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Coop's Labor Pains: Acrimony and Bitterness


If there is one subject that has traditionally ranked Coop officials, it is the controversial effort by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1445 to bring a union into the cooperative. That effort has apparently been side-tracked for the time being. But although the UFCW has announced that it is withdrawing its petition for a scheduled union election, the whole affair has left a legacy of bitterness and animosity between store management and union organizers.

For two years the issue has raised intense passions on both sides. Charges of intimidation, coercion, invasion of privacy, perjury, and other transmissions have been flung back and forth. Furious lobbying has gone on. An administrative law judge even threw out the results of an entire union election.

Yet for all the brouhaha--and despite the fact that the affair seems settled with the scheduled election apparently off--the whole business could still linger on into the future. Here's why:

For nearly ten years, there have been sporadic rumblings about unionizing at the Coop. But not until two summers ago did things really start to heat up. In August 1980, UFCW officials, with several Coop employees, quietly began a serious campaign to bring a union into the store, in order to represent the more than 500 non-managerial workers. The union cited poor wages and an unfair promotions policy as the primary grievances.

The effort was largely behind the scenes, until January 19, 1980, when the UFCW organizers announced that a majority of employees at all six Coop branches had signed authorization cards requesting union representation. Rather than go through months of litigation before the National Labor Relations Board over the petition, Coop management and union officials agreed to hold an election to determine whether the UFCW had the right to represent Coop workers. The two sides haggled over details, and a date was set: March 26.

All this is not to say that the store management was happy about the union. It wasn't, and it was prepared to fight it. Coop employees received a barrage of anti-union literature, and management vigorously--vociferously, say union organizers now--argued against the union in sessions with employees.

Their efforts seemed to pay off, because on the appointed date, Coop employees rejected the proposed union by a lopsided 273-156 margin.

But that wasn't the end of the story.

For after a lengthy litigation period, administrative law judge Lowell Goerlich upheld a UFCW claim that the Coop management had engaged in a variety of unfair labor practices during the union campaign. In general, the judge found that several members of the Coop management had illegally coerced employees against the union. His opinion--throw out the old results and bring on a new election. As one union organizer puts it, "As far as the government is concerned, there never was an election."

While not conceding the union's charges, the Coop decided that it wasn't worth the time, money, or effort to appeal the decision.

A new election was then scheduled, and all seemed set for a replay of March 26, 1981. That is, until the union recently decided to withdraw its petition for the employee vote (at press time, an NLRB spokesman said he could not confirm that the election was officially off until the petition withdrawal was reviewed).

And so the Coop management for now has seemingly beaten back an attempt to get organized labor into the Coop. But union officials vow to continue the flight in behind-the-scenes ways, and they hope to one day get an election they can win.

Stay tuned.

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