By Don McIntosh
On Wednesday, Nov. 1, 9 a.m., a dozen employees of New Seasons Market filed into the company’s fourth floor headquarters in the rehabbed former high school now known as Revolution Hall, and asked to speak with CEO Wendy Collie. As they waited in the reception area, awkward minutes crept by — until one worker began humming the union anthem “Solidarity Forever,” and the rest joined in.
Collie, they were informed at length, was not available to see them. So the workers presented a letter to her assistant, accompanied by signatures from 260 workers, announcing the formation of a new organization, New Seasons Workers United. The letter requests a meeting, and asks the company to sign a code of conduct committing to respect workers’ right to organize.
Half an hour later, joined by another couple dozen workers and community supporters outside the New Seasons grocery store on North Williams Avenue in Portland, they made a public announcement: A union organizing campaign has begun at New Seasons — backed by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.
Since its founding, nonunion New Seasons has cultivated a reputation as an ethical business. New Seasons calls itself a “progressive employer” that “leads with its values,” “supports work/ life balance” and encourages a “speak-up” culture. Breaking with the rest of the grocery industry, New Seasons executives testified in favor of legislation increasing the minimum wage and mandating fair scheduling practices. Its web site says the company distributes 20 percent of after-tax profit to employees through a profit sharing plan. But some current and former workers say it’s not the company it used to be.
New Seasons started with one store in 2000. Today, according to the company web site, it employs more than 3,250 workers at 18 stores in the Portland metro area, plus two in Northern California and one outside Seattle. Two more stores are on the way in Seattle, and another two in the Bay Area. It also has a subsidiary based in Santa Cruz, New Leaf Community Market, with six locations.
Only one of the three original founders remains on the board of New Seasons, which is now majority-owned by Endeavour Capital, a Portland-based private equity firm that began investing in the company in 2009.
Workers at the union launch event said with the company so focused on growth, customer experience and employee working conditions are slipping. In particular, members of the fledgling New Seasons Workers United spoke up against New Seasons’ decision, announced in October, to increase the number of hours Portland area part-time workers must work each week to qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance, from 20 to 24. Workers said that could result in nearly 150 workers losing access to health insurance. Though 24 hours a week might still be a generous threshold, workers had no say in the change, and it raises questions about New Seasons’ claim that it puts people and profits on equal footing.
Will New Seasons’ CEO meet with New Seasons Workers United? Will the company agree to neutrality?
New Seasons, through public relations firm Maxwell PR, declined to answer those or any other questions from the Labor Press, or make any company representative available for questions. But the company did say, in an emailed statement: “We place as much value on taking care of our staff, communities and environment as we do in growing a sustainable and profitable business, which is validated by our independent, third-party B Corp certification.” That phrase is lifted directly out of half a dozen press releases that accompanied store openings in California and Washington.
New Seasons has placed great emphasis on its “B Corp” certification, but few people know what that is. B Corp is a trademarked label offered by a nonprofit called B Lab. For an annual fee, B Lab certifies that a company meets high standards of social and environmental performance — based on company answers to an online questionnaire. B Corp shouldn’t be confused with “benefit company,” a legal status conferred by Oregon and other states on companies that “consider their impact on society and the environment in their business decision-making.” That status is meant to shield corporate directors from legal liability if they take actions based on factors besides shareholder value. Nearly 1,300 Oregon corporations are currently listed as benefit companies. New Seasons isn’t one of them.
New Seasons’ emailed PR statement also notes that the company was named one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For by Oregon Business magazine. That ranking is based on an online survey, administered by the magazine, that must be filled out anonymously by at least 10 percent of a company’s workers to be valid. It’s true: New Seasons was ranked Number 17. That was in 2011. But New Seasons participated in the survey again in 2012, and failed to make the top 100 list. It hasn’t taken part in the survey since.
New Seasons Workers United asked the company to respond within three weeks, by Nov. 21. Two weeks have passed since then, and they’ve received no official reply.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Watch a video of the launch event, in which New Seasons workers explain why they want a union.
FIND OUT MORE: You can show your support and keep up with the latest developments by liking the campaign’s Facebook page here.
Unionized grocery stores in the Portland metro area
- Fred Meyer
- Cash & Carry*
- Food Front
- Gartner’s Country Meats
- Bales Marketplace (Cedar Mill and Farmington stores)
- St. Helens Market Fresh
- Nap’s Thriftway (Newberg)
The nonunion competition
- Whole Foods
- New Seasons
- Grocery Outlet
- Market of Choice
- Trader Joe’s
*CORRECTION: We initially listed Cash & Carry — incorrectly — in the list of nonunion grocers. In fact, workers at all 20 Cash & Carry stores in Oregon are represented by Teamsters Local 206. (All the other union grocery stores on the list are represented by UFCW Local 555.) The Labor Press regrets the error.