PORTLAND — Something besides kombucha has been fermenting at non-union New Seasons market, and on Feb. 14, it made its first public showing.
A week after grocery clerk Ryan Gaughan was fired from New Seasons — a local chain of natural foods markets — he and about 40 supporters took over the sidewalk outside the company’s Southeast 20th and Division store to demand his reinstatement.
Gaughan, 31, was a nine-year employee of New Seasons, earned $16 an hour plus benefits, and had been at the Division store since it opened seven years ago. He was ostensibly terminated for adding tofu and rice to his lunch without paying for it. But Gaughan says tofu isn’t the real reason for his termination. On Feb. 8, he filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing New Seasons of firing him because of his participation in “concerted activity” and using the tofu as a pretext. “A prevailing culture of free food offerings … are permitted throughout the store,” Gaughan attests in the NLRB petition, which is pending investigation. Gaughan was let go without any prior warning, he says, despite a clean employment record and no issues pertaining to attendance or job performance.
The real story, Gaughan says, is that New Seasons culture has been shifting since the days when co-founder Brian Rohter played an active role. In light of that, in the last couple years a group of about a dozen employees at the Seven Corners store began to educate themselves about workers rights. They asked questions during meetings with management, made suggestions, and waged campaigns in the store, calling for safer equipment for stock clerks, for example, and for extending health benefits to trans-gendered employees, both of which the company agreed to. The group also protested to managers when two employees were fired, for what they felt were unfair reasons.
“We’ve begun to stick up for each other and defend each other,” Gaughan tells the Labor Press.
The ferment may have attracted the attention of upper management. New Seasons announced that CEO Lisa Sedlar would be visiting the store in early February for what the company calls a “coffee talk” — an informal gathering where employees ask questions and make suggestions. The workers group put up posters in the break room encouraging workers to attend, and to come with pointed questions about wage inequity and other issues — like the right to have a co-worker as a witness during disciplinary meetings — a right which union workers have.
Five days later — on Feb. 7 — Gaughan, a well-known member of the group, was fired.
A New Seasons spokesperson did not return a call from the Labor Press.
At the rally, which was backed by the union-supported workers rights group Portland Jobs With Justice, Gaughan spoke out against his firing, and was joined by his seven-year-old daughter Madeline. A handful of workers came outside to join the protest, while inside the store, several other workers wore pins crafted for the campaign — featuring a rising sun behind three pieces of tofu.
The workers group at the Division Street New Seasons is not affiliated with any union, but several staff members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 attended the rally in solidarity. Local 555 represents workers at Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertsons and QFC. The union has asked Portland mayoral candidate Eileen Brady — who touts her role as New Seasons co-founder – to support a “neutrality agreement” at New Seasons.
After hearing from Gaughan, rallygoers sang “Solidarity Forever,” and a delegation moved to enter the store to deliver a letter to management demanding Gaughan’s reinstatement, and new workplace rules giving workers some rights when they face discipline.
The group was met by a manager at the front entrance, who accepted the letter. At the conclusion of the rally, participants entered the store and presented Valentines to workers.
Gaughan and his supporters say the rally is just the beginning of the campaign. They’ve created a web site, a Facebook page that had 305 likes as Feb. 14, and an online petition that had close to 200 signatures within a day of going up.
“It’s much more than me,” Gaughan says. “Management is very well aware that there’s a growing voice of workers in the store.”
[For more photos, click here.]