new building in May, the employees stated that “forming a union will help us all work together more successfully and cooperatively, which is crucial after last year’s tragedies and as we move forward with our new larger store.”

After the meeting, Lewis said that the statement was prepared over the past few weeks and most of it stems from a desire to have a more democratic decision-making process in place.

Hannah Aleshnick, another Co-op employee who participated in drafting the statement, said Tuesday that the people involved in the union drive “all have a vision of what the Co-op is and what it could be,” and that having a union is one way “to try and improve that vision.”

Richard Brown, secretary and treasurer of the Springfield, Mass.-based Local 1459, has assisted the Co-op workers with the current organization drive.

The initiative comes on the heels of successful union drives by the UFCW’s Local 1459 this year at nearby Massachusetts co-ops — River Valley Market in Northampton in February and, in August, the Franklin Community Co-operative, which operates Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls.

Brown, who was quick to credit the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s employees for doing most of the work, said that “unions and cooperatives have a natural bond.”

Aleshnick agreed.

“The people in the core group really believe that the principles of cooperatives — community involvement, solidarity, fairness, and equity — are in line with that of unions,” she said.

She also said that the structure of the Co-op excluded the voices of employees.

“Because this is a cooperative of shareholders, only the shareholders have a say in decision-making,” said Aleshnick. “Many workers are also shareholders, but that is the only outlet we have to address our concerns.”

“We, as employees, don’t feel that our voice is valued, and we believe we deserve a better voice and more rights,” she said.

A second try

Brown said the main difference between this union effort and another unsuccessful effort that took place between 2003 and 2005, is that a “substantial majority” of the Co-op’s employees signed union cards this time around.

By comparison, Brown said, the previous effort had fewer people involved and the board of directors “quickly dissuaded them from going forward.”

Aleshnick wanted to stress that the desire to form a union was not motivated by economic concerns.

“A lot of places organize for better wages and benefits, but we are doing this over bigger issues,” she said. “This is less about pay and benefits, and more about workplace democracy.”

Brown said he fully understands that sentiment.

“There have certainly been growing pains [at the Co-op] over the past nine years. Sometimes cooperatives lose their way, and workers get excluded from the vision,” he said.

Aleshnick said the next step in the process is up to the Board of Directors, who told the organizers that they will offer a decision within the next couple of weeks.

“It is up to the board to either voluntarily recognize the union, or force us to go through a more difficult process,” she said. “I hope for us, and for the community, that we have a smooth recognition process.”

The “card check,” or majority sign-up process, is where the majority of eligible employees sign authorization cards stating they wish to have union representation. It is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

With a card check, if a majority of employees sign up, an employer can waive their right to request a secret ballot election and simply recognize the union — the outcome of the recent Northampton and Greenfield co-op union drives.

If the Co-op board chooses not to recognize the card check, the next step will be a secret ballot election overseen by the NLRB.

In an email on Tuesday afternoon, Co-op Board of Directors President John Hatton wrote that the board “supports workers’ legal right to choose whether or not to be represented by a union.”

Hatton also wrote that “our general manager, Alex Gyori, is responsible for all communications and negotiations in the matter of the request for recognition of UFCW representation, and all further communications will be directed to him.”

Gyori had not responded to an email or telephone requests for information by press time.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

Comments (7)

Topic: COMM-0169.bratt.coopuniondrive
Missi Bacon (Hinsdale, NH) says...
As an employee and shareholder of BFC I have to question the validity of many of the signatures on the petition. When questionable and inappropriate tactics are used to get people to sign that is not a "vote" for the union. People are signing so that they will be left alone after being approached over and over again, usually while they are trying to work.
20th September 2012 1:56pm
Richard Brown (Springfield) says... also on Face Book or Follow on twitter UFCWLocal1459 We are getting complaints from workers who are being badgered to remove their names from our petitions, not visa versa. This is the most compassionate, caring group of union supporters I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I am very proud of their positive, up lifting, transparent, inclusive message.
20th September 2012 3:52pm
Charlie Lewis (Brattleboro) says...
Hi Missi,It has been the policy of the union organizing committee not to harass co-workers, but rather to give them multiple opportunities to talk with us or to attend meetings so that they can be better informed. We also trust that our co-workers are intelligent and mature enough to be able to make their own decisions. If any of our co-workers have felt that we used "inappropriate tactics," we would certainly want to know about it. We would appreciate it if you would come to us and tell us ... Read More
20th September 2012 8:26pm
Rick Brown (Springfield, MA) says...
The employee committee that has been doing union outreach to co-workers at BFC are some of the most thoughtful, caring, empathetic, transparent, up lifting, dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to work with. They have a truly cooperative spirit.
20th September 2012 10:40pm
Susan DeMatteis (Marlboro, VT) says...
Too bad the people trying to organize this union are not being transparent with all of the staff about their intentions
13th September 2012 7:22am
Joëlle (Brattleboro) says...
Susan, Not contacting you was truly an oversight on our part and we're very sorry for it. The absence of transparency in your case was purely accidental. News is slower to travel upstairs as well. Would you like to attend an information meeting? We want you to know everything you need before making a decision, and we have every interest in having a transparent and positive message for our co-workers. Please let me know if you'd like me to email or call you. I can leave my contact ... Read More
13th September 2012 7:54pm
Isabel Matweecha (Brattleboro) says...

Again, it is entirely my fault you were not reached out to sooner and I am deeply sorry. We tried to reach as many of our co-workers as we could. If we missed any one else and you are feeling left out, please reach out to us and we'll get you information and help you get answers to your questions. Our intention is to form a union, and we would love for you to support our efforts. Isabel

14th September 2012 3:43pm
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