BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro Food Co-op Board of Directors declined to voluntarily recognize a newly formed labor union despite the urging of about 60 co-op members and employees who came out to the monthly co-op board meeting Monday night.
This is the second board meeting where union supporters approached the board to ask it to voluntarily recognize Local 1459 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to represent the co-op employees instead of forcing a vote.
The union supporters filled the board meeting room and spilled out into the hall in the co-op’s recently completed building.
They spoke for about 20 minutes during the board’s public participation segment of the meeting.
Union Organization Committee member Greg Howe said more than half of the co-op employees have already signed a petition asking the board to recognize the union. And Howe said the signatures represent the support by a majority of the co-op workers.
Before the meeting Board Chairman John Hatton said the board has delegated the decision to co-op General Manager Alex Gyori. Hatton said the board considers the decision to be a staffing issue, and he said all such decisions have been left up to Gyori in the past.
"The board supports the workers’ right to choose whether to do this through a democratic process," said Hatton. "We support their right to vote."
The board, and Gyori, listened to the comments at the meeting but largely declined to discuss the issue.
The board would not let a videographer from Brattleboro Community Television film the meeting.
Hatton said the board would meet in executive session at the end of Monday’s meeting and then release a statement to the union supporters on Tuesday.
Longtime co-op member Andy Davis presented the board with a petition that was signed by more than 500 members and shoppers, asking the co-op board to recognize the union.
"Do not fight the decision and aspirations of the workers," Davis said.
And Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, who has been a co-op member for more than 30 years and whose district includes the co-op, said failing to make a decision would hurt the business and its employees.
"The co-op was built on trust and goodwill but there comes a time when that does not work," she said. "The size and complexity of the new co-op makes this necessary."
One co-op employee, who refused to give her name, supported the board, saying the decision should not be made by the board, or by the shareholders.
She said the union question should be put to a secret ballot to allow every staff member to vote on the issue after learning about both sides.
"We need to decide ourselves," she said. "It needs to go to a vote among the people who it concerns. That is the staff and the staff only."
The union drive at the Brattleboro Food Co-op follows the decisions by two other nearby co-op boards in Massachusetts to voluntarily recognize a union without a formal vote.
The board of River Valley Market in Northampton and the board of Franklin Community Co-op, which operates stores in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls, both recognized the union without forcing a vote.
If the co-op does not voluntarily recognize the union then a vote could be held among the workers.
A "shoebox" vote could be held, which would be administered by the co-op staff, or a more formal vote could be ordered which would be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
It was not clear Monday what the next step would be if the board comes out of the executive session without making a firm decision.
Hannah Aleshnick, a co-op staff member and a member of the Union Organization Committee, said she was disappointed that the board members have refused to discuss the issue, and that they have given Gyori the authority to make the decision.
She said supporters have already waited a month for an answer and they were ready to move on to the next step, whatever that might be.
"The board obviously was not interested in hearing from us," she said. "We don’t want this to drag out. There is already tension in the co-op around this. The board can recognize the union, but if they force us to go to a vote we’ll have no choice."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.