hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2017


A clash of values?

Workers at a food co-op form a union, testing limits of collectivism


Erin Merrigan, left, and Karen Kane show off buttons supporting a labor union at Wild Oats Market. Workers at the food co-op in Williamstown voted to unionize in February 2016, but the union and management have yet to negotiate a labor contract. Scott Langley photoBy TRACY FRISCH
Contributing writer



Erin Merrigan, left, and Karen Kane show off buttons supporting a labor union at Wild Oats Market. Workers at the food co-op in Williamstown voted to unionize in February 2016, but the union and management have yet to negotiate a labor contract. Scott Langley photo

When Megan Rusk took a job 18 months ago at Wild Oats Market, she figured working at the local food co-op was a good match with her personal values.
“I buy only fair-trade items when possible,” Rusk said. “I try to reduce my meat intake. I believe in supporting local farms. I believe that a local community should be able to shape its future. A lot of my co-workers believe in these things too.”

But when some of her co-workers organized to improve working conditions at Wild Oats, they say the store responded in ways they would have expected from a big business, not a community co-op.

In February 2016, workers at Wild Oats voted to unionize the store by joining the United Food and Commercial Workers. Sixteen months later, after many negotiating sessions and after surviving a bid to decertify the union, the roughly 50 full- and part-time employees in the bargaining unit have yet to achieve a labor contract.

“You would think management at a co-op would want to work with a union,” Rusk said. “That hasn’t been the case. I feel like management is wary of giving up any power.”

David Durfee, the general manager of Wild Oats, acknowledged that the co-op store is not a democratic workplace.

“The word cooperative refers to a business ownership structure,” he said.
Like any business, the co-op needs to operate efficiently and turn a profit to survive. The co-op’s first duty is to its roughly 1,500 member-owners. At the discretion of the co-op’s board, members receive annual rebates based on a percentage of goods they have purchased at Wild Oats over the course of a year.

Although Durfee said he would not comment on specific proposals or details of the ongoing labor negotiations, he said that as the co-op’s general manager, he has an “explicit charge to be responsive to employees and treat them well.”

But he said this goal has to be balanced with multiple other goals, like paying farmers well for their products, having environmentally responsible policies, offering products at reasonable prices and running a sustainable business.


Changing with the times
Founded in 1975 as a buying club for bulk natural foods, Wild Oats first opened as a retail store in 1982. The co-op moved to a larger storefront in 2005 and today has about $5 million in annual sales.

As at other food co-ops around the region, the mission of Wild Oats has evolved over the years as it has grown along with the local-food movement. At the same time, food co-ops have faced new competitive pressures as traditional supermarkets have expanded their offerings of organic and specialty foods.

Union organizing in food co-ops has been on the rise nationally in recent years. Workers at three other food co-ops in the wider region -- Brattleboro Food Co-op, River Valley Co-op in Northampton, and Franklin Community Co-op in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls – all are represented by Local 1459 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the same local that now represents employees at Wild Oats.

Two years ago, the union local, based in Springfield, hosted a first-ever nationwide “Co-op Workers Summit” for people who work at food cooperatives to discuss their unique challenges and brainstorm ideas for improvement.

At Wild Oats, labor negotiations began in late August, with the union and management holding three-hour bargaining sessions roughly every other week. But workers on the negotiating committee say the process has been unnecessarily slow and unproductive.

Durfee, the general manager, has said it “might take 16 to 18 months” to negotiate an initial labor contract and bring it to a vote, but union officials say the process shouldn’t take so long.
“That’s not the norm, if you have a willing employer,” said Matt Szulborski, the business representative for UFCW Local 1459. Instead, he suggested, slow progress occurs “if you have an employer fighting tooth and nail.”

Erin Merrigan, who serves on the union negotiating committee, said the co-op management seems to feel – wrongly, she believes – that “we’re out to get the co-op.”

Merrigan, 35, has worked at Wild Oats since 2012 and served as its lead baker for a time before she cut back her hours so she could care for her elderly father.

