Saturday, March 22, 2014

Are Unions Cooperative? The Case of the Honest Weight Food Coop

To quote an open letter from the Leadership Team at Honest Weight Food Coop in Albany, New York, to staff, "We welcome open dialogue and the circulation of ideas consistent with our Statements of Conscience that declare: 'We are committed to encouraging an environment where ideas and philosophies can be generated, shared, and expressed freely'". It is in this spirit that I offer this rather lovingly frank blog post.

As some of you may know a union movement has been afoot at Honest Weight Food Coop in Albany, New York where I work part time. I did not have anything to do with this movement though I have given my support to having a vote of the Coop employees as to whether or not we wish to have a union. That seems democratic to me.

I signed the petition (and in the spirit of honesty let me note that I am a member of a union already, the United University Professions, and was a member of a union when I worked at Overhead Door in Hartford City and when I was a graduate student) to allow for a union vote at the Coop for several reasons. First, I signed it because I am concerned about the seemingly ever increasing imbalances of power at the Coop. I realise that, at least in theory, the member owners of the Coop are the ultimate power at Honest Weight. However, when it comes to the day-to-day operations it is the Leadership Team that is making the decisions. Some of these decisions seem to have been undertaken without any feedback from the membership whatsoever and that concerns me.

Second, I signed the petition because I am concerned about the fact that the management team does not work on the sales floor on a regular basis any longer. This means that there is little interaction between the management team and the staff member workers on the sales floor. We thus have a power structure at the Coop that is similar to the power structure in most privately owned businesses in the US and the modern world. Perhaps this is the reason that I have had several staff member workers say to me while we were discussing the union movement at the Coop that they were fearful of signing the petition for a union vote because they feared they might lose their job.

Third, I signed the petition because I am concerned about the appearance of favourtism at the Coop. It appears from the outside looking in that many of those hired for management positions and many of those given contracts at the Coop are friends and family of the Coop’s management team. I realise, of course, that sometimes appearances can be deceiving, that when hiring someone or giving contracts to someone it is those one knows best that sometimes best fit the job or the giving of contract descriptions. I also realise that appearances, the hiring and giving of contracts to those one knows, may sometimes raise questions because of appearances.

Fourth, I signed the petition because I was concerned about the situation in the Produce Department. While the problem in Produce has been taken care of that doesn't mean that we don’t have other problems at the Coop. This brings me to the fifth reason why I signed the petition, the goings on in the Deli. It seems to me that temporary three-month appointments the Coop has been using since we moved to our new location are being overused in the Deli. Additionally, recently two people were let go by the Deli manager, both of whom I knew, and both of whom appeared, at least to me and to others at the Coop, to be good workers. One had been working in the Coop for some time. None of us know why these two employees were let go as many member staff workers admitted to me in conversations. Rumours, however, are floating around on the Coop floor as to why they were fired. One rumour has it that one of the employees was let go because she did not smile enough. Another that she was fired because she wasn't peppy enough. Another rumour has it that the Deli manager didn’t like one of the fired employees. I don't know whether these rumours are true but the fact that they are floating around the Coop means that there are staff member employees wondering just what is happening in the Deli? It leaves some of us wondering why we are seeing so many new faces in that department on what seems like a regular basis.

Sixth, I signed the petition because I am concerned that we are apparently composting deli food left over at the end of the day rather than giving it to employees or the needy.

Finally, I signed the petition because I am concerned about the fact that the Coop seems to becoming more corporate. I assume this is the reason that we can no longer ask staff workers to be members of the Coop and that non-member workers will get a 24% discount if they work thirty-two hours or more. I also assume that this is the reason for the increasing divide between a management ensconced in their offices in the back (I do realise, by the way, that management has a lot on their plate at the moment) and staff member workers on the sales floor. Perhaps we need to rethink our decision to incorporate and consider disincorporation in order to take the Coop back to more cooperative roots.

Recently, the debate over whether we should have a union at the Coop has been heating up. The Leadership Team, which apparently finds unions and cooperatives strange bedfellows, sent two open letters to employees concerning a union at the Coop. I reprint both of these “open letters” below.

