For the third time since 1993, workers at the 50-employee East End Food Co-op are mounting a drive to join the Industrial Workers of the World union. This time around, they've received a less-negative reaction from management ... only to see their efforts stymied in a novel way.
"Management has been much more favorable to the idea of a union than management in the past had been," Co-op staffer Stacey Clampitt told City Paper while the drive was building. But on June 28, a Co-op management employee resigned to become a wage-earning worker ... and began circulating fliers for a different union ... one that does not seem to exist.
Located in Point Breeze, the 30-year-old Co-op is owned by dues-paying members, who count on it for natural foods and its vegetarian café. But in the past, the organization's board has resisted union organizing, especially in the face of competition from the Whole Foods outlet in East Liberty.
In a statement on June 22, Clampitt and another member of the East End Food Co-op Workers Committee, Evan W. Wolfson, said the current union drive was intended "to improve working conditions, pay and benefits, and to address long-standing issues of low staff morale and high turnover."
On June 27, Workers Committee members met with the Co-op board to determine whether the Co-op would voluntarily recognize the new union if a majority of staffers signed registration cards. The Co-op could also opt for a lengthier ratification process involving the National Labor Relations Board, but instead it put the decision in the hands of Co-op General Manager Rob Baran. Baran says he's wary of going through a drawn-out NLRB-supervised process too, and would like to resolve the issue by late July. He and the Workers Committee have already discussed possible approaches to conducting an election.
But Baran acknowledges that a management employee "resigned from the management team a day after the board meeting" ... and then began circulating fliers for another union. He did not identify the employee, but on June 28 Co-op workers began receiving fliers in their employee mailboxes, urging them to accept the United Co-operative Workers union instead of the IWW.
The flier ... a one-page document that mostly speaks against previous unionizing efforts at the Co-op ... lists the e-mail address of Supplement Buyer Dan Denlinger as a contact. Denlinger could not be reached for comment by press time.
"The flier was obviously homemade," says Clampitt, who is an occasional freelance photographer for City Paper. "I have never heard of that [UCW]."
A Google search for the union turns up empty.
"I've never before heard of the United Co-operative Workers" either, says Kevin Farcus, a national IWW organizer. "My guess is, it's made up." The flier, Farcus points out, "doesn't advertise any affiliation with a larger [union] body."
The flier also contains an anonymous employee complaint about monthly $18 IWW dues ... they are actually $6, says Clampitt ... while promoting United Co-operative Workers membership for a single penny each month.
"From our perspective, this is absolutely a union-busting technique," Farcus says. "I've seen it before, where management sends in a sympathetic employee with a wink and a nod to start another union. It's an end-run around the National Labor Relations Act, and a lot of people are pretty wise to it. You have to consider the timeline of this. It just appeared overnight, and that's kind of suspicious."
Baran says he understands the suspicion, but says management had absolutely nothing to do with the fliers. He says the current management team, which is completely different than the team that fought off the 2003 union drive, has no intention of engaging in union-busting.
The second union drive, he says, "has unfortunately caused a messy situation and has clouded the water a bit." But he maintains, "We have to follow the law and treat both union drives the same.
"This is completely the staff's decision, it's their choice and not for us to have a say in."
The Workers Committee will be meeting again, Farcus says, and all sides will sit down soon to discuss the way forward. Clampitt says Baran has assured her that management was not involved in the second union's sudden appearance.
Still, she says, "Regardless of who is behind this, it's going to seriously delay the process. I'm not as optimistic as I was before."