Column: A Co-op Response: We Benefit Our Members and Workers

Over the past several months, opinion columns in the Valley News have focused on the employment practices of the Co-op Food Stores, taking information only from a small group of people while ignoring additional information that disputes those claims. Most recently, without evidence to back his charge, columnist Jim Kenyon inferred that two Co-op employees were terminated due to unionization efforts.

The Co-op employs over 400 people in our Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction stores as well as in our service center, off-site commissary kitchen and administrative offices. Like any business, we have terminations of employment. Terminations are not enjoyable experiences; no one likes terminations. Any time we have a termination, we must maintain confidentiality. Out of respect for any employee’s privacy, we can say nothing about the decision. That does not mean we have nothing to say, but, rather, there is nothing we can legally say.

What I can say in the strongest terms is that the terminations in question were not the result of workers organizing to form a union. Management did not know the names of any of our staff who supported a union. Nor did we wish to know. The Co-op has never, would never, and will never stand in the way of our employees’ right to choose to belong to a union. Managers at the Co-op are aware of those rights and understand that our position is to adhere scrupulously to the exercise of those rights if our staff members wish to choose the option of a union.

For nearly 80 years, the Hanover Co-op has been serving the Upper Valley community. It has done much good over that time and continues to do good, including looking after the welfare of our many employees. Over the past three years, we have conducted third-party surveys of staff, and each year the level of staff satisfaction has risen. As a result of employee feedback, we created and filled the position of professional development manager in 2012, significantly increased our training budget, and developed a manager’s code of conduct to which all Co-op managers, including myself as general manager, are held accountable.

Our staff enjoy the best benefits of any supermarket in the area, and as a percentage of sales, wages are far above those in the grocery industry. Eighty percent of Co-op staff hold full-time positions in an industry where the average is 30 percent. Since 2011, staff have received $1.36 million in bonuses and gain-sharing on top of their regular wages. They also have received wage increases of 2 percent during each of the last two years, and over 100 employees have benefitted from additional wage increases based on merit and/or equity adjustments reflecting their performances and level of responsibilities.

As a testament to the quality of employment at the Co-op, 213 (52 percent) of our employees have worked with us for five years or more. Of those, 130 have found the Co-op such a great place to work, they remain after 10 or more years; 26 have worked for 20 years or more. We have several families with two or more members working at the Co-op — some multi-generational — and have welcomed back a number of employees who once left for greener pastures and returned, finding the Co-op an employer of choice. Year after year, we welcome returning college students and retirees looking for part-time employment.

The Co-op is owned by over 21,000 actively shopping members, the vast majority of whom live in New Hampshire and Vermont. Because we are locally owned, a high percentage of our revenue stays in the Upper Valley, producing an additional $2.7 million in benefits to the area. We help 280 local farms and producers by purchasing nearly $7 million a year from our neighbors. We provide over 130 tons of perishable products per year to Willing Hands to support area hunger programs. The Co-op’s sustainability programs continue to reduce our negative impact on the environment. Additional information on the Co-op’s social and environmental programs benefitting members, employees, suppliers and the greater community can be accessed on the Co-op’s website, www.coopfoodstore.coop.

Our member-owners have many ways to engage with their co-op, including running for the board, voting for board members, and attending board meetings. We constantly solicit member input through our publications, website and social media and encourage them to come to annual meetings to interact with their board and Co-op management. We accept comments and questions in writing, online and by phone, and do our best to respond to them all in a timely manner. Our financials, bylaws, governance policies and annual report are available to all interested individuals online at www.coopfoodstore.coop.

In 2013, we hired The Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire to survey 2,000 randomly selected Co-op members by telephone, online and by mail. We learned that 86 percent of members surveyed were satisfied with their Co-op and likely to recommend it to family and friends. Seventy-five percent responded positively to the statement, “I have a mechanism to express concerns to management.” And, as we already knew, members especially valued their relationships with the Co-op staff who served them. We recognize that our quality employees are our most important asset.

Our commitment to our members, employees, suppliers and producers affirms Co-op management’s adherence to cooperative values and is in line with the Co-op’s mission, embodied in the Ends statements we work toward. To assume — or to accept without question — that the Co-op’s management intends to do otherwise is a disservice.

Terry Appleby is general manager of the Co-op Food Stores.