Co-op members debate firings at meeting

by Jessica Avitabile | 7/24/14 8:56pm

More than 300 members of the Co-op food store attended a meeting on the firing of two long-time employees this Wednesday, held at Hanover High. Members of the Lebanon store debated the decision for approximately two hours.

A reporter from The Dartmouth was not allowed entry to the meeting. The Board of Directors decided to allow entry to only one reporter, from a non-student publication, Co-op director of merchandising Bruce Follett said.

Follet declined to comment on the meeting.

Neither the Board of Directors nor the Co-op management spoke at the meeting. Members received two minutes each to speak while the Board listened.

Some members voiced dissatisfaction with the manner in which the employees, wine section manager Daniel King and cheese counter clerk John Boutin, were fired without notice from the Lebanon store in June, the Valley News reported. Both King and Boutin, who were fired on June 13, had worked at the Co-op for more than 10 years.

“It just keeps going back and forth and back and forth,” Diane MacDonald, a former member of the Co-op Board of Directors, said. “Someone will give support for the Co-op, then someone will say how very wrong it was to publicly humiliate these two long time employees that many people loved, fire them for no reason, not even tell them the reason and publicly escort them out.”

Most of the those interviewed after leaving the meeting said that the majority of members in attendance supported King and Boutin.

“One third were enthusiastic, white-washed supporters of the management, and the rest of us are furious or upset,” Perry Curtis, a Co-op member of seven years, said. “Without apparent cause, there was no transparency about the firings.”

Of 12 attendees interviewed by The Dartmouth, only one offered support for Co-op management.

Hanover store manager Steve Miller declined to comment.

“I was hoping to hear from the Board to know if I had the facts [about the firing] straight,” White River Junction resident Allen Johnson, a 10 year Co-op member, said. “Are they denying it? Do they have some reason for the firing that they can share? I can’t imagine one.”

Johnson said he left the meeting when he realized that the Board of Directors would not be speaking.

Visiting English professor William Craig said the controversy did not center on whether the employees were worthy of the firing but the way in which they were fired. He said the decision to fire two employees on the same day seemed primed to “send a message” to other employees concerned about the Co-op’s management.

Members also expressed concern over the Co-op’s direction outside of the firing. Craig said the controversy touched on existing feelings among Co-op members, many of whom are unhappy that the Co-op has taken a more corporate approach over the last few years. Others interviewed lamented the loss of community at the Co-op.

“A lot of people are standing up and saying, ‘What is a Co-op?’ and whether it’s not big money or it’s corporate, and the answer is it can be both,” MacDonald said.

Johnson said he was concerned about the standpoint of the Co-op’s management.

“It’s an absurd attitude — ‘We’re going to do the legal minimum possible to serve our customers.’ That’s not right, and it’s the same thing with the employees,” he said. “To say they’re not legally required to tell them, then to not tell them, is bad, bad management.”

To Thetford resident Nicky Carrao, members should hold power in Co-op’s structure.

“I liked the idea that, instead of taking your shares and going and shopping somewhere else, we’re the members and we own the store so we should dig in our heals and correct if there’s been a wrongdoing and learn from this mistake and become stronger,” Carrao said.

A group “Concerned About the Coop” presented a petition with more than 500 signatures to the Board asking that King and Boutin be reinstated.

Liora Alschuler, a leader of the group, wrote in an email that the meeting left her with more questions than answers.

“As it stands, the Board feels they can absolve themselves of responsibility by ex fact changing a policy,” she said in an email.

Amelia Rosch contributed reporting.