‘Not all the information is coming out’

Not all Co-op employees embrace the union

BRATTLEBORO — At the Brattleboro Food Co-op's September board meeting, about 12 of its 160 employees formed a circle around the Board and spoke about why they believed unionizing the workforce there would be beneficial.

They said that a substantial majority of the employees signed union cards and asked the board to voluntarily recognize their membership in United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1459 (UFCW) [News, Sept. 12].

But a smaller group also spoke.

“It was hard to hear what was in the pro-union statements some of the employees read at the Board meeting,” said Co-op employee Anna Edson, who spoke against the unionization effort with two colleagues, Missi Bacon and Shannon Foster.

“Missi, Shannon, and I spoke from the heart and did not have a prepared statement,” Edson said. “We didn't like hearing the co-op being spoken about in this way.”

Edson, Bacon, and Foster - shareholders who have worked at the Co-op for 11, four, and three years, respectively - do not think that bringing a union into the Co-op is a good idea and that their point of view has been drowned out.

“Not all the information is coming out; it is one-sided,” Edson said recently in a discussion with a Commons reporter.

“The union has not talked to everyone in the Co-op, so I'm not sure how they can say they have a majority,” she added.

“A number of employees were blindsided by the pro-union letter which appeared in their mailboxes,” Edson said.

“I know of one person who was [verbally] harassed several times aggressively, and coerced into signing a pro-union petition,” she asserted.

The employees who signed the initial petition “are not fully informed about what they are signing,” Edson charges. “We say, 'Don't feel you have to do this; ask questions first.'”

Is it broken?

Under the current structure, “Our individual voices are heard,” Foster said. “I do not believe that would be the case with a union involved.”

“A fellow employee from the front end has spoken to me four times in a way that was indicative of union tactics,” Edson said. “I've seen quiet and shy, indecisive, and new employees being bullied, [ones] who are not comfortable with saying no.”

Edson asserts that some pro-union colleagues have lobbied employees with phrases like “Your job is not secure,” “The Co-op can fire you for any reason,” and, in reference to the store's general manager who was shot at his desk by an employee in 2011, “Something has to be done to avoid another Michael Martin incident.'”

Vermont is, in fact, an at-will state, meaning that the employer has every right to fire employees for any reason.

But Edson said that in 11 years, she has never seen the Co-op do so indiscriminately.

“There are isolated situations being used to scare the rest of the people who work there,” she said.

“I do want to clarify that not all pro-union employees are as intrusive or harassing as others,” Edson added. “Some are actually upset when they hear some of the tactics that have been used. There are just some that need to watch how they come across to others.”

The trio said the union drive comes at a chaotic and stressful time, with building and moving the store's new facilities, which opened in June, and with employees facing the first anniversary in August of Martin's death.

“Management helped us get through growing pains and Michael Martin,” Bacon said.

“For six weeks after the Michael Martin shooting, Alex Gyori, general manager; Bruce Boardman, CFO; Dick Ernst, operations manager; and Phil Brodeur, manager of employee services spent time going around to each of us to make sure everyone was okay. Members of the core team and upper management did this,” Bacon pointed out.

“The whole management team is approachable, right up to Alex Gyori,” said Edson, adding that the Co-op's longtime general manager “knows every employee and will stop and talk - not just as management to employee, but person to person.”

The three workers (who all work as cashiers, though two have worked in other departments as well) say they are suspicious of a process that, by design, puts distance between them and their managers.

“As individuals, we can be at the bargaining table, but the discussion will be between the union reps and our employer,” Edson explained. “If we become unionized, we feel our voice will be lost in all the voices.”

“Some individual experiences have been unfavorable; of course, having some unhappy employees is normal,” Edson acknowledged. But, she said, that conflict - and its disciplinary consequences - should “be between the employee and management, not the whole Co-op.”

“We have an employee handbook and a Human Resources (HR) manager reviews it with us and we sign that we have read it and understand it,” said Edson. “It describes policies on employee files, reviews, discipline and grievances. Only management, or the employee the file belongs to, can access the files and I think that is a good thing. Pro-union employees, however, want more access to disciplinary measures and specific information about what happened in the past.”

Edson continued, “Working at the Co-op is the best job I ever had. [It is] easy to talk with everyone. But now, people have blinders on and some tell us they don't want to be propagandized by us.”

Co-op principles and a union

According to the trade magazine Cooperative Grocer, out of 350 food co-ops in the U.S, only about 12 to 20 of these have been unionized.

One reason could be the structure of cooperatives themselves. Such member-owned businesses operate according to a tradition called the Rochdale Principles, which derived from the operating structure established by 28 flannel weavers in Rochdale, England, during the Industrial Revolution.

One of the principles is democratic control by its membership, which collectively owns the entity. While employees aren't necessarily members, the culture of cooperatives creates a democratic and collaborative work environment.

In contrast, with a union/management relationship, Foster worries that there will be “this big gap between one side and the other.”

A Sept. 10 memo to Co-op employees from Daniel P. Clifford, president of Local 1459, was entitled “Everything to gain/Nothing to lose,” an assertion that the three employees look at skeptically.

The memo said that on approval of a contract, those employed at the Co-op would be exempt from initiation fees. Employees' dues would amount to $5 per week, but the question of other fees and workers' financial responsibilities is on the table.

Edson recalled a previous experience as an employee who was a member of a retail union.

“Tension between management and employees was horrific,” she said. “The union took $125 initial tuition and $50 a month. And I was just working part-time.”

The three employees also take exception to the convoluted federal and state labor laws that, in effect, guarantee workers the right not to belong to a union, yet compel them to pay union dues.

“We don't feel it's a community obligation to be a part of this [controversy],” Bacon said. “It should be between the employees and management. Ultimately, we think this is a loss for the whole board and possibly the shareholders and the community.”

When asked by the newspaper for a copy of the union bylaws, Rick Brown hesitated and said, “Usually employees never see the bylaws.”

“Scary things that are in the bylaws just don't happen in this union,” Brown pointed out. “We haven't had a strike in 20 years, which would require a two-thirds vote; we haven't enacted fines.”

He continued, “It is a ruse when management says don't vote for the union. Why should people vote against themselves?”

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