Union workers and management at Hunger Mountain Co-op have reached a tentative agreement in their lengthy contract dispute. General Manager Kari Bradley confirmed the deal Friday but would not discuss details pending a ratification vote by the Co-op Council and employees represented by UE Local 255, a process that could take two weeks.
The labor dispute earlier caught the attention of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who commented via Twitter:
@HungerMtnCoop workers deserve a fair contract with healthcare, job security, and fair pay. I am proud to stand with @ueunion and the workers who are fighting for what they deserve.
So emanated this tweet on November 18, adding the senator and presidential candidate’s two cents into the contract dispute between Hunger Mountain Co-op and UE Local 255—now in its seventh month of negotiations.
The main issues in the negotiations were an increase in wages and new limitations to keep managers from performing operational tasks, such as stocking shelves, preparing food, or running cash registers. But in the bigger picture remains the conflict between the cooperative’s community mission and the cold realities of running a business.
Bernie’s tweet did not help the situation, nor was it wholly accurate, according to Bradley. “We were disappointed that he didn’t reach out to the Co-op, also his constituents, and at least get our side of the story,” he explained. The allusion to health care seemed particularly laughable considering the benefits the Co-op provides employees.
According to Bradley, full-time employees—defined as those working at least 32 hours per week—receive fully paid medical, dental, and vision insurance, 4–7 weeks of paid time off per year, paid holidays, a profit-sharing program, a 401(k) retirement plan with a match from the Co-op, and a 12 percent discount for in-store purchases.
In addition, while the minimum wage at Hunger Mountain is $13.05, 75 percent of non-manager employees make more than that, with the average and median wage at $16.80 and $16.45, respectively. The highest wage for a bargaining unit employee is nearly $24.
Autumn Martinez, president of UE Local 255, representing the non-managers at the Co-op, generally agreed with the quality of the package. “In general, we believe Hunger Mountain has a really good package,” she explained. “We enjoy working here.” Emma Paradis, vice president of the union concurred. “Compared to a supermarket worker at Shaw’s and Price Chopper, yeah, we do have a much better package than they do.”
That said, Paradis—who has worked at the Co-op for 12 years—and Martinez—17 years—see a whittling away of benefits over the years, including pay increases. “The amounts of increases that we’ve seen to our wage scale have steadily declined year after year,” noted Martinez.
This is not a fact Bradley disputes, but he tied it to declining trends in the number of transactions, sales growth, and net income over the past 10 years. “As our net income has declined, we have less available to invest in compensation or give back to members in patronage refunds.”
In the current round of negotiations, the Co-op offered to maintain benefits and increase the wages on average for union employees between 2.8 percent and 3.6 percent annually, ensuring by the third year that all employees earn at least $15 per hour by the end of their first year.
Those numbers are deceptive, according to Martinez and Paradis, as they include the annual anniversary wage increase of 25–35 cents. The union is more focused on base pay for the individual tiers of the pay scale. “Basically, to every person at every level of that wage scale,” Paradis explained, “we would add like 30 cents or whatever is negotiated.” This translates to an average annual wage increases of 3.9 percent to 4 percent.
For Bradley, the Co-op’s offer is already a stretch for the business. “These proposed increases well exceed current inflation rates and our current sales growth, as well as the increases offered to managers,” he explained, adding the union rate “would not be prudent given current rates of sales growth.”
Union rep Martinez disagreed with the claim that the Co-op can’t afford the requested raise. “I do dispute that claim. All they have said to us across the table is, ‘We want to keep your raises in line with our profit percentage or sales growth percentage.’ They have never once said, ‘We can’t afford this’ because they know not to say that to us.”
Paradis added, “We’ve also seen them paying down their debt in an accelerated rate. We’ve seen them giving out substantial loans to other co-ops. The fact of the matter is that they’re still continuing to see sales growth. It’s not like they’re getting negative sales, either. If they can’t afford it, they can show us the books.”
The union also disputed the $13.34 per hour defined as a livable wage by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, which affects the Co-op’s wage scale. Everyone who has worked at least six months earns at least the livable wage. “That’s for an individual who shares housing but is single,” Paradis explained. “That’s not if you’re a single parent with two kids; that’s not if you’re a single person living alone.” The report backs this up, saying, “The livable wage is different from the wage for a single person because it accounts for the economies achieved by multiple-person households.”
Bradley did not debate the challenge of living on that wage in Vermont but added, “You have to pick a line…and it’s as reasonable a point as any. Is it easy to live on that amount? I’m sure it’s not, and we want to provide at least that and better—and of course, we do.” He pointed to the benefits that come with the job as part of the package. “But the pie is only so large,” he said.
The second major stumbling block is more complicated. Traditionally, managers at Hunger Mountain play a role on the service floor, performing operational tasks such as stocking shelves, preparing food, or running cash registers. According to Bradley, the practice provides many benefits to communication and teamwork when managers work alongside their teams.
However, the union sees this practice very differently, arguing that it “erodes our bargaining unit by concealing the obvious need for more labor hours,” according to Martinez. That leads to, she claimed, “increased stress, low morale, and injuries, as well as adding to the already heavy workload of department managers.” Expecting managers to do this work as unpaid overtime, she added, “is an exploitative practice that I don’t think lines up with the Co-op’s values.”
Plus, she noted, “We have a lot of substitute employees here who might want those extra hours. And yet you have your manager down there doing it. That’s our work; that’s the organized labor of UE Local 255.”
Bradley admitted such task control is not unheard of in the union environment and understands it’s a way to build the union and its power. But, he contended, “It’s much more common in the manufacturing environment and pretty unusual in retail.”
Plus, he added, ‘”It’s very dynamic what managers do. One moment you could be supervising, another moment, a customer needs something. You’re not going to stop and ignore them and try to get a union employee to come over. From our point of view, the best arrangement is to provide managers the flexibility to fill in as needed or as they see fit. Does that mean there’s a certain amount of time that we’re not hiring additional union staff? Yes, but I think it’s fairly minimal and nothing different than has been happening for the past 20-plus years.”
The compromise point may be that certain managers will only do this in cases of emergency or short notice, when part-time employees and substitutes are not available or practical. That idea appealed to Martinez and Paradis, but they emphasized, “If they have a special event coming up where they can plan to have extra hands on deck, then those hours should be going to someone within our bargaining unit.”
To UE Local 255, the effort is worth it. “If it were up to Hunger Mountain Co-op,” Martinez believes, “we’d be paying a premium for our health care. We’ve had to fight for that every year, year after year.” Plus, Paradis added, “I think the Co-op has a role in the community to support and be a strong employer with the principles it’s founded on.”
If there’s any real downside to the negotiations, Bradley pointed to the acrimony that sometimes flares and obscures what each side shares. “It’s more adversarial than I would like. It sets up as us versus them, more than we would prefer. I mean, this is a cooperative environment,” he explained. “In fact, I think that the Co-op and the union are aligned on most issues. We have shared interests most of the time. But somehow, in some cases, it’s the differences that get emphasized.”
This article was updated on December 9.