By Don McIntosh
Four months after pro-union workers made a surprise visit to New Seasons Market headquarters, CEO Wendy Collie is out, and so is the union-busting law firm the grocery chain brought in to talk to workers — for now at least.
New Seasons announced Collie’s departure Feb. 6 as part of a “strategic shift in business direction” in which the company committed to refocus investment in its existing stores — and abandon its plans to operate in Northern California. That meant walking out on a lease in Hayes Valley district of San Francisco, scrapping plans for stores in Carmel and Emeryville, and even shuttering a brand-new New Seasons store in Sunnyvale that opened last August.
The reasons for Collie’s exit are murky. Collie, a former executive at Starbucks and the Kindercare daycare chain, was brought into New Seasons as CEO in 2012. In an exclusive interview she gave to Oregon Business magazine on the day of the announcement, Collie said she loves New Seasons and was trying not to cry, but denied point blank that she was being pushed out.
Could Collie’s handling of the union situation have had something to do with her departure? New Seasons spent 18 years cultivating a reputation as a progressive employer, and there’s no bigger stain on that record than its decision to hire a union-buster within days of the public announcement of the union campaign. New Seasons hired California-based Cruz & Associates, the same firm employed by the Trump Organization in its failed 2016 fight against union organizing at its Las Vegas hotel.
At what must have been considerable expense to New Seasons, Cruz & Associates dispatched a pair of attorneys to hold hour-long meetings with nearly every Portland-area store employee in groups of 5 to 15. Employees were scheduled for the meetings by their managers, and many didn’t realize they didn’t have to attend the meetings. [Oregon law requires that such meetings be voluntary.] Given a local workforce of around 3,300, even if the lawyers’ rate was as low as $200 an hour, that would suggest New Seasons spent over $1 million on the campaign. The actual figure won’t be known until required disclosure forms are filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, likely next month.
Union supporters aren’t sure what to make of the news of Collie’s abrupt departure, but their union, New Seasons Workers United, did issue a statement in response: “Wendy Collie’s tenure was marred by poor decisions that hurt employees, drove down morale in the stores and challenged the very ethos of the grocery chain. In response to workers’ efforts to fight for pay equity, safe staffing levels, affordable healthcare and transparency from management, Wendy chose to hire the same union-busting firm as the Trump Hotels and fire workers beloved by customers simply for speaking up.”
The firings the statement refers to were of pro-union workers Adrian Mendoza and Terra Bosart. In charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union alleged the two were fired illegally for having supported the union effort, but the NLRB dismissed the charges Feb. 28 on the grounds there was insufficient evidence to establish a violation. A spokesperson for New Seasons Workers United said the union disagrees with that decision and will be appealing.
Will New Seasons’ new leaders shift course?
With Collie out, two new “co-presidents” are now in charge of the company: New Seasons “chief people officer” Kristi McFarland and chief financial officer Forrest Hoffmaster. Both are fairly new to the 18-year-old company: Hoffmaster came to New Seasons in 2016 from Austin, Texas, where he was an executive at Whole Foods. McFarland came to New Seasons in 2014 from Emeryville, California-based Peet’s Coffee.
Does the new leadership intend to take a new approach toward the union effort? A representative of the Metropolitan Group, New Seasons outside public relations firm, said the new co-presidents were too busy for an interview with the Labor Press, but would answer questions by email. They did, in some detail. You can see their responses at length below.
But the short version is that the new co-presidents are willing to meet with pro-union employees, though not with any “outside organization” (such as United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, with which New Seasons Workers United is affiliated).
McFarland and Hoffmaster say they’re in the process of setting up a meeting with the pro-union worker group, and hope to have it scheduled soon.
“We have pledged to stand by our employees’ decision if an NLRB election is held, and will do our utmost to ensure they have the opportunity to make their decisions in a democratic manner with full information, no intimidation, and a secret ballot,” McFarland and Hoffmaster wrote.
That last item — ensuring that employees make the decision about unionizing via a secret ballot administered by the National Labor Relations Board — is a seeming rebuff to hopes that New Seasons might agree to recognize a union if and when a majority of its employees sign cards saying they want a union. Safeway-Albertsons did that very thing several years ago at stores around Oregon (and even let union organizers talk with employees in break rooms) which led to 4,400 grocery workers joining Local 555.
