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What's driving the Willy Street Co-op's new union

What's driving the Willy Street Co-op's new union

The successful organizing drive reveals cracks in the Madison grocery institution's work culture. (Photo: Members of the union’s organizing committee at a victory party on Wednesday night. Photo courtesy of Sara Andrews.)

After two days of voting, employees of the Willy Street Co-op decided to form a union, with a significant majority—85 percent of those eligible—voting yes.

The decision comes after months of organizing between workers, and involved a secret ballot that included all employees at the eastside, westside, and northside locations, as well as the co-op's off-site kitchen, and employees at the main office who don't have hiring or firing abilities.

Sara Andrews, who has worked at the northside location since March 2018 and was part of the organizing committee, couldn't be happier with the results.

"Do I understand there is hard work ahead? Of course! Am I dedicated to demonstrating to those who still have concerns that we are here to protect them and their benefits? Yes!" Andrews wrote on Facebook. "I'm even dedicated to the management and proving we aren't the boogie man and our actions will ultimately lead to a happier, better, longer lasting workforce with less turnover that will help lead to a strong financial outcome for the store and a return to true principles."

The co-op posted the results of the vote to its social media channels late Wednesday evening, noting, "Co-op management supports the right of staff to make this decision and we will work with union representatives to move forward."

In an official statement prior to the vote, Willy Street Co-op spokesperson Brendon Smith wrote that "the Willy St. Co-op strives to be a welcoming and supportive workplace, interested in the growth and potential of each employee and the community we serve. We are aware that a number of co-op employees may be interested in seeking union representation and labor organization support. Our management team and the Board of Directors respect the right of our staff to consider this issue and to make an informed decision. We endeavor to operate in compliance with all labor and employment laws, as well as with the rules outlined by the National Labor Relations Board in these matters."

Employees will form and run their own chapter under the auspices of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, now called UE, which represents workers from a wide variety of industries.

A unified campaign

Unlike previous attempts to unionize the Co-op, this latest effort involved all of its locations. But it wasn't until after employees filed a petition on August 13 with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union vote that store management became aware of it. On August 27, Co-Op General Manager Anya Firszt sent a letter to all employees that addressed the issue. 

Andrews, among others, shared the letter online and offered her responses to what many referred to as willfully misleading statements and insinuations made by Firszt (who was not available for comment for this article).

The letter noted that the union had requested to be recognized without a vote but, Firszt wrote, "We think it is important for you to have a say in whether a third-party union, representing electrical, radio and machine workers is right for you."

Andrews counters that two-thirds of eligible employees signed cards asking for a union vote, and that Firstz's wording aimed to sow doubt about whether or not the UE was an appropriate union for co-op workers.

On its website, the UE describes itself as "a democratic national union representing some 35,000 workers in a wide variety of manufacturing, public sector and private service-sector jobs." While many UE members still work in factories in "the union's traditional jurisdictions" such as electrical manufacturing, metalworking and plastics, many do not. "UE members are also rail crew drivers, co-op workers, teachers, clerical workers, graduate instructors, graduate researchers, scientists, librarians, and day care workers. We maintain city and county roads, drive school buses, conduct research in university laboratories, treat waste water and engage in hundreds of other occupations," the website reads.

Firszt's letter to employees went on to ask a series of questions about how union representation would impact people's paychecks and working conditions, and mused on whether or not it could "deliver on all of its promises?"

"UE membership fees are two and a half hours of your hourly wage per month," Andrews responded, "and this is adjusted by percentage for part time workers. You will only be charged membership dues if you agree to join the union. No dues are charged until a contract is ratified." 

Due to Wisconsin's status as a "Right to Work" state, too, employees are not required to join the union and will not be charged dues unless they opt in. 

Stated goals

Why a union? The question has been on the minds of many community members and co-op owners. Indeed, the idea of a union at a cooperative seems to some to be not needed, even redundant. 

However, the Willy Street Co-op's member-owners do not have direct say over employment decisions and are not impacted directly by employee policies. This is also why member-owners were not part of the vote.

