Co-op workers want union
BRATTLEBORO -- Some workers at the Brattleboro Food Co-op have unionized and the workers have asked the co-op's Board of Directors to voluntarily recognize the union.
The workers went before the board at its monthly meeting Monday night.
Greg Howe, who works in the co-op deli and has been there for 13 years, said there is a "strong majority" of co-op employees who have supported the move to unionize.
"The organizing committee, and the people who have signed on to this seek a positive outcome," Howe said. "We want the co-op to live up to its stated values and ideals."
The group presented its letter to the board Monday asking for a special meeting between the board and union.
The board can voluntarily recognize the union, or hold out, and ask for a more formal vote before beginning contract negotiations, if the union drive is successful.
Howe said employees began talking about joining the union in the spring after a longtime employee was threatened with termination.
"People have not come together to talk about wages and benefits," he said. "This is about transparency and about people being treated fairly."
Co-op General Manager Alex Gyori said Tuesday that the board has authorized him to speak to the media about the ongoing union effort, but Gyori said he had no comment at this point.
"Right now we are figuring out what our next step is," he said.
"The Brattleboro Food Cooperative's Board of Directors supports workers' legal right to choose whether or not to be represented by a union," Board President John Hatton said in a prepared statement.
Richard Brown, Secretary and Treasurer with United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1459, said a group of employees from the Brattleboro Co-op contacted his union a few months ago.
Brown said the employees were more interested in improving working conditions and fair treatment, and in addressing issues of transparency at the co-op, than they were in talking about wages and benefits.
"Co-ops and unions, hypothetically, share a vision," Brown said. "They share a vision of creating strong communities and good jobs and the Brattleboro Co-op employees want to strengthen their jobs and strengthen the co-op's standing in the community."
According to Brown, the co-op board can voluntarily recognize the union after a vote is held among co-op workers.
Supporters would need to secure a majority to join the union.
If the board does not voluntarily recognize the union then the National Labor Relations Board has to be called in, a process which Brown said typically grows more acrimonious as it goes along.
"We are interested in working with the board, and growing this co-op and union movement together," he said. "It is in everybody's best interest to work together. We hope the board will be willing to work with us."
Some workers at the co-op tried to form in a union in 2003, but there was not enough support among the staff at that time to follow through.
The union fight dragged on for more than a year, with some workers at the time accusing the co-op Board and management of fighting the effort.
Supporters of the union were looking to amend the co-op bylaws at the annual meeting in 2005 with a member vote calling on the board to practice neutrality with regard to union activities.
That vote was rejected by co-op members.
Howe said that while the previous union drive was not successful, many of the issues that supporters were raising back then are still in play.
"There are systemic problems here," said Howe. "As we have organized we found that everyone has a story. These issues have brought everyone together."
The union drive in Brattleboro comes as workers at three other co-ops in the region have moved forward with their efforts to unionize.
The board at the River Valley Market in Northampton, Mass., voluntarily recognized the union after a majority of the workers there signed authorization cards supporting the union.
The union is negotiating with co-op management.
And in August the Franklin Community Co-op Board of Directors, which oversees stores in Greenfield, Mass., and Shelburne Falls, Mass., also voluntarily recognized the union after a majority of the 75 workers in the two stores signed a petition requesting union representation.
The next Brattleboro Food Co-op Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 1.
The co-op annual meeting will be held on Nov. 4.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.
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