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Willy Street Co-op’s new union seeks support in uphill battle

Tensions between workers and management continue to flare in the absence of a contract.

On Monday, November 25, just before Thanksgiving and on one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the year, workers at the Willy Street Co-op’s three locations put on union buttons and wore red. It was a silent protest by members of the newly formed UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) local in light of ongoing frustration at the stores. Outside of the Co-op’s flagship location on Williamson Street, members of the Willy Street Co-op Member-Owner Solidarity Committee handed out flyers that listed the workers’ biggest concerns: a harsh attendance policy, the lack of living wages for workers, and chronic understaffing. 

David Emerson, who works in the grocery department at Willy Street West in Middleton and was elected to the union’s bargaining committee, described the action as a public reminder of the workers’ “popular dissatisfaction,” which was also expressed in September, when 86 percent of eligible Willy Street Co-op workers voted to form a union. As some of them predicted then, their work was only just beginning.

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Emerson reports that since the election, union members have held several membership meetings at which they discussed their priorities for a contract, put together a team of interim stewards and an interim grievance process to follow until they ratify a contract, and elected a bargaining committee. They also confirmed their local number, which has special meaning. “We chose one to reflect that vote that we were so proud of,” Emerson says. “11 is the prefix for the region. 86 is the percent that we won by, so we’re now UE 1186.”

Over the past three months, union members have also come to understand that the hardest part of the organizing effort still lay ahead.

“Instead of campaigning for a union, it’s shifted to keeping people updated on bargaining and ongoing events, as well as now having interim stewards whose responsibility is to file grievances as a union steward does,” Emerson explains. “So that has been a pretty interesting and sometimes intense crash course for people who have never done such things and have had to learn what the process is.”

The stewards have had their work cut out for them. A photo of a list of grievances that Willy Street Co-op workers recently filed was posted to Facebook in advance of the protest. Emerson explains that they’re all related to the Co-op’s new “no fault” attendance policy, which was one of the instigating factors in the campaign for a union and which continues to be deeply unpopular. Under the policy, workers receive points for arriving late or missing work. If you accrue a certain number of points, you can lose your job.


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When I asked General Manager Anya Firszt about the policy over email, Firszt wrote that there are exceptions: “There are some allowances for illness (a limited number of points are assessed in some circumstances) and for weather emergencies when I determine – with feedback from site directors – that safety is a concern.”

Still, a grievance was apparently filed on behalf of a worker who received a point after she called in to work when her house and car were broken into. In another case, a wrongful termination grievance was filed on behalf of a worker who lost her job after missing four days of work in a row while she was “lying in a hospital incapacitated.” The grievance was initially denied, but later in the process Co-op management was compelled to offer to rehire the worker.

Firszt wrote that while the photo circulating on Facebook doesn’t “provide the full account of the situation,” she can’t share details about specific individual incidents in the interest of protecting employee privacy. “That has always been our policy, even when providing information would offer better context or contradict an allegation,” Firszt says.

Emerson explains that workers feel these disciplinary measures are “at least in part retributive,” particularly when they break from past practices and expectations. In another example from the list that appeared on Facebook, a grievance was filed on behalf of any worker who received a point for showing up late on October 31, after a historic snowfall, though Co-op management has been more forgiving of weather-related tardiness prior to the union vote.

Recent changes to policy are another frustration for union members, who believe that Co-op management lost the right to make unilateral changes to policy after the union vote and that all changes should be taken up during contract negotiations with the union’s bargaining committee. In another break from past practice, management recently notified workers that anyone clocking out more than 10 minutes before the scheduled end of their shift would be given a point. Workers circulated petitions contesting this unilateral change and presented them to the Co-op’s General Manager, Anya Firszt. Since then, managers in some departments have reverted to allowing workers to clock out early when they finish their work.

Though UE 1186 has yet to arrive at a ratified contract, both sides appear to agree that they have made some progress in bargaining. And it’s worth reflecting on how powerful worker organizing at the Willy Street Co-op has already been, especially when compared to how things work in the average workplace. In 2018, only 10.5% of workers in the United States were members of a union, which means that most of us work non-union jobs. When our managers make a change for the worse to workplace policy, there’s little expectation that workers will have a say. In most cases, you either go along with the change or start applying to work somewhere else. Similarly, if you’re disciplined or fired, you face the boss alone and there’s rarely an opportunity to contest what’s happened to you. But workers at the Willy Street Co-op are now entitled to union representation. They can contest the way they’re being treated and, as mentioned above, in some cases stewards have successfully reversed discipline brought against workers.

