BRATTLEBORO -- After remaining largely silent about the ongoing unionization drive at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, management and the board talked about the issue at the co-op's annual meeting Sunday night.
More than 150 co-op members filled the All Souls Church in West Brattleboro and peppered the board, and General Manager Alex Gyori, for almost an hour on the issue.
Some co-op employees wants to join the Springfield, Mass.-based Local 1459 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), and the workers will hold a union vote on Nov. 14, after about two months of sometimes tense and contentious debate on the labor question.
Some of the discussion centered around the co-op's use of the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin.
Board treasurer Tom Nunziata said the co-op has spent $1,880 on labor issues since the union drive started.
Gyori supported the co-op's decision to retain Downs Rachlin Martin during the union drive. He said the co-op has used DRM over the years for all of its legal needs, and he said that anytime a DRM lawyer has even suggested that the co-op explore ways to discourage unionization, Gyori steered the conversation in another direction.
Still some members accused DRM of being anti-union and they asked the board to change firms to at least offer critics the perception that the co-op was not trying to fight the unionization drive.
"If the co-op uses legal counsel that is known for union busting activity it gives the perception that our values are not being valued," co-op member Barry Aleshnick said.
Gyori said it would make no sense to work with another law firm at this point.
"I am committed to social justice and integrity and truth," Gyori said. "I understand the perception, but they do what they are asked to do. They help us understand the rules and the law."
The co-op board was also asked why it did not voluntarily recognize the union in September after supporters said they had the signatures from a majority of the workers.
Board President John Hatton said that after the staff handed in the petition the board spoke to some staff members who said they had no idea the union drive was going on.
Hatton said the board wanted every employee to have a say in whether the co-op should unionize, and he said management and the board would work in good faith with the union if the vote turns out in favor of unionizing.
"When some of the staff members came to us with the petition the board reflected on it," said Hatton. "We concluded it was the staff's choice, and not the board's. If we recognized the union it would be our decision and there would be no vote. The staff should have the right to choose."
All of eligible staff members from among the approximately 160 workers at the co-op will be able to vote.
Absentee ballots are not allowed and a representative from each side will be on hand to oversee the vote. A simple majority will decide the issue.
Gyori also talked about the atmosphere at the co-op over what he admitted was a very difficult year.
In August 2011, beer and wine manager Richard Gagnon murdered fellow manager Michael Martin at the co-op over growing tension between the two.
And the co-op has also been stretched thin, Gyori said, while moving out of the old building and into its new $10 million home.
Gyori said management is looking into alternative ways of handling grievances.
"This has been a time of great transition and it has been difficult for everybody," Gyori said. "So much has happened and it has been difficult to manage. Everything that has happened has put a huge hole in our ability to manage. We've all been stretched thin and some things were probably dropped but I don't think we are going to deal with things like we have dealt with them in the past. I understand that we need to tune up our management structure and make it so that everyone has a real voice."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.