A grocery co-op in the Upper Valley is in turmoil again. The most recent complaints by members of the Food Co-op Stores of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society come in response to the firing of a popular employee.
But there’s more general concern about whether managers are punishing workers who speak their minds about working conditions.
This past Saturday, about 100 people protested at the co-op in Lebanon, an action triggered by a dispute between 65-year-old deli worker Caren Giaconne and her supervisor. Giaconne says he fired her for complaining about slipshod work in her department. The supervisor says Giaconne walked out of a meeting with him during her shift, thereby resigning.
Some suspect Giaconne lost her job for discussing the need for a union. The co-op board flatly denies that charge. But protest by members against management goes beyond this single case, says one of the protesters, Nancy Leavitt-Reiber.
“It seems that we are losing the employees who have greatest potential for caring for their customers and for being professional in their work," said Leavitt-Reiber. "And they are also people who are bright and articulate and occasionally speak their minds — which as far as I know is still legal in the workplace."
Giaconne’s departure is just the latest managerial decision to rile a group Leavitt-Reiber belongs to called Concerned About the Co-op. About a year ago, John Boutin and Dan King were fired without, they say, cause or explanation. Over 700 people signed a petition in protest, and the two men are suing the co-op. Amid that controversy, the board revised its policies relating to the firing of employees.
Board Chair Margaret Drye says she attended Saturday’s protest and listened to dissidents air their grievances. Drye says co-op by-laws prevents her from discussing Giaconne’s case in public, but she confirms it has triggered an internal investigation.
“In some cases people are fired, in some cases people are let go. In this case it was a separation but not a firing and we are in the middle of making sure that our policies in this case are being followed,” Drye said.
And, Drye added, “the story is not over yet.” She says she understands that co-op members expect not just fresh food and top-notch service but moral decision-making by the administration.
But right now there seems to be little consensus about whether that last standard is being met by managers. The United Food and Commercial Workers international Union has complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the Cooperative Society is impeding the formation of a union. Board members say they are neutral about whether employees should unionize.
UPDATE 6/25/15 Caren Giaconne will go back to work, as reported by the Valley News.