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Co-op Staff Votes Down Labor Union



Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Lebanon — Workers at the Lebanon Co-op Food Store on Monday voted, 70-31, against organizing under a Massachusetts-based union, an election brought on by a year’s worth of turmoil surrounding the firings of two employees.

Of about 140 workers at the store, 122 full- and part-time personnel were eligible to vote, and 113 ballots were cast.

“(I’m) elated — we can be a family again,” Jayne Baker, a cashier at the Lebanon store, said Monday afternoon. “There were people who wouldn’t speak to people. It was divided. It was very divided. This Co-op has been through enough controversy and it’s time to stop.”

The defeated motion would have formed a union only at the Lebanon store.

Contested ballots — 12 of them — were not enough to change the result, according to the federal examiner who officiated the vote.

That official, Field Examiner Holly Beaverstock, of the National Labor Relations Board, made the tally Monday afternoon in a gathering in the Lebanon store’s conference room, where labor organizers and management stood apart in small clusters, watching the proceedings.

After setting aside the contested slips, Beaverstock displayed the empty ballot box to onlookers and began sorting the votes into two stacks of yellow paper. One pile, the “no” pile, quickly dwarfed the other.

Once Beaverstock had given the final count, union representative Joel Nelson, the United Food and Commercial Workers organizer who has led the push to represent Lebanon Co-op workers, declined to comment on his branch’s next move.

He noted that UFCW 1459, of Springfield, Mass., still has several NLRB actions pending against the Co-op that allege that management stood in the way of workers’ rights to discuss unionization.

Lebanon produce clerk Larry Kennett Sr., a principal employee organizer, said that the results made him feel “disappointment, of course.”

“The things we want to see get done won’t happen for a while,” he said.

Before the vote, Nelson and Kennett had said their goals included fairer wage increases, disclosing managers’ salaries and ensuring that supervisors must give cause when firing employees.

The controversy that has roiled the Co-op’s membership and staff began in June 2014, when managers at the Lebanon store fired two popular employees, Dan King and John Boutin, without a public explanation. This spring, protesters of that incident secured seats on the Co-op’s board of directors.

The unrest continued into the summer as about 100 demonstrators last month gathered outside the store to challenge the departure of Lebanon employee Caren Giaccone, who management said had forfeited her job when she walked out of a performance review in early June. Later that month, the board of directors announced Giaccone’s reinstatement.

UFCW 1459 has filed multiple complaints against the Co-op with the NLRB, alleging that King, Boutin and Giaccone all were fired in part for their discussion of unionization.

As the union moved toward a vote at the Lebanon store, Co-op management hired the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin to represent the cooperative before the national labor board.

The Co-op’s attorneys have prior experience with this union branch, having represented management at the Brattleboro Co-op as UFCW 1459 moved in there.

After unionization in Brattleboro, the starting wage there rose from $10.59 to $10.89; since then, it has risen again to $11.19.

Though officials at the Lebanon store have said that starting wages there depend on many factors, Co-op spokesman Allan Reetz told the Valley News that the average hourly compensation for clerks and cashiers at Co-op food stores, for a 30-hour work week, was $13.07 plus average benefits of $7 an hour.

Tiana Cross, a 7-year employee at the Lebanon store, said she feared that those and other benefits would disappear if the Co-op had to contend with a union.

“The money’s got to come from somewhere,” she said in an interview at the store after the results came in.

A full-time cashier and a part-time student, Cross also receives $800 from the Co-op for each class she takes at the Community College of Vermont.

Cross pointed to the first jump in Brattleboro employees’ starting salary, and said she was not swayed by what the union had to offer.

“I could get a 30-cent raise now by going to the manager and saying, ‘Hey, I feel like I deserve a raise,’ ” she said.

Nearby, Jayne Baker rang up customers while wearing a shirt that read “NO THANKS 1459.”

She and Cross said they had been put off by union organizers’ after-hours attempts to secure their votes, which they said involved waiting for employees in the store’s parking lot and visiting them at home.

“We’re just so glad that they’re not going to be back,” Baker said of the UFCW representatives.

“Hopefully,” Cross added. “Hopefully.”

Kennett, the Lebanon clerk who supported the union, said the vote still indicated that Co-op workers had concerns that needed to be addressed.

For his part, the Co-op’s general manager, Terry Appleby, said Monday that he would respond to such issues as dissatisfaction over salary increases and treatment of staff.

Appleby noted that, in a recent survey commissioned by management, employees had indicated they wanted more take-home pay but were comparatively satisfied with their benefits.

“This has been a hard thing for everybody involved,” Appleby said, “and I think (there’s) relief that we have an outcome, and the outcome was decided by the employees. That was what we wanted all along, was for them to make a choice, whatever it was.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.