The Brattleboro Co-op. (Reformer file photo)
The Brattleboro Co-op. (Reformer file photo)

BRATTLEBORO -- A federal mediator has been called in to help jump start stalled contract talks between the Brattleboro Food Co-op and its workers.

Richard Brown, secretary and treasurer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, the union representing the Co-op workers, said the mediator was called in to help get contract talks back on track after the two sides reached an impasse on how health care coverage would be paid for.

"The sessions were moving in the right direction until the BFC proposed a much less expensive health insurance plan with an increase in employee contributions," Brown said in a press release. "The BFC has been experiencing growing pains since moving into their new building and are experiencing some hopefully short term financial issues."

The Co-op workers voted to join UFCW last November and contract negotiations started in March.

"The Co-op and the union met with the federal mediator on Nov. 5," Co-op Spokesman Phil Brodeur said. "Discussions were constructive and both parties agreed to meet again with the mediator on Nov. 19."

Ruth Garbus, a Co-op employee on the bargaining team said negotiations were civil, and confidential, until the recent breakdown over health insurance costs.

"As soon as we started talking about economics it got really difficult," she said. "Emotions are starting to run high."

Garbus said management wants to make changes in the health insurance plan that would cost the employees more while offering fewer benefits.

She said the employees are aware of the Co-op's recent financial challenges but at the same time it was important for the union to hold out for a fair contract.

"Most of us at the Co-op are wage earners and none of us are getting rich," she said. "The amount they would make from this increase is $14,000, which is a drop in the bucket for them, but for us it is a lot of money. If we bargain for this contract, in which we take a hit, the road has been plowed for this to happen."

At the October board meeting General Manager Alex Gyori and Finance Manager Ken McGee answered questions about the Co-op's health insurance rates, according to meeting notes.

Gyori, at the meeting, also reported that sales in week 13 of the first quarter were under projection, but it was the only week in the quarter where sales were below the same period last year.

The weekly average is about $4,000 below projection, board meetings notes show.

Co-op sales grew in fiscal year 2013 by $2.3 million, or 14.6 percent over the previous year.

But the store missed its targeted sales level of $20.4 million last year, largely due to construction difficulties that delayed the opening of the new store, board treasurer Tom Nunziata wrote in the annual report.

The Co-op lost a little more than $555,000 last year and earlier in the year 11 employees lost their jobs.

Brown said the Co-op's unfortunate financial situation should not be balanced on the backs of the staff.

He said that while the early talks moved along well, as soon as the two sides began discussing health benefits there was little movement.

He hopes the federal mediator will help both sides get the talks moving again.

"This is the first contract for the staff and it is a great concern for us that the Co-op is looking to implement a less desirable health insurance plan," Brown said. "The talks were going well, but now that we are getting into the economic issues, it is a huge stumbling block and it overrides anything good that we were able to do up to this point."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.