This isn’t about a few malcontents
River Valley Co-op’s management and board of directors often seem intent on minimizing the unrest among the staff, usually referring to “some” employees. The latest example is a July letter to owners posted at the store website that refers to “increasing discord on the part of some employees.” Unfortunately, this isn’t about a few complainers, nor is the conflict new. Far from it.
The fact is, a large majority of workers have been unhappy with management and feeling unheard for a long time — and everyone knows it. In May of 2016, 77 bargaining unit workers signed an internal petition to the board of directors outlining multiple concerns about working conditions and the management of the store. More than 80 percent of workers who had the chance to sign the petition did so. We’re told that even more wanted to sign, but in another troubling indicator, they said they feared retaliation from management.
“An overwhelming vote of no confidence on upper management”
Four union stewards then delivered a letter to the board, in early July of 2016, asking for a meeting in which to present and discuss the petition and its list of issues. “Deteriorating conditions at the co-op compel us—as representatives of the floor staff—to reach out to you directly,” the letter begins (full text below). “Staff morale has been alarmingly low for many months.… The floor [staff] has, in essence, cast an overwhelming vote of no confidence on upper management.”
Among the concerns listed in the petition (full text also below):
- Chronic understaffing
- Wage theft [for shuttle time]
- Public claims of paying a living wage, when the $11.25 base starting wage for the majority of co-op employees is significantly below even the lowest calculation of a living wage for our area
- Multiple violations of the National Labor Relations Act
- No action on safety issues resulting from the recent remodel [OSHA later fined the store nearly $17,000]
- Poor communication by management
- Censorship of the structured communication opportunities that do exist
- Disregard for the union contract, including the role of union stewards
But the board, based on their interpretation of the co-op’s “policy governance” model (common among co-ops, but practiced in different ways), declined to meet with workers to receive the petition and discuss their concerns.
Where else could workers turn, having found management unresponsive at best? To co-op owners. And so the public campaign for paid shuttle time was born.
Since that internal petition was circulated, the overall tenor of management-worker relations has only continued to deteriorate. The most recent internal staff survey showed that satisfaction with the performance of upper management had plummeted since the last one.
Below is the letter given to the board in July 2016, followed by the petition that the board did not make arrangements to accept.
“Deteriorating conditions compel us to reach out to you”
Dear members of the Board,
Deteriorating conditions at the co-op compel us—as representatives of the floor staff—to reach out to you directly. Staff morale has been alarmingly low for many months. On the surface, things may appear to be functional. But scratch the surface and you’ll find that frustration with upper management has reached the point of near debilitating distraction. As a consequence, work output suffers and experienced, well-trained staff seek opportunities elsewhere.
While the co-op prioritizes reaching out and listening to its membership, the same cannot be said about its approach to its staff, many of whom, ironically enough, happen to be owner-members as well. On the floor, the long–held perception is that upper management is, at best, unresponsive and out of touch. From an outside perspective, any reasonable-minded onlooker would be given pause were they to review the number and nature of the formal grievances filed by staff against management.
Given this state of affairs, a petition to the Board of Directors was drawn up that addresses a handful of the more pressing issues that require a fair and just resolution. As of this date, 77 signatures have been gathered, which puts support for the petition among those who read it at over 80%. That percentage goes even higher when you factor in the handful that read it and privately expressed support, but were hesitant to go on record with their discontent.
Pause for a moment to take in these numbers. This is a staggering mandate. A near unanimous majority of the eligible floor staff is making a direct appeal to you. We believe you to be ethically driven and invested with responsibility. We are hoping finally to make our voices heard and to have the issues that we and the co-op face given genuine consideration.
On a daily basis, it is the staff’s charge to deliver to the public the products and services that it desires. We take pride in our work and perform this task in a positive, engaged, and helpful manner. We too strive to see the co-op reach its full potential, and have untapped energy, insights, and ideas to unleash towards that end, cognizant that we represent a key asset that the co-op deploys to differentiate itself in the marketplace.
Day-to-day store operations are not typically the board’s purview. But for the betterment of the co-op, perhaps the time has come for the board to break form and become more involved. We would urge you to begin by investigating from all sides the manner in which the present store is managed. A more accountable and effective management model may be what is needed, not only to improve current store function, but also to facilitate a better outcome at future locations.
In closing, we hope this letter has given you a sense of the increasing direness of the situation at the co-op. The floor has, in essence, cast an overwhelming vote of no confidence on upper management. We are requesting a special meeting with the board of directors in order to formally present the staff petition. May this meeting also serve as the initiation of a fruitful, ongoing dialogue.
We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response, which may be directed to Kelsi Sleet.
Respectfully and in good faith,
Kelsi Sleet–Wine & Cheese, union steward
Chris Brodeur–Meat & Seafood, union steward
Tim Hanrahan–Produce, union steward
Anna Sullivan–Wellness, union steward
Cc: Jeff Jones, Union representative, UFCW Local 1459
“Disregard for cooperative principles”
The concerns listed in the workers’ internal petition were thrown into high relief by the fact that, in the space of a year, the union filed three charges of unfair labor practice against management with the National Labor Relations Board. And last fall, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the co-op $16,800 for four safety violations it termed “serious.” The initial fine was $24,000, but apparently that was negotiated down. To give you some context, the average fine for a serious violation is $2,000.
