Workers at the Willy Street Co-op were set to vote on whether to form a union this month. But on Dec. 15, United Food & Commercial Workers abruptly canceled the election, accusing the co-op's management team of violating federal labor laws and the neutrality agreement negotiated between management and the union.
"We were hoping that we could work with management," says Willy Street West employee Andrew Sernatinger, one of the workers organizing the union drive. "We gave them every opportunity to work with us as a progressive employer, and unfortunately we feel like our trust was misplaced."
The UFCW has filed for a new election with the National Labor Relations Board. If approved, the election is expected to take place early next year and be overseen by federal officials. The union has also complained to the NLRB that the co-op committed 45 unfair labor violations. Among other things, the union alleges the co-op's management "surveilled and tracked workers engaged in pro-union activity," "threatened employees with a loss of both benefits for themselves and for the community if [workers] organized" and "[denigrated] the union."
Sernatinger says canceling the negotiated third-party election -- where the union and management agree to having a third party oversee the vote -- was a difficult decision because the union's organizing committee wanted to work cooperatively with management. Now the union is asking the NLRB to oversee the vote.
"We are very disappointed right now," Sernatinger says. But, he adds, canceling the vote is "the only way we feel like we're going to get a fair election."
In response to the union's accusations, Brendon Smith, the co-op's communications director, writes in an email: "We are still reviewing and investigating the allegations, many of which are very vague."
But Smith defends the actions of the co-op's management, including general manager Anya Firszt. "We believe our GM has made every effort to instill an environment of neutrality," he says.
Holly Fearing, president of the Willy Street Co-op board of directors, says they are taking the unfair labor practices complaints seriously.
"It's our obligation to ensure the co-op acts in compliance with our policies and neutrality statement that mandates staff be treated with fairness, free from harassment and coercion," says Fearing. "Ultimately, we respect staff's right to pursue unionization and will support any decision staff make."
East vs. West
The initial effort to unionize originated at the store's second location, which opened in Middleton in 2010. Frustrated with scheduling, pay and disciplinary issues, workers at Willy West reached out to UFCW Local 1473 over the summer for guidance on the logistics of forming a union. Willy West employee Leah Clark says interest in unionizing is strong at the west-side store.
"This is solidarity country here on the west side," says Clark. "From the beginning response has been positive."
However, support for a union at the co-op's namesake east-side store, located in the progressive Williamson-Marquette neighborhood, is split. Addie Greenwood, a Willy East employee and a supporter of the union effort, says it's been tense at work. Greenwood says there was "a lot of shaming and people all over Facebook lambasting their coworkers for being pro-union."
Fellow Willy East employee Wayde Lawler, who has been public in his opposition to unionization, says many workers feel they don't need union representation because the co-op is already a progressive employer.
"We have participatory management in place," says Lawler, adding that a union would be redundant. "We have an incredibly generous benefit and wage package that is definitely in the upper echelon of the retail grocery industry."
Store members and others got involved in the drama. Labor supporters rallied at both co-op stores in support of the workers' right to organize on Dec. 13.
"We expect better from Willy Street," says longtime co-op member-owner Barbara Smith in a release put out by the UFCW. "If we wanted an anti-union grocery store, we'd spend our grocery dollars at Walmart."
After enough employees indicated initial support for the union, the UFCW and co-op management negotiated the terms for an election to be held on Dec. 16 and 17. The agreed-upon bargaining units included one for the roughly 300 employees at both retail stores and a separate unit for the two dozen employees who work at the co-op's off-site kitchen. Any co-op employee with hiring or firing power or classified as administrative staff was not eligible to vote and would not be represented by the UFCW if workers voted in favor of forming a union.
The workers' organizing committee says it originally pushed for employees at Willy East and Willy West to decide separately on whether to form a union but ultimately agreed for all retail workers to vote in the same election. Brendon Smith says co-op management wanted to continue the "tradition that all workers have the same rights and voice regarding their workplace" and supported just one bargaining unit for all employees at both Willy East and Willy West.
"We agreed with the UFCW 1473 that [retail workers] were different enough from the kitchen that two separate bargaining units was acceptable, but that the retails shared a vast commonality of interest," Smith says. The union also agreed that since employees sometimes move between stores, they should be in the same unit.
During negotiations, both sides agreed to a strict neutrality agreement that forbids either party from conducting itself or communicating in a "negative, derogatory or demeaning nature."
Since the December union vote was scrapped, both the union and management have alleged the other violated the neutrality agreement.
"We have a number of examples cited from staff, management, the public and the UFCW Local 1473 themselves that suggest the UFCW Local 1473 and union organizers did not abide by the code of conduct," Brendon Smith says.
The NLRB is now investigating the fallout between management and union organizers. The co-op can either settle individual complaints filed with the federal labor agency or let an administrative judge make a ruling.
In an open letter after the election was canceled, Firszt wrote that it's a new chapter at the Willy Street Co-op.
"The desire for some staff to unionize has helped to highlight areas in the co-op that need improvement," Firszt writes. "We have sought to unify our workers with one voice, to represent their desire to vote and to be respectful of all worker opinions and questions during the process."