New Seasons Market founder Eileen Brady has declared in the race for Portland mayor. Since she has no political experience, she is leaning heavily on her experience as a “progressive” employer, among other things.
I’m down with a lot of the things she’s worked for: local, sustainable agriculture and health care, for example. But I got some bones to pick with the idea of New Seasons modeling a progressive workplace, based largely on my experience working for Brady’s husband Brian Rohter and New Seasons co-owner Stan Amy at Nature’s in the 90s. Things are obviously different at New Seasons today than they were 15 years ago at Nature’s. But casual conversations with New Seasons staff confirm to me that a general antipathy toward collective bargaining lurks at New Seasons just as it did at Nature’s.
In all the news coverage of Brady’s nascent campaign, I have yet to see a journalist broach organized labor with her. For example, can she call herself a progressive employer when she’s talking about the largest non-union grocery chain in town? A decent reporter with any sense of labor history might at least bring this up. The natural foods industry, led nationally by Whole Foods, is making non-union inroads into the traditionally well-organized grocery industry; it is the only growth sector in the business. But lazy Portland media, led by the consistently anti-union, pro-business Oregonian, will probably just leave this angle alone, despite its pertinence to a largely working class electorate.
So: Is Eileen Brady anti-union? If not, would she and her co-owners direct New Season’s management to recognize a staff union on card check, rather than intimidating workers and forcing a divisive certification vote, as happened at Nature’s in 1997? (The certification narrowly lost after a protracted war of attrition by management.)
I was involved at the outset of this effort to organize staff at Nature’s stores starting in 1996, and faced disciplinary action and textbook anti-union tactics for my efforts. Below is my story. It ran in the Portland Alliance in July 1997. (Willamette Week also covered the campaign, but their online archives also do not go back that far.)
Oh, but wait, before we get into that! I’m so excited about Eileen’s campaign, I’m making a video about her stores! It’s not quite ready, but here’s a rough mix preview of the song I wrote for it.
Listen to that while you read this:
How the bad seed of greed infested Natures
By Steve Pings Rawley
It was the classic “good cop/ bad cop” routine. The general manager demanded information about the union. The human resources manager assured me that it was for my own good to tell all. Having collected union authorization cards from a majority of the eligible staff at my store, I knew I had to hold my ground.
The interrogation took place in a dank storage room above the funky Corbett Nature’s and followed a meeting in which general manager Brian Rohter and human resources manager Carole Ann Rogge explained the responsibilities of supervisors during a union campaign, including a prohibition on interrogations. When I refused to give any information, I was suspended for two days and forced to seek legal counsel. In order to keep my job, I was compelled to sign a gag order and a series of restrictive agreements.
The union campaign at Nature’s began in earnest shortly after the former owners sold the company for $17.5 million in August of 1996 to Pittsburgh-based General Nutrition companies. Stan Amy (who remains president with a five-year contract) pocketed $11.5 million, and as a polite gesture (perhaps to ease his conscience) distributed $500,000 in stock to the staff.
Nature’s, with its hippie roots, makes much of its commitment to earth-friendly causes and its development of staff as “knowledge workers.” Much is said about the company’s diversity, but a quick look around the room at a quarterly management meeting shows that Nature’s is overwhelmingly white in the upper echelons. By contrast, in a crowded kitchen in the basement of the Fremont store, a mostly Mexican and Central American crew toils to produce Nature’s own line of prepared foods.
A union contract for the staff would “destroy Nature’s culture,” says Rogge (who has only been with Nature’s since September of 1995). But this fiercely defended culture seems to be nothing more than a cult of personality surrounding Stan Amy. It is a throw-back to the times when there were only two or three stores employing fewer than 100 workers.
Nature’s employs close to 600 workers at six retail locations, and is owned by a multinational, publicly-traded corporation with 2,500 retail outlets. In light of this, many workers have begun to reject this notion of culture” imposed from above.
