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Jim Kenyon: The Co-op’s ‘More Happy Staff’ Campaign

Happy. Happy. Happy. The 400 employees of the Co-op Food Stores are well on their way to becoming just one big happy family.

At least that’s what the management of the Hanover-based Consumer Cooperative Society, which operates four grocery stores and a gas station in the Upper Valley, wants its customers to believe. In fact, there’s even a “More Happy Staff” campaign, which, from all the happy talk I heard at last Wednesday’s Co-op governing board meeting, is supposed to have a domino effect.

It works like this:

Happy employees are smiling employees, and that creates happy shoppers, who are then only too happy to buy more gluten-free granola bars and responsibly caught Alaska salmon, which improves the Co-op’s bottom line.

And that makes everyone happy.

At the monthly meeting, Co-op management updated the board about 2012 and 2013 employee surveys conducted by an outside consulting company. In last year’s survey of 145 randomly selected employees, the results suggested that Co-op employees are “somewhat more satisfied with most of the aspects of their workplace that were measured by this survey than are the employees of other co-ops where we have conducted surveys,” CDS Consulting Cooperative said. “Based on these results it is easy to conclude that (Co-op) staff members view many aspects of their workplace more positively than (2012).”

I guess that’s good news. Co-op management certainly thinks so. In its information packet to the nine board members, Co-op management wrote: “While we recognize that we have more work to do and improvements to make, the direction we are headed is clearly positive. We are making progress on ‘More Happy Staff.’ ”

While management gives the impression that relations with employees are hunky-dory — or will be soon — I got a different vibe from listening to a dozen or so employees who met on their own time recently without letting their bosses know what they were up to. As I wrote in this space on Wednesday, the workers shared their unhappiness about bosses who use bullying tactics to keep employees in line and a work environment where “people are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up.”

After I asked workers at the meeting about the survey results, a longtime employee sent me a copy of a letter that he’s working on. “Management conducts yearly employee satisfaction surveys, but fails in large part to act on the specific complaints of the employees,” he wrote. “This pattern has persisted now for five years, with only lip service from management.”

From what I can gather, much of the employee unrest seems to be coming out of the Co-op’s Lebanon store, the organization’s largest supermarket, where some customers are getting behind workers.

Co-op member Bill Clauson, a Hanover lawyer, wrote to the governing board last month to express his concerns about the Co-op’s “disrespectful treatment of its employees.” He plans to bring up the topic at the Co-op’s annual meeting for its 18,500 members on April 5. The Co-op is “owned by the community,” he said. “Members should feel comfortable that employees are being treated right.”

Employees have also started to bring up the dreaded “U” word. With Co-op employees spread around five locations in three communities, a union drive might have difficulty gaining traction. But it could be done.

In 2012, workers at the Brattleboro Food Co-op voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Employees at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier and City Market in downtown Burlington have been unionized for about 10 years.

From a management standpoint, the union talk couldn’t come at a worse time. Throughout the month of April, Co-op members will be casting their ballots on a proposed $5.3 million renovation and expansion project at the Co-op store in Hanover.

Getting members to support the massive project could be tougher if there’s a sense that employee welfare isn’t being given the same priority as bricks and mortar.

On Thursday morning, I stopped by the Hanover store, where some workers are showing their support for management by wearing “Happy Co-op Employee” tags on their shirts. Kate Keating, who works at the store’s member services desk, came up with the idea after reading in this space that some employees were upset by management’s treatment of them.

After a career in social services, Keating joined the Co-op staff 11/2 years ago and said she “loves everything about the Co-op.” A co-worker recently brought up the union idea to her. “A union would kill the Co-op,” she told me, fearing that it could increase the organization’s labor costs, which might lead to higher prices for shoppers.

Lauren Buchanan, who was working behind the gourmet cheese counter, also sported a “happy employee” tag. She hasn’t seen or heard of bullying tactics by managers during her four years. It’s her sense that employees at the Hanover store are, well, happy. The Co-op is “very generous” with health insurance benefits, she said.

Management’s handling of the Great Recession impressed her, too. Unlike Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Co-op didn’t try to cure its financial woes by laying off employees, she said.

That’s certainly something to be happy about.

But what also makes workers happy, besides providing for their material needs, is treating them with respect and taking their workplace concerns seriously. That’s a campaign everybody can get behind.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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.