Jim Kenyon: Bunker Mentality at the Co-op

Are you experiencing Co-op fatigue? Do you wish the barrage of letters to the editor, listserv posts and a certain newspaper columnist’s ramblings would stop?

I’m guessing many Co-op members yearn for the good old days when they could drop $40 on a Napa Valley pinot noir or $15 for a triple-cream French brie without feeling guilty about patronizing a supermarket chain that fired two longtime employees in June apparently because they wouldn’t toe the company line.

But I’m not sure the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society’s summer of discontent is over.

Co-op members had an opportunity to air their grievances (and ease their consciences) at the governing board’s monthly meeting last Wednesday. They made strong cases for John Boutin and Dan King being rehired with back pay. Members pointed out the hypocrisy in the country’s second-largest food “cooperative” claiming on its website to be “looking after the welfare of our many employees,” but continuing to hide behind its right as a New Hampshire “at-will” employer to fire Boutin and King without telling them why.

“It’s not just about two loyal stalwart employees, as much as I sympathize with them,” L. Perry Curtis, of Pomfret, said at Wednesday’s members-only meeting in Hanover that attracted about 300 people. “It’s also about the current course and the future of the Co-op. If management continues their present course, I think the Co-op is going to implode.”

On the day after the meeting, I stopped by Co-op headquarters on Buck Road in Hanover to get the answers to some questions. There wasn’t a receptionist’s desk in the lobby area, so I tried the door leading to the first floor offices. It was locked. To get inside, Co-op employees punch their personal identification number into a keypad next to the door. But that doesn’t do visitors much good, which maybe is the way that Co-op management wants it. The less interaction with the public, the better.

In its headquarters’ lobby, the Co-op provides a phone that visitors can use to reach administrators who work in the bunker. (I’ve seen police stations with less security.) A list of administrators’ phone extensions was taped to the wall. I counted 38 names, which might be a sign that Co-op management is a bit top-heavy.

I used the phone to reach Allan Reetz, the Co-op’s director of communications. Reetz said he wasn’t comfortable talking with me because he didn’t know how it would appear in the paper. I pointed out that it was the job of a company’s communications director to field media inquiries. If he didn’t want to do so, I suggested, he might be in the wrong profession.

The relationship between members of the media and the people who work in public relations for private companies, institutions and the government gets testy at times. But that’s the nature of the business. Our objectives don’t always align.

I didn’t think anything more of the conversation with Reetz until I got back to the Valley News. Reetz had called my boss to complain that I had “harassed” him. Reetz said he didn’t want me to call again.

In 35 or so years in the daily newspaper business, this was a new one on me — a company spokesman who viewed a journalist’s call to his office as harassment.

Was Reetz trying to pressure the paper to tone down my criticism of Co-op management?

I can only wonder — since Reetz has asked that I not call him.

I also wonder what the Co-op’s 350 rank-and-file employees are up against. From what I can gather, the Co-op’s management doesn’t hesitate to use intimidation tactics to keep workers from talking.

After Boutin and King were fired, the Lebanon Co-op manager led them out the store’s front door with their belongings. It was a not-so-subtle way to show other workers what could happen if they, as Boutin and King had done, dared to speak up in store meetings about management’s bullying tactics and perceived flaws in the Co-op’s bonus pay plan.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, several employees talked about how well management treats them and how happy they are working for the Co-op. I imagine that’s probably the case for many workers who are mostly interested in collecting a paycheck and receiving decent health benefits. They like things the way they are.

I’d be willing to bet that Boutin and King would still have their jobs if they hadn’t raised questions in meetings with management about working conditions and started exploring whether Co-op employees should consider unionizing.

But they couldn’t stay quiet when they saw co-workers being mistreated and management pushing shoppers to buy items with the highest profit margin. “That’s not what I signed up for,” King told me shortly after his firing.

King, 56, and Boutin, 61, had both worked at the Lebanon Co-op store for more than 10 years. King was the store’s wine expert and Boutin was the go-to guy at the cheese counter.

At Wednesday’s meeting, King stood in the back of Hanover High School’s auditorium. Some Co-op members who walked by stopped to shake hands and encouraged him to hang in. He’s working odd jobs and part-time at Norwich Wines and Spirits. Boutin couldn’t make the late afternoon board meeting, said King. He’s got a part-time food warehouse job.

I don’t doubt that many of the Co-op’s 21,000 members would prefer that King and Boutin fade away. They don’t relish more scrutiny of their beloved Co-op.

It’s hard to be compelled to look closely and discover the emperor has no clothes.

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