McFarland and Hoffmaster also said Cruz and Associates is no longer employed by New Seasons (having completed its work last year). But they offered a profoundly disingenuous explanation of why New Seasons hired Cruz & Associates in the first place — the same explanation Collie gave in a letter to employees.
McFarland and Hoffmaster write: “When this all started New Seasons was asked by many staff members to provide information on the overall process and specifics around the National Labor Relations Act. This is unfamiliar territory for all of us and we felt it best to bring in experts who could inform and educate properly and objectively. To provide staff with the unbiased information they need to make well-informed decisions, we looked to an outside resource—Cruz & Associates. The voluntary information sessions in stores, offices, and our central kitchen were completed in November, were attended by a large number of New Seasons employees, and multiple staff members in attendance shared that they found the sessions helpful.”
Unbiased? Objective? Cruz & Associates is neither of those things, and New Seasons executives know that full well. If New Seasons wanted unbiased information, it could have photocopied easily understood materials from the NLRB and saved a lot of money. If it wanted objective, it could have invited union organizers, letting workers hear from both sides.
Who’s calling the shots
Ultimately it may not even be up to McFarland and Hoffmaster what approach to take to the union campaign, because they serve at the pleasure of New Seasons Market LLC corporate board of directors. That board consists of New Seasons founder Stan Amy, Scott Roseman from the company’s New Leaf subsidiary in Santa Cruz, and Stephen Babson and Bradaigh Wagner from Endeavour Capital.
Presumably it’s Endeavour that calls the shots, because the private equity firm owns a 64 percent share of New Seasons.
Working out of offices in four cities, Endeavour assembles pools of cash from investors, and then buys stakes in mid-sized private companies throughout the Western United States. Its goal is to grow the companies and then sell them for a profit, typically within five to 10 years. All told, Endeavour manages $2 billion in assets. New Seasons is just one of the 28 companies Endeavour has stakes in. Others include the ZoomCare chain of clinics, and union employers like Vigor Industrial and Seattle’s Metropolitan Market grocery chain.
Lately, UFCW Local 555 has begun a campaign to focus greater attention on Endeavour Capital. It launched a web site called High Cost Endeavour (highcostendeavour.com) criticizing several companies in its portfolio for a variety of alleged legal and ethical lapses.
And on March 1, Local 555 staff and members of New Seasons Workers United showed up with flyers and banners outside the exclusive Multnomah Athletic Club. There, Babson —the Endeavour managing director and New Seasons board member — was giving a keynote speech at Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Cup Northwest, a shark-tank style competition in which business and finance students compete to solve business dilemmas involving mergers and acquisitions, investment banking, and private equity. [No word on whether they came up with a strategy for Endeavour to cash out its New Seasons investment.]
Then on March 6, the union-funded group Northwest Accountability Project — drilling down even further into Endeavour’s ownership structure — held a press conference outside the Concordia neighborhood New Seasons store calling on New Seasons to “cut ties” with MJ Murdoch Trust, because Murdoch funds groups like the fiercely anti-union Freedom Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends religious conservative business owners who refuse service to gay customers.
In their email to the Labor Press, McFarland and Hoffmaster said there are no direct ties between New Seasons and The Murdock Trust, and Murdock Trust receives no money from New Seasons Market.
“Murdock Trust is just one of over 100 investors in Endeavour Capital Fund V. Their investment represents less than 1.5 percent of Endeavour’s Fund V, which holds an ownership interest in New Seasons. The actions of Murdock Trust therefore have no real bearing on the operations of either Endeavour or New Seasons.”
For its part, New Seasons Workers United says its ready and willing to meet with the new co-presidents, and issued a statement attributed to Grant Park New Seasons worker Jennifer Trost: “Since we publicly launched our efforts to improve our jobs and working conditions at New Seasons we have asked to meet with senior leadership to discuss wages, transparency in management practices and the need to have a voice on the job. Meeting with the company is an important step to winning change at New Seasons. We are pleased they have responded to our request and we hope to schedule the meeting soon.”
