Co-op members talk policies, plans

by Sara McGahan | 10/2/14 8:13pm

Over the past three months, members of a group called “Concerned About the Co-op” have discussed potential changes to Co-op Food Store employment policies, a cross-store boycott and the Co-op’s April Board of Directors elections. The debate was catalyzed by the June 13 firing of Daniel King and John Boutin, two longtime Lebanon Co-op employees who were dismissed without explanation, though some of the Co-op’s members say they had previous concerns.

At their most recent meeting, held Tuesday night in the Howe Library, concerned Co-op members spoke for more than an hour about the Co-op’s financial report, potential recommendations for the Board of Directors and the efficacy of implementing more direct actions against the cooperative. The group has met about once a week since the summer, “Concerned About the Co-op” leader Nora Jacobson said.

Thirteen Upper Valley residents — including many who had never been to a “Concerned About the Co-op” meeting — attended Tuesday’s meeting, introducing themselves by saying their name, town and “I’m concerned.” One attendee was a store employee who said he was happy working at the Co-op.

The group’s Facebook page has 278 “likes,” and its members and sympathizers were within the 300-person crowd at a July Co-op Board meeting held to discuss the firings.

Most concerned Co-op members have privately boycotted shopping at Co-op food stores since the summer, “Concerned About the Co-op” leader and 22-year Co-op member Liora Alschuler said. The group has considered more direct actions, such as a public boycott or demonstration, but such activities have not yet been organized.

A Co-op policy gives bonuses if a Co-op store meets its target number of gross sales, so boycotting the Co-op stores would have the adverse effect of penalizing employees, Alschuler said. This is one of the main reasons why concerned members have not announced a public boycott.

This policy falls in line with the Co-op’s “open-book management” style, Co-op Board of Directors president Margaret Drye said.

“The over arching idea is that all the employees are involved in understanding how the business goes as a whole, as opposed to just their department,” Drye said.

Tuesday’s meeting showed a clear consensus that the group will focus on the Board of Directors’ April elections rather than an organized boycott, Alschuler said. In the election, which will have four open seats, “Concerned About the Co-op” group members will advocate for candidates who share their positions.

“Concerned About the Co-op” has four subcommittees: policy, communications, employee support and direct action. The policy committee makes recommendations for potential changes to the Co-op and sends them to its directors.

One of the group’s main goals is to change the Co-op’s “at will” employment policy.

Under New Hampshire law, any employee without a contract can be fired without being given any reason or notice. “Concerned About the Co-op” recommends that the Co-op implement a “just cause” policy, which would require a reason for employers to fire employees.

Most Co-ops in the New Hampshire and Vermont region work with an “at will” firing policy, Drye said, noting that this allows both employers and employees flexibility without a set contract. There are benefits and detriments to both policies, Drye said.

The group is formulating a recommendation to implement a system under which employees are insured a hearing for their grievances by an outside panel of individuals.

Current company policy states that store supervisors hear employee grievances. If the grievance is not resolved, higher levels of management get involved.

Many employees do not report their grievances because they believe they will receive repercussions from management, “Concerned About the Co-op” leader Victoria Fullerton said. The group’s employee support sub-committee aims to serve as a confidential mediator between employees and the Board of Directors, bypassing management.

The Co-op’s Board of Directors and management hired a third-party survey team two years ago to do a voluntary, extensive survey of the entire staff.

Ninety-four percent of the staff participated, Drye said. The Co-op performed at or higher than the benchmark set for all questions, she said.

Last year, the Co-op sent a more focused survey to a smaller number of employees, Drye said. To avoid “survey fatigue,” however, the Co-op did not survey their staff this year, but they will sent out another extensive survey in 2015, she said.

At its August Board of Directors meeting, open to the public, the directors announced the formation of a sub-committee to address employment practices. This “pleasantly surprised” many attendees, Co-op spokesperson Allan Reetz said.

“The Board has looked at these issues because it’s something they felt they needed to,” he said.

The September meeting addressed specific changes to store guidelines, which will be further discussed at the October meeting.

Some Co-op members disliked the company’s direction before King and Boutin were fired, Fullerton said. Corporatization and management practice were among members’ apprehensions.

The forebearer of the Co-op food stores was formed in 1936 by 17 local residents, including Dartmouth professors. Today, the Co-op has spread into Vermont and New Hampshire, comprising three stores, one market and a service center.

The company has around 5,000 shoppers per day and makes about $74 million in sales per year, Reetz said. He noted that its membership is growing at an unprecedented place, and is on track to expand by 1,500 this year.

This makes it the second largest food Co-op in the nation, as well as one of the oldest, according to the company’s website.

The company emphasizes that it is “member-owned,” as it has more than 30,000 members, of which 21,000 are active shoppers, Drye said.

The Hanover store will break ground for renovations next week, which will include expanding the store and making it more energy efficient, town manager Julia Griffin said. The renovation is expected to cost $5.3 million.

“Concerned About the Co-op” members have raised some questions about how the renovations aligns with the overall values and goals of the Co-op, Alschuler said.

As the Co-op has grown into a large company, members have wondered if its size equates to success.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Alschuler questioned, “is it possible for the Co-op to be too large?”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended (Oct. 3, 2014):

The 300-person crowd at the July meeting was not entirely filled with supporters, as the initial article implied, Co-op Board of Directors president Margaret Drye said. She estimates that supporters were about 60 percent of attendees.

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