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Jim Kenyon: Hanover Co-op workers may be getting the short ‘End’

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, July 27, 2019

Members of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society have long understood that shopping at Co-op grocery stores is unlikely to save them money in the checkout aisle.

Not when a half gallon of Stonyfield Farm organic milk is a buck more than it is a few miles away at Hannaford on Route 12A in West Lebanon. Or a box of Post Grape-Nuts cereal runs an additional 80 cents. (Those were just a couple of the price differences I found during some comparison shopping last week.)

Some Co-op members — and nonmembers — who shop at the Co-op’s stores in Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction probably do so for convenience’s sake. Anything to avoid 12A.

But many Co-op loyalists are willing to pay more to support a local business that dates back to the 1930s over corporate America supermarket chains or, in Hannaford’s case, an international conglomerate headquartered in the Netherlands.

Some of the Co-op’s 22,000 members also value having a say in how the business is run. Each year, the Co-op holds elections to decide who sits on its 12-member governing board.

Which brings me to the folks at Concerned About the Co-op.

Remember them? This was the grass-roots group that sprung up in 2014, after two longtime Co-op employees were abruptly fired without being told why.

It was no secret, however, that Co-op management viewed John Boutin and Dan King as rabble-rousers who were stirring up trouble with talk of a union drive. The Co-op denied it had violated any workers’ rights.

In 2016, Boutin and King reached an out-of-court settlement in a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the Co-op. Details weren’t disclosed.

By that time, five Concerned About the Co-op candidates had won seats on the governing board and the group was largely responsible for an overhaul in the Co-op’s top management.

After staying relatively quiet the last few years, the group has returned to its watchdog ways. Concerned About the Co-op, which still represents a minority of the board, has brought to light a recent board decision that may or may not have an adverse effect on the Co-op’s nearly 400 employees.

And that’s the problem. Nobody knows.

The trouble began like it often does in the business world — with the hiring of an outside consultant to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist. The Co-op brought in a Canadian company called the “Governance Coach” to help develop a new set of “Ends.”

Apparently, having a simple mission statement or guiding principles isn’t enough. At Wednesday’s board meeting, Co-op General Manager Ed Fox, who was hired in mid-2016, explained the Ends are intended to answer: “Why do we exist?”

In May, consultant Richard Stringham, of Governance Coach, led the board in a daylong workshop, which resulted in a new set of Ends. My favorite: “Shoppers experience a positive, personalized experience.”

How’s that for marketing mumbo-jumbo?

In June, the board voted, 6-1, to adopt the new Ends. Liz Blum was the sole dissenter.

Among Blum’s objections: Unlike the old Ends, which are displayed above the wine shelves at the White River Junction Co-op, the new Ends refer only to shoppers. Workers aren’t mentioned.

Gone is End No. 6: The Co-op will be a “major source of employment in the community that provides personal satisfaction to employees, livable wages and financial security for employees and their families.”

The old Ends, which were written about 10 years ago, didn’t stop the Co-op from firing Boutin and King in 2014, but their supporters had something to point to when arguing on behalf of workers’ rights.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several former board members spoke out against the omission. Don Kreis, an attorney who served on the board for more than a dozen years, also took exception to portions of Stringham’s consultant report, which stated “the organization doesn’t exist for employees.”

“That’s a judgment call,” Kreis told the board. “An outside consultant has no right to tell you, the elected representatives of the Co-op’s membership, that you cannot attach that degree of importance to what this organization does for its workers.”

The new Ends are “so untethered from the Cooperative Principles, that they absolutely could describe Hannaford, or Shaw’s or Price Chopper,” Kreis said.

Why does any of this matter?

At a time when workers’ rights are diminishing, nationally, a move like this only makes it harder to distinguish the Co-op from big-chain supermarkets.

Board President Rosemary Fifield downplayed the change, stressing that “employee welfare is well-taken care of” in other Co-op governing documents.

On Wednesday, Blum made a motion to rescind the June vote. She also suggested forming a committee, consisting of board members, Co-op members and employees, to restart the exercise of coming up with new Ends. “For engaged members, it is important what we say and how we say it,” Blum said.

Her proposal failed in a 5-4 vote. (Two members elected this year abstained.)

I suspect some board members just want to move on — having already spent $19,532 on consulting fees. That’s a lot of wild sockeye salmon.

Following the vote, board member Jessica Saturley-Hall seemed to recognize that Concerned About the Co-op might not just go away. At her suggestion, the board agreed to form a committee, along the lines that Blum proposed, to look at improving the new Ends.

Some people may take the board’s refusal to shelve the new Ends as an “opportunity to raise hell,” Saturley-Hall said. “We really don’t need to start a war between the board and members.”

That wouldn’t be a good end.

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