State of the Union
Will a unionized workforce hurt or help La Montañita Co-op?
By Sara Hiatt
Even before she worked at La Montañita Co-op in Nob Hill, Kerry Brumbaugh shopped there. She lived closer to Smith's grocery store on Lead, but said she never shopped there because, “I felt like it was my social responsibility to shop at the Co-op.”
But now the idyllic community-owned grocery store Brumbaugh imagined when she was hired as a cashier at the end of July has turned a little sour. Some employees are attempting to form a union and the act has caused major rifts between workers and management and between employees themselves.
At first, the idea of unionization was just a rumor—joking conversations in the break room. Twice, in the past, workers who wanted to unionize contacted the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. They were told by that union that the Co-op wasn't big enough and there weren't enough employees for a union to be worth it. But in December, Shoshana Handel, a deli clerk for two years, and her boyfriend, Ramón, decided to try again to organize.
They got in touch with John Lamar, a union representative with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM.) Once the IAM said they would represent the Co-op's 108 workers, Handel decided to move forward. She began by getting two-thirds of the employees to sign a petition saying they wanted the option to vote on a union.
Through employee chatter, Brumbaugh said, management found out about the petition and called an emergency managers meeting. This put pressure on Handel, who said at this point she feared for her job. Handel would only be legally protected once she filed the petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Her double-time effort to file meant that over the weekend, there was a constant stream of fellow employees coming to her house to sign their names. Brumbaugh said when she arrived to sign up, Handel's house was packed with workers doing the same thing. The petition was faxed to the federal board on Monday, Dec. 15.
On Tuesday, Dec. 16, management held their emergency meeting. Managers gathered in the Nob Hill store's annex, where extra stock is stored, and met a union-avoidance consultant named Paul Sommerville. Employees, many of whom did not want to be named because they fear for their job, said when the meeting was over the doors to the annex opened and managers came onto the store's floor and began explaining to their employees why a union was a bad idea.
Anti-union leaflets passed out to employees said a union would ruin the Co-op and send it into bankruptcy and that workers could lose all their current benefits because they would have to start from scratch to form a benefits plan with the union. Lamar, the union representative, said these ideas are completely false. The union, he said, wouldn't benefit anyone if they forced the store into bankruptcy. Once a union is formed and negotiations are underway, the employer is forced to open their books from the last five years for examination. If there isn't enough money to give employees raises or increase benefits, Lamar said, then those items simply can't be negotiated. And the idea of losing benefits to start from scratch is simply not how it happens, he said, because the workers vote how to proceed every step of the way.
At this point, employees and managers had begun to take sides. Emotions were high and the tension in the store was palpable, employees said. And to add to that, while the managers were attempting to dissuade their employees from forming a union, the store received a fax at precisely the right (or wrong, depending on who you talk to) time. It was a message from the National Labor Relations Board—a legal document declaring that a hearing date would be set.
A few days later, Brumbaugh went back home to New Jersey for winter break. When she came back 10 days later, she said, the fight was in full force. Employees were arguing with each other, debating the merits of a union. Many workers report shouting matches in the aisles. Many employees don't want a union because they feel the Co-op is a close-knit family and want to remain loyal to the store.
Meanwhile, the debate was being fueled by anti-union pamphlets handed out by management at Sommerville's urging and anti-union notes that were included with every paycheck.
General manager C.E. Pugh, who said he was “shocked” when he found out in mid-December that employees wanted a union, said he fired a consultant (Sommerville) recently and apologized to employees. In a phone interview with the Alibi, Pugh didn't name Sommerville, but said the consultant he hired was “too anti-union and took too heavy of a hand.” Employees say management has also hired a lawyer to defend them on the unionization issue.
And many employees side with managment. Lisa Banwarth-Kuhn, who works in receiving at the Nob Hill store and said she sees unions as “big buisiness,” said that a union is not necessary because employees can ask for store meetings or talk to their managers to express their opinions.
Ezekiel Metillo, a grocery clerk at the Co-op for almost three years, said the Co-op doesn't need a union because the store isn't a huge company such as Wal-Mart.
But other employees say a union may fix what they see as major problems in the company's two local stores. Workers start out at $6.50 an hour and receive a two percent raise (about 13 cents) for every 520 hours they work. A full time employee working 40 hours a week would take 13 weeks to earn that raise. But there aren't many 40-hour-a-week employees at the Co-op. It took Brumbaugh, who works part-time four days a week while going to school, four months to earn that raise. After another 520 hours employees earn another two percent raise. After that, raises are one and-a-half percent after 520 hours of work. There are no raises based on performance. Brumbaugh last week applied for a promotion to lead cashier and front-end-coordinator, who manages the cashiers, but said she didn't think would get it because of her involvement in organizing. A few days later, she received the promotion.
In mid December, management was holding small group meetings with employees two to three days a week, Pugh said. Simply put, he doesn't think a union is needed because of the company's open-door policy.
“We have a very open grievance policy and I hadn't heard any complaints,” he said, adding that he wishes employees had come to him with their concerns before things got this far.
But Handel said she would much rather have a union. “If I go into your office with a complaint, do I just want you to tell me you understand and sympathize with me?” she said. “No, I'd be much happier with a written legal contract saying what you agreed to.”
The Co-op offers “fabulous” benefits, Pugh said. Eighty percent of health care is paid for by the Co-op. Full-time employees earn this coverage after three months and part-time employees after a year, he said. A dental plan is available to everyone, as are sick days and paid vacation days. Employees receive an 18 percent discount on food.
But isn't there anything he thinks workers might be disappointed with? “Entry-level jobs currently start at $6.50 an hour, and I think perhaps there's some dissatisfaction with that,” he said.
Employees will vote whether or not they want a union on Feb. 4.
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