Hanover Co-op Workers To Meet With Union
Hanover — After nearly a year of turmoil sparked by the unexplained firing of two longtime employees, a union representative has floated the possibility of unionizing workers at the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, a matter he plans to visit town to discuss on Thursday.
Union organizer Joel Nelson of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1459 announced the meeting in an email to Concerned About the Co-op, a dissident group of co-op members that formed in the wake of the firings of Dan King and John Boutin. The union representative invited Co-op members and workers join him at 6 p.m. at the Howe Library. Nelson’s local, based in Springfield, Mass., represents employees of the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Nelson said he was reluctant to provide more details about the event or his communications with Co-op workers, who he said were afraid of retaliation.
In a written statement he provided later, Nelson noted that co-op employees across the country had been represented by his union for more than 30 years.
“Recently, many co-op workers have been concerned by some local food co-ops becoming more corporate in their strategies and policies and forgetting their community roots,” he said in the statement. “Co-op workers form unions not just for increased wages and better benefits, but because they love their co-op and the people they work with.”
Margaret Drye, president of the Co-op’s board of directors, said it was not the board’s purview to consider whether workers there needed a union.
“The Co-op board has no opinion whatsoever,” she said on Tuesday. “It’s up to the employees if they want to, and there’s no restrictions on talking about it.”
Drye also mentioned an organizational structure growing in popularity called a “multi-stakeholder co-op,” where part owners may come from more than one constituent group. Under that format, both employees and members could be part owners.
“Let’s not close off all the options,” Drye said. “If you’re going to examine one, you should examine them all.”
Newly elected board member Brett Tofel, who is a member of Concerned About the Co-op, said in an email Tuesday that he supported the idea of a union.
“Given management actions in the past year that erode confidence in management acting as an honest broker and the past board’s tendency to rubber-stamp those actions, I see unionization as a logical outcome,” he wrote. “A union would protect workers against unilateral and unchecked actions like the firings of Dan (King) and John (Boutin). None of the minor policy tweaks the current board has made since that incident would prevent a recurrence of that incident and the damage to the Coop’s reputation that ensued.”
The unexplained terminations of King and Boutin sparked widespread protest last summer and are now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the two former employees alleging wrongful termination, among other complaints. The Co-op has denied the allegations.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, King said he supported the organization of Co-op employees.
“They simply need the collective bargaining power and they don’t have it,” he said. “The only people who are really taken care of at the Co-op are administration people.”
King said he had met with UFCW representatives three or four years ago, but had leaned toward UE Local 255, which represents cooperative employees in Burlington and Montpelier, because he believed the latter union would be less expensive for employees. Though Co-op management has denied that it knew of his meetings with labor organizers, King said his firing had had a “chilling effect” on workers at the food stores.
“The only reason to organize is to give the people who are afraid to speak a voice,” he said, “and believe me, there are plenty of people who are afraid to speak at the Co-op.”
Two other members of Concerned About the Co-op, Victoria Fullerton and Anthony Roisman, recently won election to the board of directors, and have expressed interest in improving conditions for employees there.
Rob Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3242.