Willy Street Co-op West employees will be voting on whether to unionize with UFCW Local 1473.
A vote on unionizing the Willy Street Co-op will proceed in the next month, but only for workers at the Co-op's west-side store in Middleton and not at the co-op's flagship store on Madison's progressive east side.
The union petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to sanction and oversee another election but only for workers Willy Street West, where the union drive originated and has robust support.
Management at the co-op fought against the UFCW's petition arguing there was an "overwhelming community of interest" shared by employees at the two retail sites and that a vote to unionize shouldn’t be limited to just one store.
Willy Street Co-op's communication's director Brendon Smith told Isthmus in December that, "our position has been to keep all staff together in one bargaining unit to continue our tradition that all workers have the same rights and voice regarding their workplace."
But last Wednesday, NLRB Regional Director Marlin Osthus sided with the union, setting the stage for a federally administered election solely for Willy Street West workers in the next few weeks. The election date has yet to be finalized.
Co-op employee and union organizer Rick Kempf says there are still workers in support of unionizing at Willy Street East, but they are in the minority.
"A lot of people [at Willy Street East] are extremely hostile towards the union and union supporters," Kempf says. "It's much harder to have discussions there, especially now."
Fellow Willy Street West employee Andrew Sernatinger is saddened that the vote will be limited to only one store but says the divide between east and west is no coincidence.
Sernatinger says when organizing at Willy Street West began this summer, management was in the dark, ensuring neutrality and allowing workers to freely make up their minds on whether they wanted union representation.
"The way [employees] at the east side store heard was through management," Sernatinger says. "It's pretty clear the effect that had."
The United Food & Commercial Workers has also filed dozens of complaints with the NLRB over alleged violations of federal labor law committed by co-op managers during the union drive. The investigation into those complaints is expected to take months but will not delay the vote at Willy Street West. Both sides say the other broke the neutrality agreement signed by the UFCW and co-op General Manager Anya Firszt Dec. 5.
Wayde Lawler, who works at Willy Street East and planned on voting against unionizing, is disappointed but not surprised by the NLRB's decision. Regardless of the outcome of the election at Willy Street West, Lawler is troubled by the financial costs associated with the union drive as well the intangible blows dealt to co-op's culture and internal systems.
"Those are costs that are going to be borne across the entire organization," explains Lawler. "Meanwhile, whatever benefits might result from a successful union drive at [Willy Street] West, will obviously be shared by only a small proportion of the total staff."
Lawler also disagrees with organizers on the role co-op management played in framing the debate on whether to unionize and blames the UFCW for trying to silence opposition.
"Managers have really strived to open the conversation and provide a voice and forum for as many staff as possible," Lawler says. "The UFCW has taken the opposite tact and tried to limit the voices heard to the ones that are most sympathetic to their cause."
In a written response, Willy Street Co-op management says, "It remains our goal to enable staff to make an informed decision and discuss with each other whether or not they want union representation, which is a decision that we believe is their right to discuss and make."