In February, workers at Northampton's River Valley Market formed a labor union, with a majority of the co-op market's employees signing cards signaling their desire to join United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459.
The response from management? Rather than insist, as employers typically do, that the matter go to an official election through the National Labor Relations Board, the market opted to voluntarily recognize the union. And, in a newsletter to co-op members, management welcomed the union as "our new partner in the workplace."
To call that response atypical is a major understatement, especially in this political climate, where public unions are under high-profile attacks and the presumed Republican presidential nominee has been campaigning on a promise to "take on" union "bosses" if elected.
"We've had employers be neutral and give us voluntary recognition, but it certainly is not the norm. It's become more and more rare over the years," Rick Brown, secretary/treasurer of Local 1459, told the Advocate. "We're very pleased that the [River Valley Market] employers took an enlightened position and let the employees choose their fate. And they chose overwhelmingly to sign [union] cards."
The next step will be for the union and the market management to negotiate a first contract—one representatives of the union say they hope will address concerns about workplace fairness and respectful treatment of employees that inspired the union drive in the first place. While hashing out an agreement that's acceptable to both sides may have its challenges, there's reason to hope that the generally positive tone that was set during the union's formation will carry over into the negotiations—and, indeed, that the process at River Valley Market could serve as a model for an alternative to the typically adversarial union/management relationship.
David Gowler has been involved with River Valley Market from its earliest days; he was one of the first members to sign up with the co-op, years before the building was even erected, and served as the first president of the co-op's Board of Directors. Today, he works as the market's scanning coordinator and was a leader in the effort to bring a union to the market.
"It seems that most workers believe that the co-op is making a fair effort toward providing appropriate wages and benefits," Gowler said. "It's clear that workers are concerned about other issues regarding the workplace."
Gowler outlined some of those concerns: workers having their hours cut, and new hires being made rather than existing workers getting the opportunity to add back their lost hours; delays in filling open positions that put a strain on co-workers; perceived inconsistencies in disciplinary actions; concerns about pay equity for workers doing comparable jobs; a lack of an adequate grievance process; and a fear among some workers that they could face reprisals for airing criticism or problems.
"Folks want to be really clear about what the rules are that everybody plays by, so that everything's spelled out and everyone knows what the consequences are for specific actions and everyone receives the same consequences," Gowler said. "It often seems because there are no clear rules that management improvises solutions."
Gowler hopes that the union's first contract will address those concerns. While workers are, of course, eager to receive fair wages and benefits, he said, "the things we want to get straightened out are workplace fairness issues."
The Advocate was unable to interview River Valley's general manager, Rochelle Prunty. Although Prunty responded to an initial interview request, she did not return follow-up calls over several days leading up to deadline.
In an announcement of the union's formation in River Valley's spring newsletter, Prunty wrote, "On February 10th, we welcomed the UFCW Local 1459 as our new partner in the workplace. Now, not only are we a progressive and pro-labor business, we are a union business. ... With May Day coming with its dual springtime and labor movement celebrations we can all take some extra pride in the many successes of our food co-op."
Gowler, for one, views management's welcome with a degree of caution; after all, he said, workers decided to form a union for a reason. "Words and actions can sometimes be different," he said. "We certainly welcome any positive overtures on the part of management. However, we were really put in a position of bringing in the union because of working conditions which we felt were unjust and were the result of actions on the part of management."
As a union organizer for the past 35 years, Rick Brown knows as well as anyone the resistance and hostility workers can meet when they try to form a union. Just recently, he told the Advocate, he visited a work site where an employee was fired after getting involved in an organizing campaign, and other workers have been forced to attend regular meetings where management issues threats about the fate that awaits them if they form a union.
"It's 180 degrees in the other direction," Brown said of the response at River Valley Market.
In many cases when an employer voluntarily recognizes a union, Brown said, it's because the majority of workers clearly support the effort, and "there's some pressure points that could be applied to the employer that they feel it's in their best interest not to be engaged in a protracted battle."
