An open letter to River Valley Co-op member-owners

Justin and his puppies last winterIf Northampton wants a fair and cooperative natural foods market, we need to act now.

It was the first week of January, and we’d just had our first big storm of the winter. The day was bright with snow, as I walked downtown to a meeting with River Valley Co-op’s outgoing board president. I got there a few minutes early and grabbed a table up front. While I waited, I sipped hot tea and watched traffic on Main Street.

Through the window of the patisserie, I watched as someone parked in front of the jeweler on the corner. A woman got out of the driver’s side, clambered over the snow, and fed the meter. It was obvious she had not removed any of the recent snowfall from her car before setting out that day and the foot-tall pile of snow was forming a crusty rind. She looked up at the ice, gave it a halfhearted swipe with a gloved hand, and seeing that she’d had little effect, gave up and crossed the street.

This was Dorian Gregory, the outgoing president of the board of Northampton’s natural foods cooperative. I had asked Dorian to meet me that day to talk about RVC’s leadership: how the board works and what challenges it faces.

Management issues

Obstructing labor organization

Last spring, before I met with Gregory, RVC’s General Manager, Rochelle Prunty, was accused of obstructing Co-op workers’ protected right to organize. Mark Heitman, a shuttle driver, defended their rights in a heated discussion with Prunty in the store. He filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Prunty, for intimidation and blocking organization efforts. Initially, Prunty dismissed the grievance against herself.

During mediation in the fall, she made it clear to the union stewards that there would be financial rewards to staff if the outcome of mediation was favorable to management. This gambit worked, and staff got a small raise, which has been trumpeted as a victory by River Valley Co-op, for reaching their goal of paying a living wage to most of their workers.

Boards have three products. They have a relationship with member-owners that justifies their acting as our representatives. They create policy based on our bylaws, and they guarantee the performance of the executive: the general manager, Rochelle Prunty. River Valley Co-op’s board is failing at all three.

The issue of back pay owed for shuttle time was never addressed. Even more serious is that Heitman’s whistleblowing was soon punished. After his labor complaint was “resolved” in mediation, all four shuttle drivers were laid off. Shuttles are now driven by managers, quelling free discussion among staff, which was the intended effect, according to several employees, past and present, with whom I’ve spoken.

Heitman, who was sixty last year, and the other drivers were offered other positions, but there are no comparable jobs inside the store, to driving a van. Most require standing for long hours, which may explain why none of the four took another job in the Co-op.

Heitman’s is just one in a pattern of suspicious and antagonistic firings of respected staff members, which Tim McNerney mentions in an interview on Occupy The Airwaves last October, going back to the earliest years of the King Street store, when I still worked there. What the firings had in common were that the staff members fired were all leading efforts to empower their fellow workers: to organize, and to be paid fairly for their time.

In 2012, River Valley Co-op joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 because management was unresponsive to staff concerns, according to David Gowler, quoted that year in The Valley Advocate. Gowler is not only a former employee of the Co-op, like I am, but one of the earliest member-owners and board officers of the Northampton Community Cooperative Market—the corporation that owns River Valley Co-op, and is now planning to open a second store in Easthampton.

 

Hostility to member-owner desires

Duke Bouchard, the Co-op’s CFO, formerly worked for a grocery cooperative in Albany, Honest Weight. He resigned after member-owners there discovered he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of the co-op’s money on legal consultants, looking for a way to circumvent a popular feature of membership: the ability to exchange volunteer hours for discounts in the store. (O’Brien, Tim. “Four quit at Honest Weight.” Published 7 January 2016 in The Times Union (Albany, NY). P. A1; O’Brien, Tim. “6 elected to serve on Honest Weight board.” Published 19 April 2016 in The Times Union. P. C1.)

No one asked Bouchard to do this: to the contrary, he was acting against member-owners’ explicit, written desires: their bylaws. When I asked Prunty for a comment on this hire, she responded with outrage, but did not address Bouchard’s history in Albany, or any other factor that contributed to the hiring decision.

Safety and abuse

There are other problems in the King Street store. In the recent remodeling, aesthetics were allowed to trump safety concerns, eventually costing the Co-op $16,800 in OSHA fines. (Source: osha.gov). Anyone working in the store at the time could have pointed out the foolhardiness of installing a fake “tin roof” just beneath fire suppression systems in the bulk foods area, but the board was not speaking to employees, then or now.

Since my interview with Dorian Gregory, I’ve sat down with a long-time staff member who told me of ongoing worker abuse and cover-up by management at RVC. They described a department manager who harassed every woman they managed, for years, without consequences. More recently, there is a class three sexual offender—the most dangerous category in the registry—working at River Valley Co-op. (A source that describes his past crimes is here: Amelinckx, A. (2015, Jan 7). BERKSHIRE SUPERIOR COURT – Offender sexually dangerous? – Pittsfield man, finishing prison sentence for molesting a young girl, could be held for one day or indefinitely following hearing set for Jan. 27. The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), p. B01.)