“The union workers want the co-op to do well, and they want a better working environment,” Merrigan said. “I wish that management could see that, instead of seeing it as us-versus-them.”

Co-ops and unions: Common roots?

Given the co-op movement’s embrace of progressive values in promoting local and organic foods, some Wild Oats employees say they’ve been surprised by the extent to which management of the local co-op has pushed back against their organizing efforts.

The first proposal the union introduced in the negotiations, for example, was a simple preamble to the contract. It would effectively say that the cooperative and union movements have similar historical roots. The intention was to set a positive tone by emphasizing their commonalities.
In fact, as early as the 1830s, labor unions and cooperatives were working together toward the end of empowering working people. Unions created some cooperatives as a way to improve wages, save jobs, and build community wealth.

But workers say Wild Oats’ management refused to consider the preamble idea.
“We were a little dismayed,” said Karen Kane, who like Rusk and Merrigan serves on the negotiating committee. She said she has eaten natural foods and shopped at food co-ops – and been a member of co-ops, on and off, “for a very long time.”

To Kane, Merrigan, Rusk and other workers at Wild Oats, organizing a union seemed like a natural extension of the values of the co-op movement.

“We want the co-op to be more cooperative, to be true to what co-ops are built on,” Merrigan explained.

But Durfee doesn’t see the connection.
The general manager, who’s in his 50s, is a Columbia County native who went to Williams College and then earned a master’s degree in business administration at Cornell. He said he was “looking for something more meaningful” when he took the top job at Wild Oats five years ago after holding a series of other positions in management and finance, including as a sales budgeting and forecasting analyst at the Vermont Country Store in Manchester.

“People often talk about cooperativeness,” Durfee said. “It is in the nature of many people who are drawn to work or shop at a co-op to want to be more cooperative. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not sure how a union contract would help with that.”


Simmering tensions
In the narrative its employees tell, Wild Oats’ workers brought in a union because they were unhappy with their working conditions and wages. They say management was unresponsive to their concerns, which included disrespectful treatment by some supervisors, health and safety hazards, and short-handedness in some departments.

After contacting the union and meeting with Szulborski, who was then a UFCW organizer, an employee who no longer works at Wild Oats began reaching out to co-workers he thought would be sympathetic. Soon they were holding off-site meetings open to all non-management employees.

“After a couple months, when we felt like we had enough people on board, we filed for an election,” explained Merrigan, a culinary-school-trained baker who was one of the early recruits.
The National Labor Relations Board oversaw the February 2016 election in which the co-op’s workers supported joining the union by vote of 20-17. In a second round of balloting earlier this year, workers were asked whether to decertify the union but voted 24-12 to keep it, according to the NLRB.

Merrigan said when the workers started organizing, employees had significant health and safety concerns that they had long been raising without a response from management. For example, the bakery and the kitchen for the co-op’s deli are in the basement of the Wild Oats store building and had a very slippery painted floor, she said.

“We have to go up and down the steps all day long,” Merrigan said, explaining that workers were concerned about slipping and falling while carrying foodstuffs.

After management became aware that there would be a union election, Merrigan said, the floor finally got fixed. She said workers were told local health inspectors required the changes. Workers also had asked for push bars on the staircase door, and management installed push bars around that time, she said.

For Kane, an artist who has worked at Wild Oats for eight years, having a union is about giving the staff “a seat at the table.” With the growth of co-ops, she said, employees end up being squeezed in the middle between management and members. A union helps to unite the staff and correct the imbalance of power between management and staff, she said.

Like other Wild Oats workers taking leadership in the union, Kane had personal motivations for getting involved.

“The difficulties I experienced inclined me to think that we needed something,” she said. At the time she wasn’t thinking about a union, but when that option presented itself, her experiences as an employee made her receptive.

She said she needed the job but was dissatisfied with the working conditions. Speaking to her supervisor and others in management didn’t bring results.

“I felt myself almost trapped,” she recalled. She also noticed that other people were dealing with similar issues.

