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Jim Kenyon: Working to Speak Up

A dozen or so employees of a large, well-known Upper Valley retailer got together on their own time Saturday to share with each other their frustrations about working for an enterprise where bosses use bullying tactics to keep workers in line and “people are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up.”

Any guesses on which Upper Valley business this might be?

A clue: It’s not Wal-Mart.

I’m talking about the Co-op Food Stores, operated by the Hanover-based Consumer Cooperative Society.

Yes, as hard as it might be to believe, the “Kumbaya” of grocery store chains appears on the verge of an employee uprising.

Employees said they called the meeting, which I sat in on, after attempts to get top management to take their concerns seriously had largely fallen on deaf ears.

“We’ve been quiet long enough,” one of them said.

The employee and her co-workers who attended the two-hour meeting preferred that their names not appear in print, which I could understand. The work environment that employees described didn’t seem very cooperative to me. (Workers also have concerns about the lack of meaningful pay raises in recent years, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Some examples brought up at the meeting:

Last May, a group of employees sent an unsigned letter to Co-op executives to let them know that all was not well.

“When an employee is sick that person is afraid to call in,” they wrote. “They are intimidated and fear for their jobs and will come to work feeling (or) being sick.”

Employees who work in one of the Co-op’s kitchens, where prepared foods are cooked, said that aging stoves and other equipment have caused minor burns. But when they brought up their safety concerns to management, they said, they were told that replacement equipment was “not in the budget.”

The Co-op has written procedures for employees to file grievances against superiors whom they think are treating them unfairly, but apparently many workers are hesitant to make formal — or informal — complaints. A worker at the meeting said she was told by her department’s manager, “Be careful what you say, because everything comes back to me.”

On Tuesday, Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby, who has headed the Co-op for 20 years, told me that Paul Lambe, the Co-op’s professional development manager, has followed up on the employees’ letter.

“He’s been working with groups of employees to address their concerns,” said Appleby. “Employee surveys tell us there is broad satisfaction and things are improving.”

Maybe so, but I think the Co-op’s upper management and governing board would be making a mistake to write off Saturday’s meeting as a gripe session attended by only a small fraction of the organization’s 400-person workforce.

I’d consider it a wake-up call. The Co-op, which operates four grocery stores and a gas station, is an Upper Valley institution that goes back nearly 80 years. With 18,500 active members, the Co-op is, in a way, one of the Upper Valley’s largest communities. It also has had a reputation as a good place to work. On Saturday, employees said there was still much for them to like, including good health insurance benefits and a discount on groceries.

And the employees, some of whom have worked at the Co-op for more than 15 years, said they’ve come to know their customers, and vice versa.

After chatting with employees while shopping, John Corson, a retired Dartmouth Medical School professor, became alarmed enough to send a letter to Appleby. At Saturday’s meeting, which Corson and his wife, Mary Schneider, attended, copies of Appleby’s Jan. 10 response were handed out. Appleby wrote that there was a “Co-op-wide initiative to examine and improve our work culture. That initiative includes examining ways managers can be better leaders.”

Another Co-op member, Hanover lawyer Bill Clauson, was recently asked by an employee if workers could use his office as a meeting place on Saturday. He agreed.

Clauson told me that he’s not representing the employees. But in late February, after hearing from several workers about their unhappiness with management, he wrote to the Co-op’s board.

“I am a long-time Co-op member who has shopped at the Lebanon store for years. The food and service have been excellent and the staff is knowledgeable and friendly,” wrote Clauson. “However, beginning in 2012, I have regularly heard words of distress from employees regarding the new store manager and impolite treatment of employees. Lately, it has become a crescendo of distress at his intimidation and disrespect.”

Lebanon store manager Bob Kazakiewich joined the Co-op’s managment team in 2012. According to the Cooperative Grocer Network’s website, Kazakiewich has 30 years of supermarket experience. He also spent 14 years at Wal-Mart, where he was a store manager, before leaving the company in 2011.

Kazakiewich was not at work Tuesday and didn’t respond to an email request for an interview. Appleby, who hired him after receiving input from an employees’ committee, agreed that the Co-op and Wal-Mart are vastly different business cultures, but said Kazakiewich has adjusted well.

“He wanted to work for us because he wanted to get away from that (Wal-Mart) culture, not because he wanted to bring it here,” said Appleby.

Next month, Co-op members will be asked to approve a proposed $5.3 million renovation and expansion project at the Hanover Co-op. It’s not the only store the Co-op needs to get in good working order. The employees deserve to be treated with respect, as I’m sure the Co-op members will bear in mind when they vote.

CLARIFICATION

William Clauson's law license was suspended for six months in August 2013 and he has not filed a motion for reinstatement. Earlier versions of two Jim Kenyon columns and a news story failed to provide information about the status of Clauson's professional license.