Co-op accused of union-busting

May 2, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

SOUTH ST.—Two workers who were fired from the Jamaica Plain store of Harvest Co-op Markets in the last six months claim they were terminated for expressing support for union organizing efforts at the nonprofit supermarket. Harvest denies their accusations.

Diego Bencosme and Deon Furtick had both worked at Harvest for close to four years. They were both fired for failing to punch out when they went off shift—a rule they claim was rarely, if ever, enforced during their tenures.

They were fired without prior warnings, they said.

Both say they were fired because of their support for a current effort by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to organize at Harvest. Both have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

“I think a collective unit was coming together. I guess they didn’t like that happening.” Furtick said.

In an e-mail, Harvest General Manager Michael St. Clair strongly denied that.

“One of the most disturbing claims is that Harvest acted against employees who were involved in union activity. This would be wrong, and it would be illegal. We reject this claim completely,” he said.

According to sources with knowledge of Harvest personnel procedures, the co-op management—with over 100 employees at its Cambridge and Jamaica Plain stores—does not adhere to standard written employee policies.

Peter Anderson, a retired West Roxbury District Court judge, JP resident and co-op member, provided successful legal counsel for Bencosme after the co-op contested Bencosme’s bid for unemployment compensation. He said that in the course of gathering information about the case, he was “surprised to learn that the Co-op has no written personnel policy at all, just a smattering of memos.”

Anderson said what he has seen of the store’s employee policy does not inspire confidence. It leaves employees “open to arbitrary and capricious or retaliatory action,” he said.

“Any act regarding personnel is suspect in my mind,” he said.

St. Clair denied that the co-op does not have a written policy. “Harvest does, in fact, possess and use an employee manual for its personnel policies…Over the years laws have changed and many policies have been added and rewritten. It remained, however, a working document at all times,” he said.

A cover-to-cover update of the manual is currently under way, he said.

None of the Harvest employees the Gazette talked to recalled ever having been issued a manual.

“Policies are enforced differently by different departments,” Mathew Andrews, a JP Harvest employee who is spearheading the IWW effort, said. “Sometimes people think they can get away with things, and they can’t if they have fallen out of favor. Deon and Diego were both outspoken about conditions.”

Andrews himself was recently suspended for two days for letting another former Harvest employee use his employee discount to purchase groceries, he said.

Founded in the 1970s as an alternative to for-profit supermarkets, Harvest is incorporated as a nonprofit. Members, who join the co-op for an annual fee, elect a board of directors. The board, in turn, hires a general manager to oversee operations at Harvest stores in JP and Cambridge. Harvest also offers discounts and limited profit-sharing for members, specializes in the sale of organic products and offers community classes and workshops.

Overall, it has a progressive reputation, but, according to co-op member and JP resident Adam Frost, the market has a history of labor
complaints.

“When I have talked to members, and not just members, people in the community [about the recent firings], they just shake their heads. There is a certain knowingness—its not new that the co-op has human resources problems,” he said.

It is unclear how much traction the current organizing effort has among employees. Andrews was unable to identify another current employee willing to speak to the Gazette on or off the record.

Jessica Myszka, president of the Harvest board of directors, said the board last May explicitly instructed co-op management “to follow the law and treat all employees fairly” when it was first informed of labor organizing going on at the co-op in May 2007.

While opposition to a union organizing effort by the Harvest management would be illegal under national labor laws, the co-op “management team,” in a March 18, 2008 letter addressed to employees, explicitly expressed annoyance with the IWW campaign.

“Unfortunately, recent activity has annoyed many of us and our customers…some union organizers with a specific agenda will say whatever they want without concern for whether it is true…Harvest management cannot say whatever we want. We are constrained by what is true and by what is legal,” the letter said.

The letter explicitly denies that anyone has been fired for union activity.

But some co-op members remain unconvinced. “I expect [Harvest] to be a decent place where decent people can shop without being ashamed of themselves,” Frost said.

