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Forum, July 23: More About the Co-op; No More Co-op; Thanks, Shawn Braley

Don’t Rush to Judgment

To the Editor:

The recent controversy about firings at the Co-op seems to revolve around how a values-based organization could so abruptly dismiss employees considered by many to be very competent and helpful.

We have long been Co-op members and one of us served on the Co-op board for many years, so we are fully aware both of co-operative values and of the complex issues inherent in running a successful business with those values. Terry Appleby, the general manager, holds those values dear, as do the majority of the employees and management team of the Co-op. So how should we interpret the recent firings? Should we assume that the Co-op management has done a sudden about-face from the co-operative ethic that aims to support employees as well as shoppers? It seems far more likely that we have not heard the whole story from the Co-op, possibly due to constraints of privacy and legal concerns. We may never hear all the details behind those reasons. But to assume the worst of the Co-op management seems thoughtless and to stop patronizing the Co-op illogical. Take away your patronage from a competitive business and watch what happens to the very employees you want to protect. Do ask for answers, but be realistic in what may be forthcoming for the reasons above. Do not rush to judgment; do not assume that Co-op management has suddenly forsaken a long-held value of providing a good working environment; do make rational consumer choices based upon your knowledge of the history of our Co-op as a valuable, ethical, community-oriented resource for shoppers and employees alike.

J. Andrew Daubenspeck

Esmé Thompson

Lebanon

A Dissatisfied Customer

To the Editor:

As a member for over 40 years, I recall the Co-op as an enjoyable place to shop and over time many of its knowledgeable employees became friends. However, beginning three years ago, I began hearing stories of intimidation by current management. I recommended that employees complain directly to the board concerning intimidation. Some did and after considerable delay, the board simply rejected complaints without hearing from the employees.

In February 2014, I received numerous employee complaints of bizarre threats of firing and of punishments (such as nasty changes in established work schedules) to apparently good employees. Again I complained in writing to the board. The board is required by its governance policy to review employee complaints. The board declined to listen.

The treatment of employees became worse. Indeed, the public firing of two of the most popular and able long-term employees was a threat to all employees not to complain. Management justifies its refusal to explain the reason for the firings to the employees themselves or to anyone else as “Employee Confidentiality,” but actuality it is only “Management Confidentiality” by a very secretive management. The board of directors, supposedly responsible for governance, has from its published minutes of the last 11 months through June 2014, relied upon management denial.

Mr. Appleby, the general manager of the Co-op, now claims that “each year the level of staff satisfaction has risen” and brags about their good treatment. But that is not what the long-time staff say.

In addition, the Co-op 2013 financial statements show a dramatic unexplained increase in “administrative expense,” of about 50 percent in the last two years, but do not disclose management compensation. The employees have received only very modest cost-of-living increases. The accountants state that “Management is responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of these financial statements.” Management and the board have chosen to make no reasonable disclosure to members as to employee policy or Co-op finances. I am a greatly dissatisfied Co-op member.

K. William Clauson

Lebanon

Good Story, Bad Headline

To the Editor:

Lauren Bender’s latest story about the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society (“Fired Co-op Employees: We Were Told to Keep Quiet About Pay,” July 21) is thoughtful and well-reported. But a better headline would have been: “Fired Co-op Workers Retract Anti-Unionization Claim” with, perhaps, a sub-headline to the effect that the Valley News has suspended columnist Jim Kenyon for so recklessly embracing the allegation that the Co-op dismissed two workers on June 13 because they were exercising their federally protected right to talk with colleagues about forming a union (“Wine and Cheese Firing Party,” June 29).

What emerged from Bender’s interviews with the two fired workers is, finally, something plausible: They didn’t agree with management’s emphasis on the financial bottom line at, they believed, the expense of customer service and employee goodwill. However reasonable their disagreement may have been, the Co-op is a business and no business can function if its workers are actively seeking to undermine the priorities of those tasked with leading the organization. While I do not know why the two workers were dismissed, I daresay mine is a more credible hypothesis than the one Jim Kenyon offered on June 29.

The Co-op is hardly without blame here. Showing two long-term employees the door without a word of explanation transgresses the values of “honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others” as adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance. And the Co-op has allowed misunderstandings to proliferate to the point where many members and employees seem to believe the Co-op need not aggressively manage its margins to survive.

As others have already noted, the solution is transparency. That doesn’t mean making sensitive personnel decisions in public. It means creating an institutional culture in which the members and other stakeholders understand the realities of our food supply and the retail grocery business. Without that understanding, the Co-op looks an awful lot like just another supermarket.

Donald M. Kreis

Hartland

Management and Firing at Will

To the Editor:

The recent dust-up about two Co-op dismissals involves the legal right of organizations to fire at will — that is, to dismiss a worker for virtually any reason so long as it doesn’t violate federal law. By being able to fire at will the employer enjoys flexibility to adjust to changing economic conditions (“Fired Co-op Employees: We Were Told to Keep Quiet About Pay,” July 21).

The United States is not unique in allowing firing at will. Some European countries do too. Denmark is an example. The difference, however, is that in Europe this flexibility is often coupled with a two-legged system of social support: universal health insurance and other forms of social security, plus extensive job training and employment services, all of which are paid for by various combinations of taxes and employer and employee contributions. These so-called “flexicurity” systems are a far cry from what we have in the United States, which is why firing at will over here is potentially much more devastating to those fired and their families than it is in Europe.

Why the difference? Historically, the proportion of the labor force belonging to unions is much higher in most European countries than it is in the United States. And European countries often have strong labor or social democratic political parties that support capitalism but significantly more generous welfare states than we have. In short, workers have had more political leverage relative to employers in Europe than here.

John Campbell

Lyme

Class of 1925 Professor, Dartmouth College Department of Sociology

Good to Hear From the Source

To the Editor:

Thank you printing the op-ed piece from the two recently fired Co-op workers (“We Deserve to Know Why the Co-op Fired Us,” July 19). I was wondering when we would hear directly from them. Their words reinforced my suspicions about the situation. In the state of New Hampshire, with its “right to work” mentality, this is a excellent example of what can happen to any and all workers here. I would like to know where the circulating petitions are as I would gladly sign them.

Karyn Sweitzer

White River Junction

Enough About the Co-op

To the Editor:

Let those whom we elected at the Co-op handle the matter. Get over it, move on and print some real news.

Jean Liepold

Grantham

Thanks to Shawn Braley

To the Editor:

This is a note of appreciation for all the skill that Shawn Braley shares to enhance the articles and features that are published in the Valley News. His maps, diagrams and beautiful artwork really make the stories more understandable and enjoyable.

Thank you, Mr. Braley, for all your hard work.

Frances R. Haugen

East Thetford

Killing To What End?

To the Editor:

The ruthless bombing of children in Gaza calls into question the often stated claim that Israel is simply defending its people (“Israel Protects Its People” July 19). What possible purpose can killing hundreds of innocent Palestinians serve? How does that protect Israelis? I recommend to everyone who should be interested in this issue the book The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, by Miko Peled and his very cogent video presentations, available on YouTube.

Dan Leggett

Hanover