Here is the first open letter:

Honest Weight respects workers' rights to organize and to evaluate whether they wish to enlist third-party representation, and we believe each employee should have the opportunity to make an informed decision on this important issue. To that end, the Leadership Team, with the support of the HWFC Board of Directors, affirms the following:
We will respect every employee’s right to join or not join a labor union.
We will provide Co-op employees with the facts about their existing conditions of employment.
We welcome open dialogue and the circulation of ideas consistent with our Statements of Conscience that declare: “We are committed to encouraging an environment where ideas and philosophies can be generated, shared, and expressed freely.”
We are committed to promoting more equitable and participatory ways of living, as our Mission Statement asserts, and remain guided by principles of democratic process and striving for consensus. Since its inception in 1976, Honest Weight has built its business on a foundation that includes treating every employee with respect, and affording them dignity. This includes providing regular employees of Honest Weight staff members with excellent pay, benefits, and working conditions while we continue to grow our business and remain sustainable.
The Honest Weight Employee Manual guides our practices and explains the terms of employment to which staff and management agree. We strongly encourage employees to thoroughly review this comprehensive document in order to fully understand the benefits and protections it articulates and ensures. We have reason to believe that there may be some misinformation or inadequacies in the Co-op chain of communication that may have contributed to the call for this organizing effort. Accordingly, in the next few weeks we will be circulating clear and specific information about your existing protections, as well as facts that we can provide about labor relations and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Our goal is to ensure that every employee has sufficient information to be able to make an educated decision on what is best for you.
We feel very strongly that no employee of the Honest Weight Food Co-op should have to pay fees to a third party in order to be treated fairly or give up the right to speak for themselves individually. We encourage you to approach any or all members of the LT with your questions, and look forward to engaging in ongoing dialogue with you on this very important issue.
The Leadership Team
Lily Bartels • Duke Bouchard • Alexandra Juhre

Here is the second open letter:

We understand that HWFC employees may have been asked to sign “authorization cards,” which authorize the union to act for you as a collective bargaining agent.
We believe that an outside “representative” is not needed here at our Co-operative. Of course, the choice is yours. It is, and will continue to be, our policy to respect your right under the law to join or not to join a labor union. Honest Weight will not coerce or retaliate against employees who sign a card, or join or assist a union, nor will it “reward” employees who oppose unionization. But we reserve our right to tell you some FACTS concerning unionization.
Whether or not you have already signed, you should know certain basic facts. You are not required to sign a card. If a union obtains a sufficient number of these cards, it is possible under present labor board rulings for the union to become your representative without giving you the opportunity to vote in a confidential election. Your decision to sign or not to sign a card may be your last opportunity to express your choice.
We ask you to keep an open mind and to remember the Honest Weight philosophy. Since 1976, Honest Weight has built its business on a foundation that includes a commitment to treat every employee with respect. We take great pride in offering pay and benefits equal to or better than those offered by our competitors. Consider all the benefits and protections you currently receive without paying union dues (described more fully in the Employee Manual): Vacation, Sick & Personal time, a 401K plan with an employer match, and unparalleled employer contributions on health insurance premiums. Then there are also less tangible but, we believe, distinct advantages, such as set weekly schedules and flexible time off.
Regular employees enjoy all these benefits without having to engage an external third party. These benefits are already offered and paid for by Honest Weight Food Coop. And as members of the co-op, you already have significant opportunities to inform co-op policy. Be aware that if the co-op becomes unionized, bargaining on your behalf will be conducted by a representative picked for you by the union, you will have forfeited the opportunity to represent yourself, and you will be bound by whatever terms have been negotiated.
The union will not pay for additional benefits out of its own pocket. All a union can do is to try to negotiate for benefits, and the majority of the terms now outlined in the Employee Manual will be subject to negotiation. The union cannot compel a company to reach an agreement on any wages, benefits or terms of employment. The law provides that as long as a company is negotiating with the union in good faith, the company does not have to agree to any union demands or to make any concession to the union.
The co-op pays for these benefits by staying competitive in the market and attracting customers and growing our business. Job security and benefits do not come from having a union. They come from the stability of the business and from our commitment to our employees in the face of economic challenges. In this recent period of risky expansion, we consciously prioritized protecting existing regular positions during a period of rapid growth.
We believe that our record demonstrates our commitment to our employees’ best interests and quality of life. As much as you expect us to be fair with you, we hope that you will be fair with us. Before you make a decision, before you sign an authorization card, ask the union what it can do for you, what it will cost you in dues to have a union, and what they can guarantee will change for the better.
The Leadership Team
Lily Bartels • Duke Bouchard • Alexandra Juhre

After reading the second epistle I felt that I had to respond to it because it didn’t seem to jibe with what I knew about the union movement at HWFC nor with my experiences being a member of several unions. Here is my response.

