Union May Come to Ann Arbor's People's Food Co-Op

Last Wednesday, November 16th, the People's Food Co-op in Ann Arbor (PFC) took the first step in becoming a little bit more cooperative. Since May, the workers at the food co-op have been working to become members of a union. If all goes well, they will become members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 876. Last Wednesday, the workers went public, by announcing their campaign at a meeting of the PFC's board of directors.

The workers have presented their petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with 55% of the 60-person workforce signing cards supporting the union. The next step in the NLRB representation process is to have an election1, which is scheduled for early December.

"I want to stress that this isn't necessarily economic," said Phil Bianco, a PFC employee and one of the organizers of the union movement there. "Sure, we want a fair wage, health care, and benefits," he said. But, he said, "We work at a co-op because we believe in economic democracy. We think a union is the way to bring that into play, something that's lacking now."

The People's Food Co-op was founded in 19712, and already does demonstrate one vision of economic democracy, in that it is owned by members who elect a board of directors to run the co-op in a democratic fashion3. However so far, workers have not been given a special voice in the running of the co-op. "As a worker, you have no special powers. You don't gain any more say in how the co-op is run," said Bianco.

These workers are people who care about the state of the business as a whole. In the last several years, "other organic, non-gmo healthy food grocers have come in," Bianco points out. "The kind of niche that the co-op used to have locked down is less secure, and it's hurting the bottom line. We need to experiment with making the co-op more democratic, more worker-focused, more community-focused. By doing that, the co-op has a better chance of competing."

Will the union be a good thing? We can look to The Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, Minnesota as an example. Last year, the 130 workers there voted to join UFCW local 11894. If things work as well here as they did there, the answer is: Yes, the union will be good for our co-op. "Our contract secured our already good benefits in writing and created a fairer, more transparent wage scale including significant raises for many workers. I feel we also gained a stronger voice in the workplace and greater respect from Management. To me, unionizing fits hand in hand with the values of co-operatively owned businesses," said Nathan Coombes, the union steward at that co-op, in a prepared statement5. The management at that co-op seems to agree that there is a place in the decision-making process for workers' input. "It isn't that there are people who hate the Wedge and are here trying to fight against somebody else inside the Wedge. It's all people who care greatly about the business," she told the City Pages4.

It seems the People's Food Co-op intends to fight the union. At the meeting last Wednesday, the board of directors told the workers they would prepare a response by that Monday. That did not happen. Instead, board has retained what the workers are calling a "right-wing anti-union law firm"6, who has contacted the workers' representative at the UFCW, according to Bianco. The name of the law firm is David B. Parmenter & Associates.

The workers are asking supporters to sign this petition in response. Update 2016-12-02: David B. Parmenter & Associates is no longer employed by the People's Food Co-op. The PFC Board of Directors posted this response to the petition. That response does not make it 100% clear whether the PFC is still employing Parmenter, but Jaime Magiera, a member of the Board of Directors, clarified that for me in correspondence.

Bianco says that unions are important beyond just that one workplace. "If we don't rebuild unions, we're going to have nothing, going forward. Especially people my age, millennials. We're not going to have any economic future at all, unless we rebuild unions and political parties. We'll have no representation on any level."