Union Vote Set For Lebanon Co-op Staff
Lebanon — Co-op employees at the Lebanon Food Store will vote this month on whether to organize under a Massachusetts-based union, capping a year-long controversy involving multiple labor disputes at the store.
Of roughly 140 employees at the Lebanon location, about 110 will be eligible to vote to become members of a bargaining unit representing both part-time and full-time workers. On Monday, July 27, they will have two chances to cast a secret ballot in the store’s conference room: between 9 and 11:30 a.m., and between 2 and 4 p.m.
The Lebanon store is the only Co-op branch voting on whether to join the Springfield, Mass., local of United Food and Commercial Workers.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support and I think the vote is going to go in our favor,” said Lebanon produce clerk Larry Kennett Sr., who is helping to organize the vote, by phone on Sunday.
“Once that happens,” he wrote in a separate letter to his co-workers, “we will bargain and vote on a legally binding contract with the Co-op that protects our jobs and gives us the wages and benefits we deserve. No longer will we be ‘at will’ employees, subject to termination at the whim of management. We’ll have rights to a fair grievance process and ‘just cause’ protections for our careers.”
Last summer, Co-op management cited New Hampshire’s at-will standard — which allows employers to terminate employees without giving a reason — when they fired Lebanon workers John King and Dan Boutin. The dispute sparked a protest movement, Concerned About the Co-op, that placed three of its members on the Co-op’s board of directors this spring.
Around the same time, employees reached out to union organizer Joel Nelson, whose branch, Local 1459, also represents the Brattleboro Co-op.
“I think it’s clear at this point that the workers have been under attack,” Nelson said in a telephone interview Sunday, referring to what he called management’s “unfair labor practices.”
Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby said he would support whatever decision the Lebanon staff made.
“I think that’s a matter that’s completely up to the workers,” he said on Sunday. “They just need to inform themselves about what their options are and what they feel their future is best served by, and then they can make their decision on their own.”
He declined to share his personal feelings about the union, saying they had “nothing to do, really, with the vote.”
Though Margaret Drye, president of the Co-op board of directors, could not be reached for comment Sunday, she has told the Valley News in the past that the directors do not take a stance on employee unions.
Nelson’s local has publicized the filing of two complaints against the Co-op under the National Labor Relations Act — one involving King and Boutin’s firings, and another stemming from the termination of Caren Giaccone, who also worked at the Lebanon store. But Nelson organizer said Sunday that there were, in fact, five pending charges.
A lawsuit from King and Boutin alleging wrongful termination continues to work its way through Vermont courts.
And despite Giaccone’s recent reinstatement at the Lebanon Co-op, the union’s action, which alleges management punished her for discussing union organization, is still underway before the National Labor Relations Board, Nelson said.
As UFCW Local 1459 takes formal steps to represent workers at the Co-op, there will be some familiar faces among the negotiators. When the union moved in at the Brattleboro Co-op, management there hired the same law firm that the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society now retains: Downs Rachlin Martin, which has offices in both Brattleboro and Lebanon.
Nelson disparaged the Co-op’s choice of counsel, calling Downs Rachlin Martin a “union-busting” firm. Kennett claimed that the Co-op’s lawyers had fought the union ballot despite Appleby’s assurances that he would not interfere.
Appleby countered that the Co-op had needed lawyers with relevant experience to help put together the vote, as well as to represent the organization before the labor board.
“We didn’t try to put any obstacles in people’s way,” he said. “I think it is a reputable firm, and to characterize them that way is unfortunate.”
The general manager said the Co-op had not challenged the union’s application to the labor relations board for a vote. And given that the Co-op had received the petition only a week ago, management had brought about a “very quick turn-around,” he said.
A representative of the National Labor Relations Board will officiate the July 27 secret ballot.
The NLRB website says that to initiate a union vote, “a petition and associated documents must be filed, preferably electronically, with the nearest NLRB Regional Office showing support for the petition from at least 30 percent of employees.”
If and when the workers agree to form a union, the Lebanon clerk said he wanted a more transparent accounting of upper management’s finances — where the organization’s revenues are going, what the senior managers are making — as well as a clearer, fairer approach to employee raises.
The climate at the Lebanon store has been edgy as talk of a union intensifies, according to Kennett, who said that some supervisors had been spreading rumors among employees that low-level workers would lose hours, or even their jobs, if workers organize.
“Right now I’m getting a lot of feedback,” he said. “Some people don’t want to talk to me, they don’t want to hang out with me, they don’t look at me as they go by me.”
The employee organizer said he had tried to interest employees at the Co-op’s other two stores, in Hanover and White River Junction, but had been rebuffed repeatedly.
At last month’s Co-op meeting, a number of employees, many from the Hanover store, stood up to protest the negative publicity the organization had been receiving, telling labor activists they were hurting business.
“They’re all happy as can be,” Kennett said of workers at the other locations, “and that’s fine with me.”
Rob Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3242.