1. As far as I know the only thing that is being signed at this point is a sheet which expresses employee support FOR A VOTE ON WHETHER WE SHOULD JOIN THE UNION OR NOT. If union representation cards are being signed, and I don’t know that they are, one source indicates they aren’t, that seems to me to be within employee rights.
2. Health, vision, and dental benefits are not, in my experience, the only potential benefits of joining a union.
3. As a part time teacher at SUNY Oneonta I have vision and dental benefits that cost me nothing thanks to the union. I have health insurance thanks to the union. I have retirement, real retirement, a pension, thanks to the union. I may be able to achieve retirement health care thanks to the union. I have a voluntary 401K that allows me to choose how casino capitalist I want it to be or to not be thanks to the union. Our union has a wonderful monthly periodical that is not only focused on union activity but on other relevant intellectual matters. We have union picnics and holiday gatherings.
4. Union representatives would, as I understand it, and I am a member of UUP, be elected from among the local employees. So would negotiators So the union representative would not be the only person engaging in negotiations
5. Since the Coop can no longer ask hired staff to become members despite long historical precedent I don't see what the problem is with having a non-member union negotiator at the table particularly since staff member workers will be part of the negotiating team as well.
6. Union negotiations would, as I understand it, use as a baseline what we have now and ask for a small pay rise to pay for small union fees.
7. I used to work at the non-union SUNY Research Foundation. I was laid off in one of those ever-frequent busts that characterise casino capitalism. Layoffs were done by department and not by seniority. If they were done on the basis of the latter I would not have been laid off. A union might have been able to put seniority at the heart of decisions on layoffs in a contract rather than leave it to the whims of management.
8. If employees vote to unionise--hardly a certainty from what I have heard--one would hope the management would negotiate in good faith with the employees union. While unions aren't perfect--nothing is--unions have in the past brought greater democracy to workplaces all around the world.
9. To be frank there is some concern among coopers with what appears to be unilaterial decisions by management...Some might see these unilateral decisions as not fully in the cooperative spirit.
10. Anyone who is thinking of joining the 401K programme should watch the Frontline PBS programme "The Retirement Gamble". Many 401 K's come with fees that enrich Wall Street. Moreover, many "advisors" are not obligated to the person who has a 401 K UNLESS they are state licensed fiduciaries.
11. HWFC, in my experience, is a wonderful place to work. I appreciate the benefits even though I am not eligible yet. I suppose staff member workers need to think about whether a union could make it an even better place to work.
Ronald Helfrich Jnr.

I sent this reponse to the same all on the HWFC listserv that these two open letters had been forwarded to by the leadership team. A few days later on the 10th of March I received a reply to my open response in an email. That email said that "Your message has expired without any moderator decision for the following recipients". That is why I posted all of these calls and my response on this blog.

Several days passed before the next volley in the increasingly hot cold war over whether we should have a union at the Coop was fired, this one by HWFC's Board of Directors. The Board's response to the possible unionisation of Honest Weight Co-op appeared in my email inbox on the 17th of March. I copy and paste it from the Inside Scoop: News and Views From the Honest Weight Board of Directors. Taken together these three missives seem rather like a concerted attack on the union movement at the Coop.

Although no petition for an election has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board, we have been receiving questions from co-op members concerning issues relating to unionization of our employees. At Honest Weight, we respect each employee's right to organize, and to join or not join a labor union. We also respect our own right to communicate with members and employees about our position on unionization and to answer questions that are brought to us about the process.
The Board has been considering the impact of unionization on our co-op structure. Unions have successfully been part of other co-ops; but no other co-ops that we have identified have quite the structure that we do - where the membership is the ultimate authority. In most other co-ops, the board of directors is the ultimate authority. Our members have asked:
Can our member labor program co-exist with a unionized staff?
Will a unionized staff create a de-facto different class of members, which we have understood is not compatible with the cooperative structure?
Will it be possible for unionized staff to continue to participate in membership decisions, such as board and GRC elections, budget, and other things that would affect the store?
Could the membership still retain authority of things like the budget if a bargaining unit is part of it?
If unionized staff are not allowed to vote and or not allowed to serve on the board or committees, why would they continue as members?
If staff had to give up their membership, how would that impact the governance structure, the morale, the member labor program, the whole?
How might our governance structure need to change - which bylaws would this affect?
There may be additional questions you may have. And while it may be premature to ask these questions given the absence of a union petition, in the spirit of our commitment to communicate with you, we invite you to an open member forum to learn more about these issues.
Come for a facilitated discussion on March 27 in Channing Hall at the Unitarian Church at 5:30 pm at 405 Washington Avenue, in Albany.