Organizers laid out a list of reasons for the push to unionize, citing the need for a fair attendance policy, living wage increases, and better job security, as well as "Real input and involvement in decision-making by workers, unlike what is the case now." They call out a need to push back against the "increasing corporatization of the Co-op" and helping the business "living up to its stated ideals and progressive image" as well.

The attendance policy, rolled out over the summer and slated to take full effect in mid-September, became something of a flashpoint for organizing. The new system is "no fault," meaning that employees accrue points for simply being one or two minutes late and for missing time for any reason, including an unforeseen illness or accident. Even with a doctor's note points are accrued, though at a lower rate (up to three consecutive absences within 72 hours earn two points). Points add up toward penalties and eventual termination.

"Basically, if you haven't scheduled your paid time off, you get a point," says Andrews. "This is an extremely strict attendance policy. We sign a document when we start working that says if we have any number of symptoms not to come into work, because it's food service. But we're getting penalized for not coming in. To say that it's not a penalty is just a language game."

The ACLU has has criticized no-fault policies, arguing that they violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. A class action lawsuit, filed against AT&T Mobility, argues the policy also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act.

Morale at the stores hit an extreme low after the policy was introduced by a new HR manager, who previously worked for the Army National Guard and Target. Andrews and others were on board for the creation of a new attendance policy, given the lack of clarity that existed before and the need to ensure it was being applied evenly. What resulted was something far more extreme than anyone anticipated. "We asked for a policy but not a ridiculous one," she adds.

One of the goals of the union is to negotiate a new system that "actually accounts for people being human beings and not machines," Andrews says.

Another major point of contention is the Co-op's stated goal of establishing a living starting wage, something that has stalled in recent years.

In response to a Customer Comment in the Co-op's January 2017 Reader, former HR manager Kerrie Lentz stated that "We currently start entry level staff at or above $10.69 per hour. This was the living wage when we calculated last year, however we have since made the decision to use an updated model and calculate a more realistic wage that we call 'livable' and that used more realistic numbers to reflect the costs of housing and phone use, which the older model hadn't. The new livable wage for Madison is a 27 percent increase (from $10.69 to $13.62) and not a jump we can financially achieve immediately. Our HR and Finance teams are determining a plan to get us to the new livable wage over 2-3 years' time. This plan will account for wage compression of current staff and result in yearly wage increases over the next several years as we budget for the ability to pay the livable wage." 

According to several current employees interviewed for this article, however, the entry-level wage at the Co-op remains well below that goal, at $12.10 an hour.

A history of agitation

This wasn't the first attempt to unionize employees of Madison's long-running, member-owned natural foods cooperative. Starting in 2014, workers tried organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), citing issues of chronic understaffing and arbitrary management decisions.

Andrew Sernatinger, who worked at the westside location at the time, was part of the group that kicked off those efforts, along with Rita Gahagan, Stephen Spaite, and Leah Clark. He says he and other employees faced retaliation from some in management once they learned of the push to unionize.

"Managers started following us around the store, went into our personal lives to post details on the Eggie Buzz work forum [an internal forum for employees], and we started getting disciplined for silly things. They started circulating all these anti-union stories on the Buzz, telling people the union would drug test us, or force us to strike, and even posted stuff from the Ayn Rand Institute. It was unbelievable," says Sernatinger.

Prior to the organizing efforts becoming public, Sernatinger says, he'd been given nothing but "excellent" performance reviews and raises. Afterwards, he was written up seven times in six months. 

"I was asked to leave by a few people who were very anti (and still are now) after the vote," Sernatinger says. "I resigned in May of 2015 when it was clear it was that or be fired."

That round of organizing had been fraught from the start. Accusations of retaliation by management were escalated to the point of a complaint being filed with the NLRB (which was eventually dismissed). Still, others were unhappy with the choice of the UFCW to represent them, saying union representatives were vague and dismissive of questions, and that the bureaucratic structure wasn't a good fit for co-op workers.

