Controversy is swirling in the Upper Valley around one of the oldest food co-ops in the United States. After two popular employees were fired from Co-op Food Stores of New Hampshire without explanation last month, members began questioning how management treats employees.
At a recent Board meeting attended by about 300 members, two starkly different answers emerged.
Dan King and John Boutin, who worked in the wine and cheese departments in the Hanover store, did not speak at the Board meeting. But they have told the media that they were fired without explanation on June 13, and rudely escorted out of the Hanover Co-op. That didn’t sit well with customers like Marguerite Ames, who circulated petitions in their defense before the meeting.
Ames guesses King and Boutin were fired merely because they questioned management, and served as sounding boards for other unhappy employees. “...Communicating things that weren’t necessarily working well and I think probably wasn’t taken too well,” Ames speculated.
Ames and others have formed a group called “Concerned About The Coop,” and they have gathered about 700 signatures demanding the employees’ re-instatement and an end to the policy allowing the manager to fire workers at will, without explanation. That, says member Antoinette Jacobsen, may be how big box stores behave but it’s not what she expects from her co-op.
“People are saying ‘oh, we want to destroy the Co-op.’ We don’t want to destroy the Co-op but we do want to change the corporatization of the Co-op.”
Opponents say the firing was a symptom of a larger problem—that managers have lost touch with customers and workers. But others at the meeting argued that co-ops have to get more corporate to survive. Ed Howes is a buyer, one of about six employees at the meeting who said they were happy to work for a company thriving in a tough economy.
“What today we’re finding is that any co-op needs to be a strong business,” Howes said.
Still, say the dissident members, a strong business must also be ethical and transparent about its finances, noting that the annual report does not disclose the salaries of managers.
After the meeting, Board President Margaret Drye said the firings were done within the policies set by the board. But now, she says, the board will review those policies.
“In some ways it’s about what is the soul of the Co-op and a co-op is, you may know, is a store that’s much more than a store and that’s what’s near and dear to peoples’ hearts,” Drye told VPR after the meeting.
Recording and photography were not allowed during the comment session. About two thirds of the speakers were critical of the board and manager, but there were strong defenders as well.
Still others acknowledged that while the firings may have been done poorly, the Co-op still needs support, and they urged the group to stand behind it and move forward.
Still, some opponents are boycotting, and redeeming their shares, to protest what they believe are unfair labor practices.