Friendly is as friendly does

by Steve, February 15th, 2012

labor

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Let’s all go shopping

Adding a little spice to the mix of the “progressive workplace” Eileen Brady helped create, supporters of fired New Seasons Market worker Ryan Gaughan held a rally outside of the Seven Corners store yesterday.

Ryan was well-regarded by customers and coworkers, and has a reputation for speaking up for himself and others. His supporters insist he was fired on trumped up charges.

(photo by Doug Geisler, used under the terms of a Creative Commons license)

So far, they’re just calling on New Seasons to rehire Ryan, and for a peer-review system for discipline.

Lurking behind it all is the dreaded “U word”, of course, but they don’t want to utter it just yet. They just want to focus on getting Ryan his job back first, a worthy cause if ever there was one. (They also probably don’t want to muddy the waters with any kind of Eileen Brady tie-in, but god help me, I just have to connect the dots of the bigger picture.)

I understand, because I’ve been there. It’s all so very familiar. In 1996, I was working for Stan Amy (president of New Seasons) at his previous grocery chain, Nature’s fresh Northwest. When Stan and his co-owners sold their business to publicly-traded GNC, some of us knew the old talk of being an “alternative” workplace wasn’t going to hold up. We tried to get a union certified, first for the entire chain, and finally just for the truck drivers. (Stan’s henchman, Brian “Mr. Eileen Brady” Rohter, fought us tooth and nail, and prevailed.)

Before we got the union involved, we tried a lot of what Ryan’s supporters are trying now. We spoke up at staff meetings. We wrote letters to the president and general manager. We asked politely. We got nowhere.

The same thing was going on at Food Front in the mid 90s. People writing letters. Asking. Demanding. Getting nowhere. They eventually ended up with UFCW Local 555 and a contract that was totally reasonable and workable from the management perspective. I worked there briefly and served as an assistant shop steward after leaving Nature’s in 1997. In 2007, Food Front staff voted to decertify their union. (I’m still shaking my head over that.)

Anyway, the point is, no matter how “cool” or “alternative” an employer is, the only way workers will gain a modicum of protection from arbitrary discipline is under a collective bargaining agreement. Without it, everything is only “cool” as long as you play along with management. If you speak up (or party with the wrong crew), you better watch your back.

New Seasons’ staff are facing a situation similar to what we faced at Nature’s: a once “family-owned” business is now majority-owned by an investment capital firm. The “friendly” factor looks more and more like a hollow marketing slogan than a way of doing business.

I wish them the best and offer my solidarity in their struggle against workplace injustice.

Make no mistake, even though they’re only minority investors, this is exactly the kind of “progressive workplace” Eileen Brady and Brian Rohter fostered with their business investment. Small wonder New Seasons turns out to be every bit as anti-union and anti-labor as Nature’s was, in pretty much the exact same ways.

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