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Co-op, union look toward November vote

BRATTLEBORO—An election will decide whether employees of the Brattleboro Food Co-op will be represented by a union.

But two questions — which employees will be allowed to vote in the election, and when the election will be held — still have not been answered.

The Co-op’s board of directors and Co-op General Manager Alex Gyori declined to voluntarily recognize a third-party “card check” petition signed by a majority of the grocery’s 200 employees seeking representation by Local 1459 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

At its Oct. 1 meeting, the Co-op Board left it to Gyori to decide on the terms of a union vote. Rejected was the “shoebox election” option, which is a local election supervised by a neutral third party from the community.

Instead, it was decided to go through a formal election process supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

This process allows up to six weeks from the date of the filing for the election by a union for an election to be held, and Gyori confirmed Tuesday that the vote was tentatively scheduled for the week of Thanksgiving.

According to the NLRB’s Boston office, a petition for representation was filed by Local 1459 on Oct. 9.

“When the UFCW filed the petition at the NLRB, the date of filing became the start date for the election period, said Gyori on Tuesday, “That is, the NLRB allows up to 42 days from the date of the filing for the election to take place.”

Union supporters contend that this is a deliberate stalling tactic by the Co-op that is being done on the advice of the Co-op’s legal firm, Downs Rachlin Martin (DRM).

The election may take place at any time within the six-week window. According to Local 1459 Secretary-Treasurer Richard Brown, Gyori denied a request from the union to hold the election the week before Thanksgiving to resolve the issue before holiday shopping crowds and employee travel plans.

“Neither DRM nor the Co-op has any say in this,” said Gyori. “The UFCW would most likely have been aware of this requirement when they filed, and should therefore have known the resulting end date. In effect, therefore, it was the UFCW that determined the election period.”

There are also questions about whether a voting eligibility hearing will be held by the NLRB.

In a letter to more than 400 supporters who signed an online petition, Joëlle Montagnino, one of the organizers of the union effort, said the hearing “will require that members of the Co-op staff travel to the [NLRB] in Boston in order to testify.”

“It is difficult to understand what might be gained from such a tactic, other than to intimidate and discourage the staff, delay the vote, and generate more billable hours for DRM,” she wrote.

Gyori said on Tuesday that the Co-op “has not requested a formal hearing. The NLRB automatically scheduled a hearing, however, as part of the requirement that it imposes. It is not clear whether a hearing is necessary.”

According to the NLRB, a hearing has been scheduled at its Boston regional office for Monday, Oct. 22, at 11 a.m.

According to Brown, a hearing had been scheduled for Oct. 16, the earliest date it could be held, but it was postponed to Oct. 22 at the request of Tim Copeland, the DRM attorney handling the Co-op case.

Brown said Tuesday that it was rare for these hearings to take place.

“Ninety percent of NLRB elections take place without one,” he said. “It’s very rare to have a hearing for such a small bargaining unit. The only reason to have one is to delay the voting process.”

Brown said more and more Co-op shareholders are questioning the Co-op’s use of DRM in the election process, and the expense of hiring the firm for this case.

Gyori said that the Co-op “has been using DRM for all its legal needs, including real estate and construction issues and, now, for advice on how to respond to National Labor Relations Board requests.”

Questions about the voting process are likely to come up when the Co-op holds its annual shareholder meeting on Sunday, Nov. 4, at 4 p.m., at the West Village Meeting House in West Brattleboro.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #174 (Wednesday, October 17, 2012).

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