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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

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


Workers unionize at
Brattleboro Food Co-op

Organizers say a ‘substantial’ majority of staff supports efforts

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.

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

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