In the case of River Valley Market, resisting a union would run counter to the co-op's very identity, as a progressive, locally focused and democratically run institution. It would also, no doubt, upset many of the co-op's "member-owners," who make equity investments of at least $150 in the store, in exchange for the right to vote in Board elections and other matters, among other perks.
"This particular board was certainly influenced by their members," Brown said. "Plus, I think that many of them had a union bent anyway."
Jeff Jones, Local 1459's lead organizer at River Valley Market, is also a long-time member of the co-op. The market has enjoyed great success, beyond anyone's expectations, since it opened in 2008, he said. And with that success have come some growing pains, resulting eventually in workers' desire to form a union.
"I think over the course of time there was a little bit of strain," Jones said. "The member-owners and the community and the customers seemed to be on one level, and the workers and staff at the co-op seemed to be left out of the equation."
The organizing campaign at River Valley moved quickly; Jones first met with interested workers in early January, he said, and about a month later a majority of employees had signed cards indicating their interest in a union. (Gowler declined to say how many employees signed the cards. Jones estimates there will be 80 to 85 members in the bargaining unit, although market management is disputing the eligibility of about a dozen workers whom it considers supervisors. That issue will be resolved during contract negotiations, he said.)
"At no time was there a pushback by the management of the co-op," Jones said. "They had to know what was going on. You usually don't keep something like that under the table for very long. I think their view was: 'If this is going to happen, it's going to happen. We're not going to resist.'"
Jones said he's optimistic about the relationship between the union and River Valley Market's management. "Certainly from our perspective, I view it as a partnership, in more ways than one," he said. As a member of the co-op, "I want to see it grow. I feel it's very, very positive."
When UFCW and River Valley management sit down at the table to hammer out a contract, they'll employ a technique called "interest-based bargaining" (sometimes known as "mutual gains" or "win-win" bargaining).
Last month, the union and market management attended a training on IBB conducted by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent agency whose mission is to "preserve and promote labor-management peace and cooperation." According to FMCS, the strategy is more flexible than traditional bargaining techniques: "[T]he process begins with understanding the problem and identifying the interests that underlie each side's issues and positions. ... Interest-based bargaining is a process that enables traditional negotiators to become joint problem-solvers. It assumes that mutual gain is possible, that solutions which satisfy mutual interests are more durable, that the parties should help each other achieve a positive result."
Jones described IBB as more transparent and less adversarial than the typical process of labor and management exchanging proposals and counterproposals. It's been used successfully at a food co-op in Wisconsin, among other workplaces, he said.
"Workers, whether they're in a co-op or anywhere, have concerns about their job security, and no matter what employer you're working for, there's probably going to be grievances and such, and a certain amount of distrust," Brown said. "However, interest-based bargaining is a method you can use to bring both parties together in a mutually beneficial bargaining situation, where both sides want to grow and work together. There certainly has to be trust there. It's a process."
At River Valley Market, Brown said, "I think this is a whole new experience for the general manager and some of the management, and I think that they're adapting to a very new situation. I think that we will be able to work together in not perfect harmony, but harmony enough that we can get a contract and people who work at the co-op can get a voice."
The issues that inspired the union's formation in the first place notwithstanding, Gowler wrote in an email to the Advocate, "we have great belief in the capacity of our Board, our [general manager], our managers, our workers, the Union and our member-owners to address these concerns and allow us to create the 'just marketplace' to which our mission statement alludes. However, it will take effort on everyone's part and there will have to be institutional change which allows for open and honest discussion among all stakeholders. ...
"We are a cooperative after all," Gowler wrote. "We just want River Valley Market to start acting like one and start being truer to the ideals, hopes and dreams that so many of us had when we started on this project and that so many of us still cling to. There is no reason that the Co-op cannot become one of the model employers in Western Massachusetts, it just takes volition and action."