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OPINION: Co-op Reaches Labor Pact Ponders Workplace Gains

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by  Kari Bradley, general manager Hunger Mountain Cooperative

I am proud to work for Hunger Mountain Cooperative, a retail business with a powerful mission. For our nearly 43 years, a key element of that mission has been providing meaningful employment: good jobs that help people in our community meet their financial and professional development goals. The co-op recently reached agreement with our employees union on a new two-year labor contract helping us to continue to provide the Vermont livable wage, excellent benefits and workplace rules that work for everyone. It is gratifying to have a new contract, but the responsibility of being a great place to work for our 170-plus employees certainly doesn’t end there.

Each year since 2010, The co-op has conducted a survey to gauge employee perceptions and satisfaction and identify areas of focus for our business planning. We use a combination of quantitative and open-ended comment questions and all rating questions were “indicate the degree I agree with the statement”-type with one being “strongly disagree” and five being “strongly agree.” This year’s results were quite similar to the 2014 survey. The highest scores again came in the areas of the employee understanding of the co-op’s mission and the co-op having a positive role in the community. We saw nice improvements in perceptions of our training program and the encouragement of high work standards. Consistent with past surveys, employees gave relatively high marks for fair compensation (4.0 average from staff/4.6 from managers) and flexibility to balance work with personal lives (4.0/4.5).

Of the 56 total questions, six received a “failing grade” (defined as an average of 3.25 or less, with the exception of 3.75 for questions dealing with harassment or discrimination). From these low scores, it remains clear that internal communication and conflict resolution remain primary cultural challenges for co-op employees. For example, “As a group, the co-op’s staff uses open and honest communication to talk directly with one another” received the lowest average rating with 2.9 for staff and 3.2 from managers. Many of the comments provided highlight the critical need to improve communication and conflict resolution between our employees union and our management team.

The implications for our business plan were fairly clear. To improve employee satisfaction, we need to address communication and conflict resolution. Our “Go Direct” program, which calls for us to address issues openly, respectfully and promptly, is designed to help, but we will need more time and practice. From continued training in workplace communication and conflict resolution to casual conversations during the work day, we will continue to focus on solving workplace problems collaboratively and working toward providing great service to our coworkers as well as our members and customers.

Despite our efforts to offer more trainings and professional development, there appear to be too few perceived opportunities for growth amongst staff. This is likely related to our low rate of turnover (17 percent last year), especially in positions at the higher pay grades and in management and professional/skilled positions. If positions are not coming available due to turnover or growth of the co-op, a key challenge is to offer meaningful professional development in other ways. 

Our co-op exists to meet the needs of our many stakeholders: owners, vendors and employees included. We have much to offer employees: dynamic work for fair compensation and a meaningful mission serving a great community. As we begin a new fiscal year, it is my hope and expectation that the Co-op will continue to make improvements as a workplace and be an employer that owners and employees alike can be proud of. 

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