Not all Co-op employees want a union

In June 2011, representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 began meeting with a group of Ashland Food Co-op employees interested in forming a union.

If you shop at Ashland Food Co-op, you may have noticed some employees wearing "Pro-Union" buttons and some wearing "No Union" buttons or "Union Free AFC" buttons. In an effort to show that a large percentage of Co-op employees want to remain union-free and solve the Co-op's issues from within, we formed a group called Employees for a Union-Free Co-op.

In September 2011, the National Labor Relations Board received a petition signed by more than 50 percent of Co-op employees, stating, "We the below signed staff "… do not want the UFCW Local 555 as representative and are asking UFCW to end its disruptive, divisive campaign at our workplace." This petition was 100 percent employee-driven with no management involvement.

Once the UFCW Local 555 received notice of this petition, numerous charges of "union busting" were filed against the Co-op management despite the fact that the employees alone were responsible for the petition. By filing these charges, the union effectively put our union vote on hold until the National Labor Relations Board could complete its investigation. This delay also gave the union more time to persuade employees to vote in favor of the Co-op's unionization. As employees who are not in favor of unionizing, we felt terribly intimidated by these actions.

Any AFC employees who choose should have a right to speak out in support of a union-free workplace. There is no "union busting" going on at the Co-op. Management supports the staff's right to choose.

We believe Ashland Food Co-op operates with respect and inclusiveness for all employees. In our experience, claims that employees have been fired without cause or without due process are false. We value the creativity, relationship building and personal and professional growth that come with solving our own problems together.

The Ashland Food Co-op has been a thriving, independent, community-owned business since 1972, formally becoming a co-operative in 2003. Employees receive a living wage and generous benefits. As a result, many AFC employees have continued to work at the Co-op for decades.

AFC has an active staff council, initiated in 1991 by employees. Staff council representatives are elected by staff and serve to mediate employee-management issues in addition to giving our employees a voice in policy decisions. We are proud of what we have achieved at the Co-op and believe ours is a workplace committed to fairness and justice.

We acknowledge the important role unions play in improving working conditions. Employees for a Union-Free Co-op believe excellent conditions already exist at Ashland Food Co-op and we realize the Co-op remains a work in progress, steadily making every effort to improve. We don't want to make such a drastic change that we sacrifice unique elements of the best place we've ever worked.

Co-ops and unions may be working toward similar goals, but historically and culturally they are very different. Unions can create adversarial relationships between management and staff, where each party struggles against the other to get the most they can for their interest group. Co-ops are based on the idea of mutual benefit between management and staff. Co-ops are explicitly committed to the "triple bottom line" of "people, planet and profits," where people always come first.

The Co-op management team is made up of your neighbors, community members and friends. They are not the enemy. They have worked their way up to management positions at AFC over the years through hard work, competence and integrity.

Obligatory union dues would take considerable cash out of our wages, moving money out of our local economy to support a national union. The UFCW sees our Co-op as a great financial opportunity and they want a cut.

We believe that bringing in a union would inevitably change the culture of our Co-op for the worse and create more divisions between management and staff, as well as among staff members. Unfortunately, some community members have latched on to this campaign, making the unionization of AFC their personal cause, increasing this pressure and divisiveness. We appreciate the concern of Co-op owners regarding conditions at the Co-op. However, in the end, it is up to the employees at Ashland Food Co-op to vote for or against a union.

Thanks to community support combined with employee and management commitment, AFC is able to donate thousands of dollars each year to people and organizations in need of support in the Rogue Valley. These donations are not forcibly siphoned off our paychecks against our wishes. Union dues would be. Let's keep Ashland Food Co-op independent and local.

Sari Telpner and Sirena Scherer live in Ashland. This opinion was written in collaboration with Employees for a Union Free Co-op.

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