Co-op divided on union

A months-long discussion of employees unionizing at the Ashland Food Co-op has some workers eager for more say in forming the store's internal policies, but others see it an unnecessary and premature move.

Beginning their push to unionize, employees concerned over what they believed to be unfair treatment from management and some of the store's punishment policies approached the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union as early as last April.

Since then, the co-op's management has held four open-forum meetings to address concerns among its employees, but some workers still think UFCW is the best route to equality and accountability between management and staff.

"A lot of employees are interested in more equity across the board, from department to department in management," said 35-year-old Christopher Moreno, a four-year employee at the co-op. "Basically, with this whole thing, what we are looking for is to uphold the co-op's values."

Moreno, a former staff council member at the co-op, said he wouldn't discuss any particular instances where management treated employees unfairly, but said, with current policy, firings can happen without provable evidence of a wrongdoing.

Moreno also said that store's current employee probation policy allows management to withhold thousands of dollars worth of bonuses from staff who are put on the probationary system.

"We can't put them on probation, so how is that fair? Nobody deserves that kind of discretion over somebody in the cooperative system." he said. "Employees should have a say over the disciplinary process."

Moreno said out of the about 160 employees at the co-op, about 70 are pro-union.

"I'm not one of them," said Alisha Kormondy, 26, who has worked at the Co-op for about a year and a half. "There is a fairly large group of us who feel like the union is not the best way to address these issues."

Nancy Wilson, 57, has worked at the Co-op for 21 years. She was around when the store was on the brink of unionizing 10 years ago over similar disputes.

"Instead, we made a lot of great new policy and made sure staff rights were protected and management had to follow the rules," she said. "We ended up accomplishing that change without bringing the union in. I'm really hoping that will be the way we'll work things out this time."

The first effort to unionize was passed by a co-op employee vote, and went clear to the final stages of contract negotiation, but staff and management were able to settle disputes without implementing the union contract.

Moreno said he doesn't think management is out to get anybody at the co-op, but thinks a union contract would provide employees with a viable opportunity to reshape the store's policies, and the assurance of knowing they will be followed.

Currently, employees can address their concerns through staff council and the board of directors, but Moreno said there is a lack of accountability and follow-through with the current system.

Co-op General Manager Richard Katz, said he is hopeful staff and management will be able to work things out without the presence of a union.

"I think that we're a very employee-oriented organization and I think we do everything we can to address our employee's concerns," he said. "We've taken all the concerns seriously "… and really I think it's our matter here for us to work out."

Moreno, who is a part of a 12-member Union Organization Committee, said although only 30 percent of staff support is required to file for a union election, the committee will not file before it receives support from at least 70 percent of the staff. If the employees do file to unionize, the next step would be to hold an employee election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, and would require a majority vote for the union before negotiations could begin.

"We want to build a union; we want to build unity. We don't want to force it on anyone," said Moreno. "It's about changing the system, not changing the personnel. Centralized control in a Co-op just doesn't make sense."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com

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