I'm back:
Honestly this invitation to a meeting to discuss a number of questions offended me as much as the second letter from the LT to member staff workers. It urked me so much because, like the second LT epistle, it seemed to me to be inconsistent with what I saw and learned at the Coop. To wit: Membership has the final authority? As in the decision to put chicken broth out on the sales floor? As in the decision to put a satellite store at the Empire State plaza? As in the decision to play middle of the road sure to offend no one music in the store if only for a brief time? Really? I am not so sure this is entirely true. My sense, based on talking to others and by simply observing, is that the Co-op now is a corporation with a management group and a board of directors who basically governs the "Co-op". Management and the Board has made several unilateral decisions recently and there seems to have been little if any membership input checking and balancing these unilateral decisions, at least as far as I can tell. It urked me because at the same time that the LT was wondering about the impact of a third-party representative at HWFC on management-worker negotiations they were readying plans to abide by legal regulations inhibiting the Coop from asking staff workers to become members making them third parties (i.e. non-members) at the Coop.

So what about those other critical questions which are missing from the Board of Directors series of queries: can a co-op co-exist with a corporate like structure, with a corporate like management team which no longer works on the sales floor, with a corporate like Board of Directors, with staff that are no longer required to be members, and with a petition process which requires that members get a certain number of member signatures on a petition before issues can come before the membership?

And then there is the big question paid member workers must ask and answer: Since the Coop now looks a lot by a corporation run by a management class that has limited interaction with floor staff is it time for employees to consider whether a union, whatever that union may be, is now, as a result, necessary to protect and promote worker rights at the Coop?

To be continued???

For comparative purposes I am reposting Bloomingfoods powers that be response to unionisation at this Bloomington, Indiana co-op, the first co-op I was a member of:


We have been notified that some of our staff are seeking to be represented by a union, specifically the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 700. Bloomingfoods fully respects and supports our staff’s legal right to organize. Over the last 30 days we have been educating ourselves about the implications of the organizing process and how operating with a union in place would impact our co-op should that be the end result of the organizing process. Throughout this process, we have been respectful and cooperative—meeting with union representation on a regular basis and refraining from any public comment until we were able to assimilate what we learned from others. We have gathered information from a large number of varied sources to create a well-informed picture, and we agree with our entire staff that on this important issue, it is they who should determine whether or not they are represented by a union. We believe it is time for every employee to educate themselves and make an informed decision about what they believe is best for themselves and their co-op. We trust that all will soon be ready to make that decision and move forward toward strengthening our organization.

Our management and board of directors also trust that our staff will continue to have a civil, positive, and respectful dialog on the matter, free of undue influence from others. Our supervisory team has participated in training sessions regarding applicable labor laws and are committed to follow those rules to maintain the best possible working environment and to ensure a fair process. We ask that all parties involved remember that we are an ongoing, operating grocery store that exists to serve our customers and member-owners in a pleasant and efficient manner. Management is resolved to respect the decision our staff make, and, as one person put it, “the co-op will be fine, it will remain strong and continue to be an asset to our community whichever way the employees decide.” The board and management wholeheartedly agree.

Bloomingfoods remains committed to open and enhanced communication with our staff. Recent events have caused us to reflect upon what we could have done better and how we can improve moving forward. We are not a perfect employer, but we are a good employer – one that pays fair and competitive wages, one that provides a strong and progressive benefit package, and, above all, one that believes in our staff. As with all things in life, there is room for improvement, and we welcome input from all our staff on how we can become an even better employer. We value all that our staff do for our co-op and our community. They are the primary reason for the success and accomplishments we enjoy in Bloomington and the surrounding area. We look forward to a timely and positive outcome to our staff’s dialog about unionization.


  1. I was unable to make it to the March 27th meeting. Hoping you'll post an account of it if you were there, as your blog on the issue (as it has unfolded thus far) is very informative; thanks!

  2. I was unable to make it either. I have heard several descriptions of the meeting, however, some of which I am not sure are consistent.

  3. Awesome peice. Say old story the crow told me at coops. River valley coop in Northampton MA has had similar issues. We have unionized with the UFCW but did little good. The same problems exist today as they did over 4 years ago when the store unionized. UFCW is less then helpful. I wish they went with another union but moving on.

    Oh and guess who is our new finance manager at RVC Duke Bouchard. I wonder why he left honest weight?