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Willy Street Co-op union vote scheduled after Labor Day

MADISON (WKOW) — Employees of Willy Street Co-op will vote next week on the question of unionization.

In a letter sent  to employees Tuesday, Willy Street’s General Manager, Anya Firszt, wrote, “the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) have told us that some of our employees believe a union is necessary.”

Mark Meinster, a representative for UE, said two-thirds of employees with the co-op signed cards supporting the union.

“Ultimately, employees have a voice over policy,” Meinster said. He specifically cited grievances and attendance requirements as areas Willy Street workers would like more of a say.

Employee and long-time co-op customer Thayer Reed said the unionization efforts are an attempt to get the  management to return to the values the co-op was founded on.

“When it was a smaller co-op everyone could fit at the table, you could call an impromptu meeting,” she said. “That’s not the case now.”

Reed said she’s helped lead the effort over the past two months in the hopes employee representation could have a seat at the table when it comes to HR decisions, decisions about e-commerce and any decisions about expanding to another location.

“What struck me was joining here, how strong the staff are but that their voices weren’t being heard,” she said.

The unionization vote is scheduled for Sept. 3 and 4, immediately following the Labor Day holiday. The ballot, according to the letter, will be secret. Meinster said the vote would be supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency which in part conducts elections for workers to decide if they would like to form unions.

In her letter, Firszt posed several open-ended questions. “How much will the union take from your paycheck? How will the work environment change? Can the union deliver on all of its promises?”

Meinster refused to respond to the letter, instead saying, “Ultimately, it won’t be a question of letters . . . it will be about sitting down and working with management.”

UE, according to Meinster, represents three grocery co-ops and several other kinds of cooperatives. The union, despite it’s name, accepts a wide range of industries into its ranks.

“We are not opposed to a union here at the Co-op,” Firszt wrote. “That said, when unions have tried to unionize in the past, they have failed.”

Online NLRB records show Willy Street Co-op workers decided against unionization in 2015. The margin of that vote was 43 in favor of a union and 50 against.

Reed predicts this year’s results will be different.

“There are people who were quite vehemently against last time who now have become some of the leaders in the pro-union camp,” she said.

She attributes that change to the union itself and the way they plan to organize. She said UE is far more democratic than the one workers considered in 2015 and if they chose to unionize, they’ll form their own Local made up entirely of Co-op employees.

Neither Friszt’s letter, nor a statement from the company, addressed how customers would be impacted. Meinster said “You’ll see less turnover, happier employees. That’s better for consumers.”

Don Taylor with UW-Madison’s School for Workers addressed concerns that unionization would lead to higher prices at the Co-op.

“I don’t think we can assume that,” he said. “There are unionized enterprises, unionized businesses in all sectors of the economy that compete successfully with non-unionized competitors.”

In her letter, Firszt asked, “How will all of this impact our cooperative owners?”

“Employees will tell you, owners are really excited about this,” Meinster said.

UE expects to know the results from the union vote by 8 p.m. Wednesday.

The full letter from Firszt is below.

As you probably already know, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America have told us that some of our employees believe a union is necessary.  Initially, the union asked us to simply recognize them without a vote. We think it is important for you to have a say in whether a third-party union, representing electrical, radio and machine workers, is right for you.

We believe it is important for you to make an informed, personal decision once you have been presented with all the facts about what a unionized workforce means for you. How much will the union take from your paycheck? How will the work environment change?  Can the union deliver on all of its promises?  Do you even want to go back to some of the practices that the union is promising?  How will individuals who commit legitimate misconduct be disciplined? How will all of this impact our cooperative Owners?  Do we even need a union for a member-driven Co-op such as ours?

We have agreed to have an election on September 3 and September 4 so that each of you will have a chance to express your opinion on whether a union is needed.  You will be able to vote, in a secret ballot, to decide if a union comes into our stores.  We believe voting is the best way to decide these issues.

Each of you will have a chance to cast a ballot under government supervision with observers designated by the union and by the Co-op.  If you have signed a union “authorization card,” this does not commit you to vote for the union on election day. In the secret ballot election, you are completely free to vote for or against the union.

We are not opposed to a union here at the Co-op.  That said, when unions have tried to unionize in the past, they have failed.  As in the past, though, we will agree to abide by the result of a private election of our employees.  If our employees ultimately believe it is right to have a union, once provided with all the facts, we will work with the union as a partner to further grow our cooperative.

This will be an important decision.  All employees eligible to vote should plan to vote after carefully considering the question of whether union representation is needed or desirable.

Very truly yours,

Anya Firszt, General Manager

Willy Street Co-op

JT Cestkowski

Social Media Content Producer/Desk Editor

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