Editorial: The Co-op Firings

If the current controversy over the firing of two longtime employees at the Co-op Food Store in Lebanon has demonstrated anything conclusively, it is that the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society remains a signature Upper Valley institution about which its members care deeply.

There’s no mystery why that’s the case. It’s big and it’s locally owned. It has 400 employees, 21,000 actively shopping members and more than $74 million in annual sales. According to General Manager Terry Appleby, its annual purchases from local farms and food producers total $7 million.

Economic impact is not the only reason people care, though. The Co-op has been an Upper Valley institution longer than most people have been alive — nearly 80 years. And it has pledged itself over those many years to operate in accord with the highest ideals of fair play and openness.

So when Dan King and John Boutin were summarily fired in June without explanation after long service and were peremptorily escorted from the building, some members concluded that the Co-op was talking the talk but not walking the walk when it came to its core principles. (As Valley News editors can attest, it is a painful experience when an institution fails to meet its own standards, and only slightly less so when it meets its standards but the public perceives otherwise.)

In this instance, King and Boutin were exploring a possible unionization drive at the time they were simultaneously fired. In the absence of any other explanation, this circumstantial evidence led some people to conclude that the dismissals were tied to that activity. Appleby has forcefully rebutted that notion, arguing in these pages that management neither knew, nor wished to know, the identities of any staff members involved in the effort and would never stand in the way of unionization if that’s want employees want.

These two scenarios are not mutually exclusive. King and Boutin have candidly acknowledged that they were not shy about speaking truth to power — or at least the truth as they saw it. As advocates for improving the workplace for Co-op employees, it would be natural enough for them to explore unionization possibilities and natural enough for them to be, at the same time, an intolerable irritant to management. That such situations are often ambiguous is suggested by the relative ineffectiveness in recent decades of federal prohibitions against firing workers for union organizing.

More material perhaps is the fact that King and Boutin were provided no explanation for why they were fired, and indeed that seems to bother them the most. By their account, they were simply read a statement — repeatedly — saying, “The Co-op is exercising its right under New Hampshire law for ‘at will’ employees to terminate your employment.” Which it was. But exercising a legal right and treating people fairly and with respect are not necessarily synonymous.

The two employees contend that their activities never overstepped the proper bounds of their employment and that it is a mystery to them why they were fired. For his part, Appleby says that employee confidentiality prohibits the Co-op from discussing the reasons for firing them. (Presumably, though, it does not prohibit management from discussing those reasons with the employees whose confidentiality is being protected.)

The Co-op board has pledged itself to review whether dismissing employees without giving them a reason comports with the institution’s notions of fair play and transparency. We doubt that it does, even if it is standard practice in private enterprise.

Co-op supporters who have written to the Forum have voiced astonishment that so many people have expressed suspicion about management’s motives in this affair, and that the Valley News has reported extensively about this issue when similar firings at a huge chain store would draw little scrutiny.

It may be that the firings struck such a raw nerve in part because many people are disturbed by the general plight of the American worker in recent years. As unionization has been eroded, management prerogative is ascendant and workers are largely without recourse.

But the main reason for the controversy is apparent: The Co-op is a beloved institution, and those who love it want it to act not as an impersonal corporate giant would act, but according to the high expectations they have for it. This surely is a burden for the board and management, but one they should be only too happy to shoulder.