When the union came in, Kane welcomed the newfound sense of solidarity.
“It was refreshing that other people were having similar experiences and feelings,” she said. “It can be isolating. You’re desperate to change things, but you don’t know if you can talk to anyone else. Overall there seemed to be a lot of overlapping issues.”


Lawyering up?
Since the beginning of its contract negotiations with the union, Wild Oats has had a lawyer present at all of the bargaining sessions – a fact that some on the union side see as symbolic of the co-op management’s intransigence.

Szulborski said the other co-ops where he has negotiated union contracts have not hired a lawyer to represent them at the bargaining table. It’s more typical, he said, to consult with a lawyer between sessions. Having a lawyer present during bargaining is “completely unnecessary,” he added.

But Durfee said having a lawyer is essential.

“I can’t imagine negotiating a labor contract without a professional there,” he said, adding that the lawyer he hired specializes in representing co-ops.

Kane, though, said the lawyer is “very adversarial” and often makes the process more difficult.
“I’m trying to talk to a lawyer with all her lawyer skills,” Kane said. “I don’t think it’s a healthy thing.”

The co-op has not disclosed how much it is spending for the lawyer. She travels three hours from Burlington, Vt., to take part in the negotiations, making for at least a nine-hour day every two weeks.

Durfee said the lawyer is “not unreasonably priced,” but did acknowledge that using her services is “not an insignificant cost.”

To the workers, the lawyer’s presence raises questions about Wild Oats’ priorities. When it comes to employee compensation, for example, Kane said, “the co-op is claiming poverty.”
The union side does not know exactly how Wild Oats is doing financially, though they are aware that sales have leveled off in recent times.

Durfee said Wild Oats was achieving double-digit growth until recently. In 2016, though, the co-op’s sales increased by just 4.5 percent, and so far this year sales are flat or down a couple percentage points, he said.

Durfee said he hasn’t determined what’s behind the co-op’s slowing pace in sales.

Slow, shifting process

Labor contracts are negotiated issue by issue. Only when labor and management agree to a full contract does the union present the document to its members for a ratification vote.
At Wild Oats, contract talks didn’t begin until six months after workers voted to unionize. In preparation for negotiations, a federal mediator gave labor and management the choice of two different methods of bargaining.

Traditional bargaining tends to be adversarial. Labor or management make proposals, and the opposing party caucuses and returns with its response or counter-proposal.

The alternative, known as “interest-based bargaining” or “win-win bargaining,” is considered a more progressive approach. In this strategy, both parties collaborate to come up with mutually beneficial agreements. This approach may take longer than traditional bargaining because it entails a lot of discussion, but it can also lead to better outcomes for both sides.

At Wild Oats, both sides agreed to try interest-based bargaining. Last summer, the federal mediator held several training sessions for labor and management on interest-based bargaining, or IBB. Last August, they started bargaining.

“With IBB, you frame the issues and come together to solve problems, rather than taking positions,” Rusk said. “I expected it to be cooperative. … I thought we’d make progress. We just got nowhere.”

If one side isn’t willing to acknowledge the other’s interests, this type of bargaining can break down.

“There were a number of sessions where we went round and round,” Kane said.
For non-economic issues, Rusk said they spent several sessions just making the case for why something was a problem from the worker perspective.

“Certain things we brought up management just didn’t want to solve for employees,” she said.
Szulborski said the union now believes management was stalling for time, setting the stage for an effort to push out the union through the decertification vote held in March.

“We believe the co-op was taking advantage of the IBB process, making sure there was as little progress as possible before the decertification vote,” Szulborski said. “After several months, we realized what they were doing.”

But in the March 31 election, workers voted by a 2-1 margin to continue being represented by the union.

“I think management thought the union was going to be voted out,” Merrigan said. “The old disgruntled employees were gone. But in fact we won with an even stronger majority.”
Despite the changing membership of the work force since the first unionization vote, she said, the problems that prompted employees to organize are basically unchanged.

“I think people get the feeling that management doesn’t give much care or concern to the employees,” Merrigan said. “All the employees are seen as replaceable. All the same problems still exist. The employees are not the problem.”