New Seasons co-presidents Kristi McFarland and Forrest Hoffmaster — via Metropolitan Group senior vice president John Donovan — responded by email at some length to questions and follow-up questions from Northwest Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh.
LABOR PRESS: Does the new leadership intend to take a new approach toward the union effort?
MCFARLAND AND HOFFMASTER: New Seasons has always been and is absolutely committed to respecting and supporting our staff’s right to choose whether or not they want to have a union represent them. We have informed staff of their right to talk about unions in the store and encouraged all staff members to respect each other’s opinions. Additionally, we have educated supervisors on their responsibility to make sure that NLRB guidelines are followed and that staff’s rights are respected. We have pledged to stand by our employees’ decision if an NLRB election is held and will do our utmost to ensure they have the opportunity to make their decisions in a democratic manner with full information, no intimidation, and a secret ballot.
Just last week, two NLRB complaints against New Seasons from former employees were dismissed. After a thorough investigation by the NLRB, both cases were dismissed as having no merit; they determined that the staff members were terminated for violating New Seasons’ policies, and nothing more.
While we won’t speak to any outside organization as a representative of our staff, we will continue to speak directly to our staff as employees, both as individuals and in groups—including those involved in the organizing effort. When we received contact information from staff members who said they were part of the organizing group, Wendy Collie sent them an email offering to meet with them as concerned employees. The employee group replied suggesting a meeting if there were pre-conditions. We then replied encouraging a meeting assuming mutually agreeable pre-conditions. Setting the meeting is in process and we hope to have it scheduled soon.
When this all started New Seasons was asked by many staff members to provide information on the overall process and specifics around the National Labor Relations Act. This is unfamiliar territory for all of us and we felt it best to bring in experts who could inform and educate properly and objectively. To provide staff with the unbiased information they need to make well-informed decisions, we looked to an outside resource—Cruz and Associates. The voluntary information sessions in stores, offices, and our central kitchen were completed in November, were attended by a large number of New Seasons employees, and multiple staff members in attendance shared that they found the sessions helpful. Cruz and Associates is no longer employed by New Seasons.
You write “Cruz and Associates is no longer employed by New Seasons.” Is that because their work was completed as expected, or because New Seasons made a decision to cease employing them? Some workers I interviewed said they were told Cruz would be back later for another round of sessions. Is that no longer the case? Might New Seasons employ Cruz again in the future?
Cruz and Associates completed their work for New Seasons last year.
Who owns New Seasons, and who sits on its board of directors?
The ownership of New Seasons includes Endeavor Capital who own 64 percent and the founders of both New Seasons and New Leaf stores and many of the friends and families who originally invested in the two companies. The board currently includes Stephen Babson and Bradaigh Wagner of Endeavor Capital, New Season’s founder, Stan Amy and New Leaf’s founder, Scott Roseman.
We think it is important to point out that in the nine years since Endeavor invested in New Seasons, we have continued our commitment to being a progressive workplace including: becoming one of the first employers to provide transgender healthcare benefits—including coverage of transition surgery, raising our internal minimum wage several times, providing industry leading benefits to our staff, and becoming one of the first grocery stores to become a certified B-Corp. We have also advocated for public policies like marriage equality, increased statewide minimum wage and fair workweek regulations. And just this year, we became one of the first grocers in the nation to provide fully paid parental leave. All of these actions and investments have been with the full support of our ownership and Board of Directors.
There are no direct ties between New Seasons and The Murdock Trust, and Murdock Trust receives no money from New Seasons Market. Murdock Trust is just one of over 100 investors in Endeavor Capital Fund V. Their investment represents less than 1.5 percent of Endeavour’s Fund V, which holds an ownership interest in New Seasons. The actions of Murdock Trust therefore have no real bearing on the operations of either Endeavour or New Seasons.
Sad to see greed appearing in a previously idealistic company. Had they truly wished to learn about labor relations laws, they could have chosen an unbiased labor relations law firm, rather than one that has ANY association with our “so-called president”, who has no problem altering truth in mid-sentence.
Sad I am.