Anderson, who knows Bencosme because they both sing in the choir at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Egleston Square, was disturbed enough when he heard Bencosme’s story that he volunteered to serve as the fired employee’s lawyer.

“[The co-op] is afraid of a union. They are afraid of the workers organizing in some form,” he said.

The firings

Speaking through a Spanish-language interpreter, Bencosme, who was let go in December, told the Gazette he had been a manager in the meat department. He was fired, he said, after failing to punch out and punch back in when he went to a doctor’s appointment on Nov. 28, 2007. He had gotten permission from his supervisor to leave work, he said.

Bencosme burned his chest in a cooking accident on Nov. 25, he said, and the wound was attaching to his clothes.

When he returned from the 2:40 p.m. appointment, he went straight to the refrigerator display to refill the meats. He finished his shift at 4 p.m. and punched out, he said.

In the past, Bencosme said, when he failed to punch out, his manager usually called him at home to find out when he left.

Furtick, who worked in the deli, was fired on Jan. 19 for failing to punch out for his lunch break. In his four years at the co-op he had rarely, if ever, punched out for lunch, he told the Gazette.

In 2005, Harvest management issued a memorandum requiring employees to punch out for their breaks, Furtick said, but it was never enforced.

“I didn’t get fired in 2005, 2006 or 2007,” he said.

According to a fact sheet on Bencosme’s case compiled by Anderson, there had been two instances when an employee was let go for failing to punch-out prior to Bencosme’s firing.

Anderson successfully represented Bencosme in a hearing before the state Division of Unemployment Assistance, after the co-op, claiming Bencosme had violated a “uniformly enforced rule,” contested his bid for compensation.

Furtick’s case before the Division of Unemployment Assistance is still pending.

Both say they want their jobs back. Since Furtick’s firing, the IWW has been picketing and flyering at both the JP and Cambridge stores in an effort to get him reinstated.

St. Clair declined to comment on the firings, saying Harvest management is “obligated to protect the privacy of our associates and cannot discuss infractions and discipline procedures here.”

Frost said, in his opinion, it is unreasonable to fire any employee who has worked as long as Furtick and Bencosme had, “unless that person has committed some really gross malfeasance and can’t work there anymore.”

Improving
communication

In general, Frost said, “There is a lot of room for improvement in the co-op’s ability to communicate effectively with its employees and members.

Myszka agreed with that point, saying that the board recently formed a Membership and Social Concerns Committee to work on that.

She also said the board is working to improve communication with St. Clair, who, as the general manager of Harvest, is the board’s one official employee.

“It should be clearer to the general manager what expectations the board has,” she said.

The board is planning, she said, to institute a program of “policy governance” where it clearly expresses policy expectations, asks the General Manager to come up with a way to report on the policy’s institution and sets specific timelines for when it will hear those reports.

They recently asked St. Clair to begin documenting members’ economic participation—how often they shop at the co-op and how much money they spend—using that program, she said.

And, she said, after St. Clair reported about the IWW effort in May of last year and the board instructed him to “treat employees fairly,” it was a mistake to not require him to report back about that.

“What we didn’t do was right then was say, ‘We want you, by X time, to report back on how you are following the policy,’” she said.

Andrews said one of the advantages of co-op workers organizing is they could get involved in those policy conversations as well.

Store policies about breaks, employees being allowed to take home expired food and vacations have all become more restricted recently he said. He also claimed that management has been engaging in increased employee surveillance.

Noting that workers and members have not been asked for their input on the upcoming rewrite of the employee manual, “Employees have good reason to be concerned about the forthcoming employee policy,” he said.

St. Clair said he would not necessarily be opposed to a union’s input into the running of the co-op. “Harvest Coop Markets has a long history of service to its members and the community. We welcome new and diverse ideas and groups, which help make the co-op strong. Our mission remains one of inclusion and any union, institution or organization that reflects the values and ideals of Harvest is welcome to participate,” he said.

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