Rusk likewise said she didn’t think “for a second” that the union would lose the vote.
“I would have thought that in the year that went by, management would see to it that those issues weren’t there for new employees,” she said.

Rusk, 28, wasn’t eligible to vote in the first union election because she hadn’t worked there long enough. In her 18 months at Wild Oats, she has held at least six different positions, from weekend night cook in the deli to clerical assistant and cashier. She took on the varying jobs at first to piece together full-time work and later in a quest for regular weekday hours.


Changing tactics
Given how little they were accomplishing using interest-based bargaining, the union asked to switch to traditional bargaining.

Management agreed, but asked to “try without a mediator,” Durfee said.
The two sides have now been negotiating for months without the assistance of a mediator.
After 10 months, the two sides have yet to focus on economic issues. Rusk said they have engaged with some other contentious issues, like the exact wording for a grievance process and their desire to form a labor-management committee, though not successfully.

Merrigan said workers have been encountering resistance from management at “every step of the way.” In exasperation, the union side walked out of the negotiating session in late May.
At the next meeting two weeks later, on June 14, both sides report that they had an unusually good session. Wild Oats’ lawyer had made a list of issues she felt they were close to an agreement on and then went through them systematically.

Rusk said she had the pleasant experience of being able to tell her co-workers that they made some progress.

“We agreed to a bunch of stuff,” she said. “That’s not typical of our sessions.”


Employee turnover
Workers on the negotiating committee say Wild Oats suffers from a high rate of employee turnover -- a strong indication, they say, that all is not well in the workplace. They suggested that experienced workers are leaving because they feel unappreciated, disrespected or powerless.
“The turnover at Wild Oats contributes to employee stress and burnout,” Rusk explained. “If you’re shorthanded all the time, then your job is more stressful, and you have to juggle more responsibility. I feel some very valuable employees have left in the last year because of burnout. In the kitchen, we miss them.

“Every other place I’ve worked has worked hard to prevent turnover,” she added. “Shouldn’t you do what you can to retain them?”

Asked about the co-op’s employee turnover rate, Durfee said, “I don’t have those numbers.”
“Historically we’ve had people come and go,” he said.

That’s consistent with statistics from the grocery and food-service sectors, in which turnover tends to be high. On the other hand, some employees have been working at Wild Oats for a long time.

Bill Gentry, a Williams College economics professor who serves as the board president of Wild Oats, said one of the co-op’s goals is to be a good place to work.

“Job turnover would be one metric of evaluating that,” he said.
At Wild Oats, he explained, the co-op board provides oversight without getting involved in store management.

“The general manager makes operations decisions and presents to us the outcomes,” Gentry explained. “We have a statement of what we want to do, a broad set of goals. We look at how the outcomes match with our ends. We don’t micromanage.”

Other than a worker survey conducted every other year by Cooperative Development Services, a national consulting firm that advises food co-ops, Gentry did not volunteer how the board assesses whether Wild Oats is meeting its goal.

In the last worker survey, conducted around the time of the first union vote, Durfee said the co-op received a good score, though employees expressed “some dissatisfaction with wages and benefits.”

The consulting firm showed how the ratings compared with those at other co-ops, and the results were shared with the staff and board, he said.


Economic issues
Durfee suggested Wild Oats does not have major issues with employee compensation. He said the co-op annually reviews government data on wages by position.
“We try to pay employees comparable to the market,” he said.

Rusk said her own research showed the pay range at Wild Oats “is not any better than another supermarket.”

But Merrigan cited what she termed Wild Oats’ “history of unfair pay practices.” When two people are hired for the same job, the pay rates may vary widely, she said, likening the process to “throwing darts at the board.”

Durfee disputed that allegation.
“I would say people are not paid on the whim of the hiring manager,” he said.
In her own case, Merrigan said that after she had worked several years as the co-op’s lead baker, another experienced was hired.

“He walked in the door and was making more than me,” she said. “I asked for a raise, but the general manager wouldn’t even meet with me.”

Durfee attributes some employees’ dissatisfaction over compensation to wage compression resulting from recent increases in the state’s minimum wage.