The threat he poses to the public is recognized by management: according to an anonymous source, he is not allowed to approach customers with children, or to use publicly accessible bathrooms in the store. But he has allegedly sexually harassed one of his co-workers—an allegation confirmed by a second source—and though their schedules were changed to limit their contact, he still has his job. Meanwhile, his victim has the choice to find a new position, or continue working in the same department with her abuser. Another employee told me that the same sexual offender has tried to “groom” their child for abuse. When the parent brought their concerns to management, they were told the allegations weren’t serious enough to do anything about.

Whether the individual in HR or management who took the complaint believed it or not was irrelevant; a formal report should still have been filed. Human resources and management have no right at all to keep anyone from making a report of harassment. Sexual violence is notoriously under reported. Victims deserve to be heard and for their safety to be a priority. No one who has been accused—multiples times—of abuse in the workplace should be kept on, regardless of their history. This is the least I would expect from any employer in the country. 

A problem with precedent

Failing to protect employees and shoppers from danger is an egregious result of poor management and a lack of leadership from the RVC board. In each case—the labor organizing obstruction, the hand-selected and ignorant board leadership, the safety hazards—there are precedents to the offensive behavior, bad choices that could have been avoided by management. Like the new CFO, RVC’s general manager comes from another grocery cooperative, where her bad choices have earned her a spotlight in the news once before.

In 1996, the year before Northampton community organizers first met to discuss opening a food cooperative, Prunty was general manager at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City. When workers there submitted a formal request for union recognition, Prunty rejected that request. That led to a formal complaint to the federal labor board, and became front page news. The following year, when workers were given the chance to vote on unionization, New Pioneer board members and managers intimidated workers into refusing the union. Members for an Accountable Co-op, a group similar in aims to Northampton’s ItsOurCoop (with which I am not affiliated), led a campaign that forced Prunty’s resignation. (Jacobson, Jim. “Employees petitioning labor board – New Pioneer Co-op seeks oversight of election to unionize.” Published 18 February 1997 in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, IA) Section B., Page 1.)

Twenty years later in Northampton, Prunty was still using lies and intimidation tactics to thwart labor organizing. She took flyers from a staff member, shuttle driver Mark Heitman, and told him and others that they could not distribute them. The flyers described employees’ right to be paid for shuttle time. Prunty involved the union representative in the case, manipulating her description of the flyer to evoke the desired response from the union representative. In this way, she was able to make it seem to staff members, if only temporarily, that she had the union rep’s backing. The real story came out in The Daily Hampshire Gazette where once again, Prunty made the front page by interfering with worker rights. (Suntrup, Jack. “‘Shuttle time’ part of co-op wage spat.” Published 24 May 2017 in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. P. 1.)

Leadership issues

Policy governance can work very well, but it has its weaknesses. If the board doesn’t know its own responsibilities, no one manages the general manager. And if a board lacks vision, they will not be effective at all.

Veterans of the RVC board tell me that a close reading of board minutes shows it is standard practice is to take the general manager’s suggestions and pass them in their entirety, a “rubber stamp” process that PG was designed to overcome. The policies the board is entrusted with developing are reviewed in, literally, minutes—clearly insufficient for careful governance, and proof that the full board is not truly involved in decision making. This is also by design. Dorian Gregory, with whom I spoke in January, explained that board meetings are when the board does their job. There’s no time for responding to concerns.

In the PG model, it is the board president who is responsible for the integrity of board process. I wanted to understand that process, so I would be better equipped to make a difference. I went to my meeting with Dorian prepared to have a deep conversation about leadership methodology. Instead, I discovered that she lacked understanding of the most basic principles involved. She even told me that RVC’s board doesn’t use policy governance.  (You can find links to resources on policy governance on River Valley Co-op’s website, About Board Policies and Processes.)

According to the Co-op’s own bylaw 4.1, “engaging and monitoring the performance of a general manager” is the very first responsibility of the Board. “When I asked incumbent candidate for the 2018 board, Steve Bruner, how the board ensures the GM is doing her job, he described how Prunty leads the board: “Our GM has been good about keeping us apprised of safety/fairness issues and presenting strategies for improvement.”

“Securing good conditions of employment” is also explicitly the Board’s job. A common misconception among board and staff alike is that policy governance means board members cannot talk to the Co-op’s employees. Employees at RVC have felt abandoned by the board: when they refused to accept their petition for paid shuttle time, or respond to their other labor and safety concerns.

The no board-worker contact rule comes directly from CDS Consulting, contradicting the principles it claims to be teaching. The most prominent influence on board education is Prunty’s other long-term employer, CDS Consulting. CDS, although it teaches Carver’s method, is not affiliated with the Carvers’ consulting practice. “I can tell you that Policy Governance places no prohibition on conversations between board members and staff members,” Miriam Carver, the author’s wife and consulting partner, told me.

Board members who do not feel confident in their responsibilities “go along,” they don’t investigate. The Co-op’s founders with whom I’ve spoken tell me that board members who challenge Rochelle’s authority have been forced off the board by her and her allies. Another long term board member, Jade Barker, is also a CDS consultant. (Barker has declined my requests for an interview.)