Here’s the full petition:
Dear Board of Directors,
We are writing to you because we are concerned with the erosion of our co-op’s values. We know from the International Cooperative Alliance Statement of Cooperative Identity that cooperatives “are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others” (ica.coop), and it is in this tradition that we deliver this document.
As the co-op continues to expand, we, the community of workers, witness a growing disregard for cooperative principles, and find ourselves increasingly alienated from the community that the co-op intends to serve. Unfortunately, this extends to our relationship with upper management. We are troubled by this because River Valley is not only a cooperative business, but a member of the Western Mass Coalition of Jobs With Justice whose mission is to “improve working people’s standard of living”, and uphold the vision that “workers’ rights are human rights and to be successful, we have to be a part of a larger campaign for economic and social justice.”
In addition to the co-op’s affiliation with JWJ, the co-op also recognized the UFCW Local 1459 “as a partner in the cooperative’s workplace that would support our shared interests in the welfare of the cooperative’s employees, the growth of the cooperative’s business, and its positive impact on our local economy through job growth” (Preamble, Agreement Between UFCW Local 1459 and River Valley Co-op Effective October 31, 2015-October 30, 2018). Unfortunately the growth of the cooperative’s business fails to be accompanied by the strengthening of cooperative values. Instead, there is a neglect for the general welfare of cooperative employees who are an integral part of the community that the co-op professes to serve.
Below you will find a list of key issues that have yet to be resolved:
Wage theft: All employees are required to report 10 minutes before their scheduled shift to an alternative lot in order to be shuttled to the co-op and return home on the same shuttle which totals 20 minutes or more a day. This time is not being compensated, which pursuant “Massachusetts Minimum Wage and Overtime Law and Related Regulation” 454. 27. 04 (4), is defined as compensable.
Living wage: While the quarterly newsletters claims that it pays a living wage for co-op employees, that is not the reality. The starting wage for the majority of co-op employees is $11.25. The Alliance for Just Society has calculated a living wage of $19.61 in Massachusetts. No member of the bargaining unit at the co-op can ever expect to earn a living wage, even after 7 years of employment — the farthest extension of the wage scale. We recognize the nationwide fight for $15, that both New York and California have already scheduled the statewide increase in minimum wage, and that several employers in Northampton have joined in this struggle to provide fair wages offering their employees $15/hr.
Multiple violations of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act): Unilateral decision to eliminate employee access to shrink [food and other items that are no longer sellable for whatever reason. —ed.], which has been recognized by both the co-op and the union as a past practice of mutual concern. This decision violates not only our union contract, but section 8 (a)(5) of the NLRA which prevents unilateral changes to past practice.
Failure to bargain in good faith, section 8 (d) of the NLRA: Failure to adhere to the grievance procedure as defined in the contract and failure to recognize grievants (see last bullet).
Safety issues post-remodel: The remodel, while aesthetically pleasing, greatly hindered the workflow of many departments. Communication with the staff was nonexistent and when problems with workflow or other safety issues were brought up, no action was taken. With increased sales, the lack of storage and work spaces has led to an unsafe workplace. When concerns are raised about this, once again, no action is taken by management.
Communication: Communication throughout the store is a long standing issue. Our means of communication with management via employee comments and weekly huddles, are increasingly censored and inaccessible. We feel this goes against the cooperative principle of democratic control and open communication, and violates our right to open communication as defined in Article VII, Section 1 of our contract.
Failure to bargain in good faith: A final point is the failure to bargain in good faith and blatant disregard for the union contract we all signed. This is illustrated by management’s unwillingness to adhere to the contract and disregard for the role of the union stewards and its representative in enforcing the contract.
Our goal in presenting this to you is two-fold. First we would like to inform you of some of the problems facing the integrity of this co-op. Second is to open a line of constant communication with the board. We seek a meeting with the board to discuss the future of our co-op community and the actions of upper management.
Some policies set forth and actions taken by management have not been in the spirit of a cooperative community. We would like to see the values upheld and have a voice in the future of our cooperative. Furthermore, we see how our member-owner community feels a pride in shopping at a place that pledges to support the local community and provide an excellent working environment for it’s employees, and we think it is in the best interest of the co-op to back this pledge with real commitment.
There is a tremendous feeling of pride among staff in our workplace. We are proud of our co-op and the shining example it is for cooperative businesses nationwide. However, we feel there is a great deal of potential the co-op is not living up to in terms of becoming an organization that truly supports and nourishes the community, especially those dedicated individuals who show up every day to keep it running. We know that staff participation in the recent survey was 95% and expect that the survey will continue to shed light on these issues that we have brought before you. It is our hope that the workers, management, and board members of River Valley Co-op can work in coalition to resolve the issues that are facing us.
Signed in solidarity by the concerned employees at River Valley Coop