When he became general manager five years ago, the minimum wage in Massachusetts was $8.50 an hour. Since then, it has been raised three times and now stands at $11 an hour.
So a person earning $10 an hour in 2016 automatically received an increase to $11 an hour in 2017. But those who made $10.50 or $11 an hour last year are now also being paid an hourly rate of $11.

Durfee said Wild Oats has not raised the wages of employees who were only making slightly more than minimum wage, even if they had several years of seniority.

Wild Oats’ 2016 annual report states that the co-op’s “livable wage for full-time staff with a year of service” has increased to $12.07 an hour.


Improving communication
The union has proposed setting up a labor management committee to improve communication and function as a bridge between workers and the store’s managers. The concept is something the employees on the negotiating committee feel very strongly about. During the union organizing drive, a UFCW survey of Wild Oats employees found the leading complaint was poor communication with management.

Yet the idea that communication between workers and management needs improvement evokes skepticism from management.

“I think communication can always be claimed to be an issue,” Durfee said. “But communication is a pretty broad term.”

Merrigan said one of the goals for a labor-management committee would be to get management to respond to employees’ workplace concerns. Before the union got involved, she added, workers felt their concerns were ignored.

“There was communication in the sense that management would listen,” she said. “But nothing would ever change.”

Szulborski said the purpose of a labor management committee would be to “get out in front of problems” and “prevent grievances.”

Many employers have established similar bodies as a means to promote better labor relations and hear about employee concerns before they get out of hand.

At Wild Oats, the committee proposed by the union would be made up of a few representatives each from union membership and management. It would meet every other month or as needed. Although management would be expected to take part in these meetings, participation would not put it under any obligation to take any specific actions.

But employees say Wild Oats management has been very hesitant about the concept.
“They had no interest in this, period,” Rusk said. “They didn’t see the point.”

Szulborski said management insisted that the topics that could be discussed by a labor management committee would be limited to the terms and conditions of employment. Workers felt that that restriction defeated the purpose.

But the reluctance to agree to have such a committee may go deeper.
Gentry, the board president, argued that a labor management committee is a form of governance. He objects to the idea in principle because it bypasses the co-op’s governance structure, even though the committee officially would be only an advisory body.

“I made the point in one of the discussions that we wanted to have equal status at the table” through a labor management committee, Kane said. “They didn’t like that idea, even though it didn’t give us more power. That’s when things started breaking down for me.”

Rusk stressed that no forum exists at Wild Oats for the communication the workers are seeking.
“We have quarterly staff meetings,” she said. “They’re David’s meetings. He’ll talk for 50 minutes during an hourlong meeting. That’s not an opportunity for people to bring up concerns.
“No one is happy with the person who brings something up that lengthens the meeting,” she added. “People have to get back to work, or they are there on their day off.”


Members in the dark?
As negotiations continue, most of the member-owners of Wild Oats remain in the dark. The co-op has informed the membership that non-supervisory workers voted to join the UFCW, but beyond that members have received virtually no information from management about the status and progress of contract talks.

Durfee said there is no role for Wild Oats members in contract negotiations. Nor does the board have a role, he said.

Merrigan said she had expected “the membership to be engaged and the management to be more receptive.”

Kane said she wonders if members really know what’s going on. She said that after the union negotiations were discussed in a recent story in The Berkshire Eagle, some members asked cashiers about the situation. But she said most of the cashiers don’t know much about the union negotiations.

“I’ve asked cashiers to direct them to me or other negotiating committee members,” Kane said.
Although management hadn’t wanted a federal mediator to continue when Wild Oats switched from interest-based bargaining to traditional bargaining, Durfee said both sides seem ready to ask the mediator to come back.

“Having a mediator tends to speed things along,” he said. “The next phase, we’ll be moving into would be shuttle diplomacy.”

Rather than both parties talking directly to one another face to face in the same room, he explained, they would caucus in separate rooms, and the mediator would act as the go-between.
That pattern of interaction is more typical of workplaces where there is considerable antagonism between the union and management.