“They’ve got enough money to buy their own culture,” said Alan Ambrocio, a pro-union truck driver for Nature’s. “As a normal working person I just want a slice of the pie.”
The slice Nature’s workers currently get is small, with most jobs starting under seven dollars an hour and topping out at $10. Family insurance is prohibitively expensive, costing hundreds of dollars a month.
“If people could realize that they create their own workplace culture, their lives would better,” said Chris Ayers, another trucker and union activist. “We are the same people we were before the campaign began. We do our jobs, we love our jobs, and we’re good at it. What we’re doing is living out our ideals, and that’s what our culture is.”
Management has decided to fight to keep its staff from organizing at any cost. To this end they have retained the law firm Bullard Korshoj Smith and Jernstedt, renowned for their union-busting savvy. In response to a flyer written and distributed by Nature’s staff last fall, Rohter fired off a memo straight from his lawyers’ play-book.
After thoroughly trashing the union, using inflated figures and misstated data, the memo wrapped up, “Nature’s is not anti-union.” While many staff members were in hysterics at the irony, others were cowed by management’s surrealistic logic: If you are pro-union, you must be anti-Nature’s.
Management has attempted to control all information regarding the union. They have reacted largely with fear and denial, successfully whipping the faithful into an anti-union lather.
Union representatives were prohibited at all Nature’s sites, then criticized for making house calls. With a dearth of accurate information about collective bargaining available to staff, the union campaign appeared to be losing steam by the end of a chilly winter.
A core group of employees kept the faith, though, and the campaign resurfaced after 10-year veteran truck driver David Chavez was denied a promotion which was given to a driver with less than two years on the job. When Chavez protested, he was offered two weeks’ pay to find another job.
A self-described “company man” who likes his job and has a family to support, Chavez weathered this slap in the face from those he once considered friends and made the decision to organize. At a May 21 quarterly management meeting, he presented general manager Rohter with a letter requesting recognition of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 to represent the five truck drivers at Nature’s. Management’s response was predictable.
“Not only are they fighting it, they’re spending a lot of time and money trying to stop it,” said Chavez.
Management appealed the truckers’ request for a certification election to the National Labor Relations Board on specious ground. It became clear that this was merely a stalling tactic at the NLRB appeal hearing June 9 and 10, when management attempted to make the case that Nature’s is different from traditional employers and deserves special treatment under the law.
Human resources manager Rogge testified that Nature’s is “non-hierarchical,” and that decisions are made “with staff involvement… a lot of information is shared with staff in order to make decisions.”
“Nobody asked me if we should open a new store,” said Chavez. “Nobody asked me if we should sell the company.” With the appeal “they were reaching for anything” to slow down the process, he said.
Nature’s resistance to its employees’ efforts to organize is uncannily similar to the tactics of another hippie-gone-corporate company, Borders Books. There too, management attempts to trade on its leftish roots, and claims that collective bargaining will destroy “Borders culture.” Behind the friendly face of community, however, standard tactics of intimidation and legal wrangling are exercised to keep workers down.
Like Nature’s, Borders claims to want “one-on-one dialogue” with staff members, but retains Jackson, Lewis, a law firm known for its anti-labor work. Both company’s make a lot of noise about the salaries paid to union presidents, while keeping their own management salaries under wraps. [GNC CEO William Watts pocketed a cool $1.3 million in 1995.] And in the end, both companies make huge profits on the backs of under-paid retail workers.
The significance of these campaigns is not lost on the “born-again capitalists” (Stan Amy’s self-description) who run these companies. It is ultimately about retail workers taking control of their lives and demanding some modicum of power over their jobs. Whether or not a company has a “social mission” is irrelevant if workers are not provided a living wage, family benefits, protection for seniority, and democratic control in their workplace.
“Nature’s is a multimillion dollar corporation, owned by an even larger corporation,” said Chavez. “As much as they want to hold on to that ‘culture,’ their bottom line is making money.”