The board fails to uphold the explicit, written agreements found in our bylaws and policies. By focusing on the financial reporting, which is easy, and ignoring cooperative values, standard practices, community health, and the mission of the Co-op, which are much more difficult to quantify, the board fails to hold the executive responsible, in any real way, for upholding our cooperative values. What should rest on principles shared by its member-owners, is instead in the hands of a single manager with no real oversight.

Boards have three products. They have a relationship with member-owners that justifies their acting as our representatives. They create policy based on our bylaws, and they guarantee the performance of the executive: the general manager, Rochelle Prunty. River Valley Co-op’s board is failing at all three.

 

Disconnected from community

The mission of River Valley Co-op is to create a just marketplace that nourishes the community. If member-owners and Co-op shoppers do not demand from our Co-op the values it claims to uphold, and which are so closely associated with our home, it will keep on growing in the same shape it is now. It’s not a given that a second store’s workers will belong to any union, or even that the union is helping to solve the problems at the King Street store. What is likely, is that staff at both locations will continue to feel unsupported by the Co-op and its member-owners, unless we change how the Co-op is governed.

In current policy, member-owner participation in the leadership of our cooperative is narrowly and poorly defined (See 2.4 in the bylaws). The hand selection process for board members, in which all nominations to the ballot are made by the current board, is the very illustration of cronyism. They say it’s to ensure members know what the commitment is, but as I’ve discovered in my conversation with Dorian, there is no requirement to learn anything about board work to serve for years, even as president of the Board. Last year at this time, there was no competition for the two open positions on the board. This year, there is no write-in line on the ballot. That’s not a democratic process, it’s theater.

Similar failures led to the “house cleaning” at Honest Weight in Albany. I think it’s time we do the same, here.

 

Why it matters

2009 Co-op flyer features Justin holding sausageNorthampton is my home. My husband and I moved here in 2005 because we believed it to be a special place: progressive, politically engaged, and protective of the resources that make this place an oasis for so many of us. In the national midterm elections held earlier this month, my neighbors confirmed this impression for me.

The Co-op appeared to be in concert with our community values. It’s why I went to work there in 2008, and why we soon joined as member-owners. I was working behind the meat counter, the day of the first of those suspicious firings McNerney mentions in the radio interview. It wasn’t until years later, through talking to Heitman, Gregory, Gowler, and others, that I began piecing together the truth about what’s wrong with River Valley Co-op.

The problem with “frenemies”—the enemy that looks like a friend—is that we trust them. We aren’t suspicious of our friends’ motivations, and when their actions seem sketchy, we accept their explanations more often than we should. River Valley Co-op has branded themselves as our friendly neighbor with progressive values. It takes a lot of evidence to overcome the public image the store cultivates.

The store is profitable because we choose to support it with our patronage. One of the main reasons people choose to shop at the Co-op is the belief that the store is good for Northampton: fair to its workers and vendors, and representative of the values of its member-owners. Management is banking on you shopping there because you enjoy the experience, and that you’ll forget about the cooperative vision that made it possible.

Did more than 9,000 of us become part owners in just another retail shop, with no higher mission than to make money? Or did we join because we believe in a higher standard? I’ve tried to have these critical conversations with the people empowered to make change, but they’re not listening. It’s time to hold our “friend” accountable for the harm they’re doing.

 

What to do about it

Until a critical number of us can agree on a solution, nothing is going to change. Applying pressure is how movements begin, so let’s start pushing for the changes we want to see at River Valley Co-op.

  • Member-owners have been invited to the Annual Meeting on Friday, 7 December 2018 5:30-9PM at Mill 180 Park, 180 Pleasant St #217, Easthampton, MA. Tickets are $5 at the door, or you can buy them in advance at the front desk in the King Street store. Go and tell the board and management that this is our co-op, and we insist on our bylaws being upheld. It’s a chance to be part of making a big impression, at the largest gathering of member-owners of the year.
  • If you can’t make it to the annual meeting, there are ten minutes at the beginning of each monthly board meeting in which members will listen in stony silence and not answer your concerns. If that seems worthwhile to you, show up and have your say.
  • You can also try tracking the candidates down individually and talking to them. Either of these meetings is an opportunity to shake someone’s hand and tell them, “I expect you to hold the general manager accountable to our cooperative principles, which are part of our bylaws.”
  • Member-owners can return paper ballots for the board election, and write in a candidate of their choice, anyway, even though that is not expressly an option. It’s not like you can throw your vote away, when all the printed names have been cleared by the current rubber stamping body.
  • Encourage other member-owners to get involved in Co-op politics. We need more of us asking hard questions, and insisting that leadership listen to workers and the community.
  • Email me if you want to get connected to other RVC member-owners who want to make change: likethewatch@gmail.com.

 

Your neighbor and fellow member-owner,

Justin Cascio

#3552

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3 Comments

Filed under Food, Northampton

3 responses to “An open letter to River Valley Co-op member-owners

  1. Eric Blair

    This terrible behavior is, unfortunately, common in many “community” groups that make altruistic claims. Usually, there is a pattern of uncontested bad behavior and then it just becomes normal for appropriate questions to be answered by mute, stony faces. The struggle is real and I commend your efforts. Have you considered hiring a lawyer?

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