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Jim Kenyon: Wine and Cheese Firing Party at the Co-op

For the last few months, I’ve been writing from time to time about the problems that some workers at the Co-op Food Stores are having with management. But I never thought it would come to this.

On June 13, two long time employees at the Lebanon Co-op were fired and escorted out of the supermarket without being given a reason for their abrupt dismissal. John Boutin, 61, and Dan King, 56, had each worked at the Co-op for more than 10 years.

Although the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society’s management isn’t talking, I infer the firings served a dual purpose.

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Boutin and King were exploring whether the Co-op’s 350 or so workers should attempt to unionize. (King mentioned the idea to me a year ago.) To learn more about collective bargaining, they met with a union shop steward at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier. By getting Boutin and King out of the Lebanon store, which seems to be the epicenter of worker unrest, management hoped to cut off the head of the union snake.

The firings also sent a not-so-subtle message: Remaining workers now know what can happen if they dare to challenge management’s authority. “I thought the Co-op was a place where people could speak freely,” Boutin told me.

I think it’s fair to say that Boutin and King were two of the better known and most well-liked employees (at least from the customers’ standpoint) at the Lebanon Co-op. Boutin, who served as the employees’ representative to the Co-op governing board for three years before not running for re-election in 2013, was the face of the cheese department. King oversaw the wine aisles, and customers had come to rely on his expertise when trying to choose among different vintages.

“Initially, I wanted to work at the Co-op because it was a place that was interested in serving the needs of its members,” King told me. “The management now just wants to push the items with the highest profit margin. That’s not what I signed up for.”

Immediately after the firings, other employees were ordered not to discuss them — even when customers asked. But management’s attempt to keep a lid on things doesn’t appear to be working.

About 15 Co-op members gathered last Wednesday at the Norwich home of independent filmmaker Nora Jacobson and her partner, David Ferm. After learning of the firings, they invited Boutin and King to fill in Co-op members on what had happened.

After the meeting, I talked with Boutin and King. They explained how they’d been called separately into store manager Robert Kazakiewich’s office, where Tony White, the Co-op’s director of operations, was waiting. White informed each of them that the Co-op was “exercising” its right to terminate their employment, effective immediately.

When they asked White for a reason, he wouldn’t answer. They couldn’t get any answers from General Manager Terry Appleby, either. On the day of the firings, he was attending a national conference of co-op grocery stores in Madison, Wis. When I asked him last week about the terminations, Appleby replied, “We’re not going to talk about it.”

That might be shortsighted.

I sense some of the Co-op’s 18,000 members aren’t ready to drop the matter. The members who met at Jacobson’s house are planning a petition drive, asking the Co-op to “re-think” the sacking of Boutin and King. They also want the Co-op to implement policies that would afford employees protections from unjustified firings. They expect to present the petition to the 10-member governing board at its July 23 meeting.

On Thursday, Armin Helisch, a DHMC cardiologist who attended the Norwich gathering, posted a photograph of Boutin and King on Facebook. “If you find (the firings) shocking and not consistent with the ethics and values of our member-owned Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, then please join our protest,” Helisch wrote.

Although Helisch and others didn’t call for a boycott of the Co-op’s four stores, they agreed to remind Co-op’s leadership that members’ loyalty shouldn’t be taken for granted. “Other places have healthy food, too,” said Jacobson, who was among those who described the firings as a wake-up call for members. “Like many people, I had a romantic vision of the Co-op, but now I can see what it really is.”

The Co-op’s management and governing board may have more to deal with than just upset members. Since the firings, Earl Sweet, president of the Dartmouth College Employees’ Union, and Chris Peck, the union’s vice president, have been asked to lend Co-op workers a hand. “Right now, they’re powerless,” said Sweet. “I hate seeing people treated that way.”

Without a union, employees who find themselves in King and Boutin’s situation have little recourse. As an “at-will” state, New Hampshire employers are free to terminate, without cause, workers who are not under contract.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which recognized American workers right to organize, bargain collectively and strike, is supposed to protect union organizers from unfair labor practices. But as I learned from a 2012 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank, that is pretty much a fairy tale. Kris Warner, who wrote the report called “Protecting Fundamental Labor Rights,” told me that companies such as the Co-op that opt for the “nuclear option” of firing employees in the face of a potential union drive have little to fear from the federal government.

“Opposing unionization,” he said, “is a standard business practice.”

I know that many people in the Upper Valley want to believe the Co-op isn’t like other businesses that don’t value their employees as much as they should.

Once upon a time, that might have been the case.

Just not anymore.

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