The next few weeks provide a great opportunity for the board of the Ashland Food Co-op to uphold the Co-op's own values and the values of our community.
As the Tidings reported on March 9, the National Labor Relations Board has given Co-op management until the end of March to change course after NLRB investigators found that the Co-op "interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees" who want to form a union.
The federal investigators found, among other things, that Co-op management:
- Interrogated employees about their union support, sentiments and/or activities.
- Made coercive and intimidating statements to employees about the union.
- Circulated an anti-union petition and/or solicited employee signatures on an anti-union petition.
- Made implied statements to employees that more severe discipline would be imposed if the union becomes the representative of employees.
- Prohibited pro-union activity by employees at work while permitting anti-union activity.
The agency also found that Co-op management has been "recognizing, imposing, dominating or otherwise supporting" a "staff council" that it wants workers to view as an alternative to forming a real union. Unlike a union, this staff council has no legal contract with management. Management has no obligation to negotiate with it or reach any agreements it must uphold. It is no more a union than the "unions" that are established with help from management or governments in countries like China or Mexico.
In a democratic society, the choice of whether or not to form a union belongs to the workers themselves and no one else. Yet, Co-op management's response was not to apologize for the 13 major violations the federal labor agency found, nor to establish meaningful policies to ensure that nothing like that happens again. Instead, management's statement to the Tidings was that it was glad that three other charges that had been filed are not being pursued further at this time.
The Co-op board now has a great opportunity to push the re-set button and choose a new direction consistent with the seven official "values" listed on the Co-op's web site — Equality, Equity, Mutual Self-Help, Self-Responsibility, Democracy, and Solidarity.
The board could adopt a policy that, from now on, management will not use its power over Co-op workers to try to influence their free choice. It will make no statements one way or the other about formation of a union, issue no threats, and show no favoritism toward anyone, regardless of whether they are for or against forming a union.
The Co-op board could also announce that it will no longer employ the outside consultant who was brought in because workers wanted a union and whose arrival was followed by the illegal activity described in the federal investigators' findings.
In addition, the Co-op board could make it clear that if employees do choose to form a union, management will recognize their democratic decision and will negotiate a fair contract with the workers without delay.
A new start by the Co-op board would be welcomed by the broader community that takes pride in its reputation for progressive thinking and support for human rights throughout the world.
A change of heart also would avoid the divisive atmosphere that has developed in other communities when the boards of major institutions refused to let their employees freely decide whether to form a union.
The Co-op workers who want to make a free and democratic choice about forming a union should be applauded for taking the high road. They haven't called for a boycott, nor have they tried to call out individual board members.
Now, the National Labor Relations Board has given the Co-op board the chance to get on that high road as well. Our entire community will benefit when the Co-op board seizes this opportunity to start fresh and recognize workers' freedom to choose.
Matt Witt is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Talent.