At People's Food Co-Op, push for employee unionization sparks tensions

People's Food Co-op is located near North 4th Avenue and Catherine Street in Ann Arbor.

People's Food Co-op is located near North 4th Avenue and Catherine Street in Ann Arbor. Buy this photo
Carolyn Gearig/Daily

 

Sunday, December 11, 2016 - 5:05pm

Earlier this month, employees of the People's Food Co-Op — a member-owned Kerrytown grocery store — secured the right to organize, but the move was a relatively long time coming.

During the spring of 2016, grumblings of dissatisfaction began to spread among employees.

Staff had recently been cut, according to co-op employee Jason Williams, and the workload was being disproportionately spread onto those remaining with little additional compensation.

Amid these new challenges, the management purchased a $600 sign for the store’s cafe, which was more frustrating for Williams than the lack of compensation for additional work.

“You’re telling people who are making $10.50 an hour … to take on another extra hour of work that you have to do in the same amount of time, you’ve got to have some sort of compensation for that,” Williams said. “And we’re not getting compensated for that, but we’re spending what is greater than my two-week salary on a benign sign.”

More importantly, perceptions have grown among employees that their management was failing to address their concerns, according to several interviews. A number of these workers, led by co-op worker Phillip Bianco, quietly began pursuing formal unionization through the National Labor Relations Board.

In collaboration with the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the small band of workers laid the groundwork for an official application for an NLRB election: If the majority of PFC employees were to vote in favor, they would be legally recognized as a bargaining unit.

After months of planning, around eight of the employees appeared at the Co-op’s Nov. 16 board meeting to air their grievances and announce their NLRB election filing. Immediately afterward, the co-op board held an emergency extended session behind closed doors.

“There was definitely some shock at the board meeting,” said Ashley Secord, one of the employees at the meeting who spoke in favor of unionization.

Two days later, the co-op contracted David Parmenter and Associates, a human resources consultancy that specializes in de-certifying unions. In a written statement two weeks later, co-op general manager Lesley Perkins said Parmenter and Associates had approached the co-op to offer legal counsel through the election, unsolicited by management.

However, workers and other local labor advocates claimed Parmenter and Associates had a reputation as a “union-buster,” and Parmenter’s hiring sparked fears that management was actively seeking to undermine their unionization efforts.

Williams suggested the co-op management acted as though the pro-union employees were in the minority, and the hiring of Parmenter would intimidate dissenters to avert unionization.

“I think the first couple weeks they thought that we were the minority, and them bringing in the union buster was going to scare enough people to push it out,” Williams said.

Co-op board President Ann Sprunger declined to comment on unionization efforts, but said the board would be neutral throughout the unionization process. General Manager Lesley Perkins did not respond to a request for comment, and inquiries to management’s general email address were left unanswered.

At this point, Bianco took his fight public, placing a petition on Change.org protesting management’s hire and calling for support for the workers’ unionization efforts.

“(Management has) steered the Co-op onto a path that it cannot succeed on,” Bianco wrote in a petition protesting Parmenter and Associates’ hire. “Upper management hopes to make the Co-op more profitable by cutting labor and transforming this long-standing community institution into a mini-Whole Foods.”

In a Nov. 26 statement, the co-op workers offered a compromise. Acknowledging management had a right to seek outside counsel through the unionization process, Bianco suggested the co-op replace Parmenter and Associates with labor lawyer and City Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4), who was viewed as more neutral. Management did not take them up on the offer.

“It’s always surprising that in a community like Ann Arbor, that prides itself as being so progressive, that elected boards would go to these ends to stymie their unionized workforce,” Eaton said, noting his offer of pro-bono counsel was declined. “They had other things in mind.”  

Acknowledging the pushback their hiring of Parmenter and Associates caused, the co-op board decided to terminate the law firm’s services on Nov. 28. It remains unclear if the firm performed any tangible work for co-op management in the time it was contracted.

That same day, Perkins tendered her resignation as general manager effective Dec. 13, citing “being lied about and publicly vilified by staff” and an increasingly toxic work environment.

Williams said he regrets Perkins’ departure, saying the unionization effort was not intended as a personal affront to her but rather an attempt to drive greater dialogue between management and workers.

“It was really sort of crushing for me, because that isn’t what we wanted,” Williams said. “I know Leslie was under a lot of stress … but we didn’t want that, we just wanted to have a dialogue, and we wanted to work with you to do that. I think she took it very personally, and I wish that hadn’t happened … I know she felt stabbed in the back.”

Secord said it was regrettable that frictions emerged between the co-op’s management and employees, but added management has grown increasingly cooperative.

“We wanted to work with them … we weren’t interested in creating all this friction and animosity,” Secord said. “I definitely understand a lot of this frustration that’s happening … just the inevitable tension that arrives when you have two different groups of people with two different ideas.”

Last Friday, a secret-ballot vote was held among the co-op employees, with observers from the NLRB present. Twenty-four workers voted in favor of unionizing, with seven voting against.

Sunday, Williams said he’s hopeful the newly-recognized union will not only better represent employees’ voices to co-op management, but also improve the store’s impact on the community. However, he also noted a sense of concern from the co-op board for the future of the establishment.

“I think they started to get the vibe this (past) week that the union was going to happen,” Williams said. “I think if anything, they’re very apprehensive or nervous about what’s going to happen now.”