Ilana Bryne worked at the eastside location from 2013 to 2017 and ultimately spoke out against that union drive.

"I come from a union family and have always been friendly to the idea of unions based on that and my politics," she explains. "I was initially excited that someone was bringing this to my workplace and I signed a union card but didn't understand the process."

Bryne cites the poor and misleading communication by union representatives for her ultimate decision that the UFCW simply wasn't a good fit. "They didn't understand our culture compared to say a factory or corporate chain store, they spoke condescendingly or vaguely to us, and they made huge missteps like comparing our situation to the institution of African-American slavery," she says.

However, Bryne is supportive of the current effort to unionize and says her experiences after the first vote failed only bore out the need for worker representation with management. In March 2016, just months after the dust finally settled on the previous unionization efforts, Bryne ran for and was elected to the Co-op's Employee Council. Her time serving was, she says, frustrating and ultimately fruitless.

"It is/was a toothless organization that management and HR hate because, despite still being able to do whatever the hell they want, the price of an illusion of input and democracy is that Anya [Firstz] and the head of HR must be present to hear the EC representatives give feedback—usually critical—of policies and practices," she explains. "The EC is at best a tool to keep the workers pacified; by design, the EC has no power to shape compensation or any policy that would be addressed by a union. I served one term and decided it was useless, and by the time I left the Co-op I believe management was moving to further limit EC powers and censor intranet/Eggie Buzz discussion."

Bryne also alleges that management used many of the same tactics during the 2015 union drive as it did this time around, as shown in Firstz's letter: "sow doubt, create divisions, appeal to emotions, etc."

To that point, Andrews notes that UE representatives had warned her about particular tactics managers would likely take once they knew about the new efforts to unionize. "I was naive and didn't want to believe they'd actually do that," she says, but the letter was, she alleges, almost an exact copy of anti-union rhetoric used by many major corporations nationwide.

"Anya is very good at presenting herself as a level-headed, reasonable friend who only with the greatest reluctance will ask sacrifices of the workers," says Bryne. "It's all a facade. She is no friend to the workers. She's fond of saying, 'If people want a union, that's OK with me.' As if she has a choice to accept or deny the results of a union election."

Bryne pulls no punches in her assessment of her time at the Co-op. "The Co-op membership erroneously assumes it is a better place to work because of the image it presents," she says. "And yet, during my time there, I watched insurance become more expensive and less beneficial. I watched HR speak against the calls for a living wage. And, of course, there was the resistance to union efforts."

The health insurance point came up with everyone interviewed for this article. The day after the 2016 union ballot failed on a 43-to-50 vote, Sernatinger says, the Co-op announced that, due to Group Health Cooperative increasing its premiums, it would no longer cover 100% of full-time staff's health insurance costs, and that coverage wouldn't be offered to part-time employees at all.

Next steps, and hopes

Now that the vote is in, the real work begins. Staff will nominate and elect a bargaining committee and a contract support committee, the latter of which will keep employees informed with updates while assisting the main bargaining committee. After that, Andrews says, a survey will go out to all workers to ask them what they want to see in a contract, with a vote to follow on what final items will be included. Then they head to the table with management.

"People are very worried that asking for higher wages will eliminate positions or cause health insurance issues," Andrews notes. "We plan on [seeking] reasonable contracts. We want the success of the Co-op. We're not trying to cause it to go out of business; that helps zero people. There's this weird management vs. employees mentality, that somebody has to take a loss. No, we just have to reprioritize, and move slowly toward progress."

As for Sernatinger, he's been supporting the current drive from afar and is thrilled with the vote results. 

"It's incredible," he says. "This lifts a tremendous weight, like they exorcised a demon. We lost so that they could win. I'm overjoyed."

Corrections: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the previous employment of the Co-op’s HR director, and to clarify that 85 percent of Co-op employees qualified to vote in the union election, as opposed to 85 percent of all Co-op employees, voted in favor of unionization.

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