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Emerson acknowledged a concern about the newly unionized workforce that’s been pervasive since employees first began to organize: that an overreaching union could hurt the Willy Street Co-op by demanding too much. Firszt hinted at the worry in a letter that she wrote to Co-op employees prior to the union vote, writing, “How will all of this impact our cooperative Owners?”

One Member-Owner commenting on an article about the successful election was more explicit, writing “Ultimately, the wisdom of unionizing will come down to the staff’s ability to see beyond their own stakes and avoid advocate for policies that don’t unintentionally harm the Co-op in the long run.” 

Emerson says he understands the worry but think it’s unfounded, pointing out that a handful of co-ops out East already have UE locals and that “none of them have closed.”

The co-ops he’s referring to are City Market, in Burlington, Vermont, Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vermont, and East End Co-op in Pittsburgh. Workers at both City Market and Hunger Mountain Co-op voted to join UE in 2003. Workers at East End Co-op in Pittsburgh unionized most recently in 2015. All three locals have won wage increases over the years, while also negotiating contracts that preserve their health insurance benefits. A brief look at the co-op websites confirms Emerson’s point: unions don’t appear to have been the death knell for any of the three grocery co-ops. City Market even expanded to a second location in 2017.

Emerson also explained that working conditions at the Willy Street Co-op set an example for working conditions elsewhere and can either grow or shrink the pool of Willy Street Co-op customers accordingly, pointing out that even for Co-op workers, a great employee discount doesn’t make up for wages that are stagnating in the context of a rising cost of living. 

“If you think you’re a working member of a flagship Madisonian institution and your wages here get depressed, that’s permission to depress wages elsewhere,” He says. “So if you’re worried about people not being able to shop at the co-op anymore, so am I. That’s why we unionized.”

This makes good sense, and is an important point not just for those concerned about the preservation of the co-op, but for anyone who cares about whether workers are treated fairly or is worried about the growing gap between what it costs to survive and what many people are paid. In some ways, the Willy Street Co-op is emblematic of the progressive values that so many people in Madison want to uphold. It’s a co-op, owned and operated, in a sense, by its members. It’s a store with a mission statement, principles, and an explanation of its governance on its website. This is not true of other community grocers. If, as Emerson says, it’s largely believed that the Willy Street Co-op is a community leader, how its workers are treated sends a very strong signal throughout the community about what a just workplace looks like. And to be blunt, if a place with a progressive reputation like the Willy Street Co-op penalizes workers for getting sick or turning up late because of snow, what happens to workers at businesses that don’t even purport to operate fairly?

The Board of Directors at the Willy Street Co-op also recognizes this dynamic. I reached out to board members to get their take on what’s been happening at the stores. Board President Jeannine Bindl explained that under the Co-op’s governance model, the board’s responsibilities do not extend to day-to-day operational decisions (such as administering the attendance policy or hearing individual grievances) or developing personnel policies, though they are invested in making sure policies are implemented fairly. They also know that what happens at the Co-op has community-wide implications.

Bindl wrote, “The Board of Directors does believe the Co-op has a special responsibility as an employer. The Board has written and monitors multiple policies that evaluate how staff are treated and compensated at the Co-op. The last time these policies were monitored, the General Manager was found to be meeting the criteria set in the policy.”

Of course, when 86 percent of employees vote to form a union and continue to demonstrate their “popular dissatisfaction” with workplace policies, this might be a sign that the Board of Directors’ monitoring has come up short. The landslide victory was a result of good organizing but it’s also an obvious sign of growing discontent that can’t be ignored. It’s true, as Firszt pointed out, that we don’t know every detail behind every grievance. But one fact we know for certain is that 249 workers signaled their discontent with a vote for a union, which arguably tells us more than a list of individual grievances anyway. The Board should prioritize hearing directly from UE 1186 members. 

In the meantime, Bindl also wrote, “The Board of Directors is available for question or comment at [email protected] (board members only) or [email protected] (board members and management.) Our goal through the process of collective bargaining is to be available for Owners and keep them informed of progress.” 

If Willy Street Co-op Member-Owners are concerned about the current attendance policy or any of the issues workers at the Willy Street Co-op are currently grappling with, this invitation from the board to ask questions or make comments is probably your cue. Additionally, the Willy Street Co-op Member-Owner Solidarity Committee is open to supportive Member-Owners and can be reached at [email protected].

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