By COLIN STAUB
In April, management at Portland’s New Seasons grocery chain changed an attendance policy, implemented new rules for paid leave, and rolled out a “task-based scheduling” system. In May, workers launched a union campaign.
Workers at the “Seven Corners” store at Southeast 20th and Division announced that they’ve formed the New Seasons Labor Union, and asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to set an election date.
The independent union and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 both filed NLRB petitions for separate stores on May 27. (UFCW is looking to represent workers at a Hillsboro location.) They’re the first organizing efforts at New Seasons since 2017, when management spent more than $300,000 to quash a UFCW-led campaign.
Workers at Seven Corners say the recent management decisions—made without consulting workers—drove the campaign.
Under one new policy, if workers take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), any paid time off they’ve accrued gets used. (Employers enact this to prevent workers from stacking up long leave periods).
Another new policy requires that requests for time off (or even just to leave early) go to higher-up managers rather than direct supervisors.
“It’s taken a lot of decision-making power and control out of the hands of department managers,” said Suzanne Bernardi, a produce clerk who’s worked at New Seasons for three years.
The company also implemented “task-based scheduling,” in which managers at the corporate office determine how many workers are needed at specific times in each department. Department managers rearrange workers’ schedules accordingly.
As a result, workers find themselves staffing departments where they don’t have experience.
“We actually have skilled labor in specific departments,” Bernardi said. “Somebody in grocery can’t set the wet rack in the produce department. They don’t have that skill. They haven’t been trained.”
Workers say the company implemented that policy to get people who don’t typically work weekends to work weekend shifts, which itself is a change in company direction.
“Part of why it’s nice to work at New Seasons is because normally they have been flexible around your schedule and your lifestyle,” said floral department worker Madelyn Barzee, who’s been at New Seasons nearly four years.
Management regularly holds “Coffee Chats” in a conference room, where workers can ask questions and hear from coworkers. But discussions covering the new policies were held in a human resources office where workers could only go in one or two at a time. And in the small meetings, Barzee recalls HR wasn’t very forthcoming.
Grocery workers in particular had lots of concerns. So one day, top managers showed up and called grocery workers into the conference room with 10 minutes’ notice to answer questions.
Bernardi says the meeting struck a bad tone.
“It was very adversarial. It was really upsetting,” she said. That meeting was a turning point for some workers: At the next union organizing meeting, people who hadn’t previously been involved showed up and signed cards indicating union support.
Workers who are active in the organizing drive are distributing their own publication, called “The Blue Slip,” to share information about the union effort with coworkers. But management at the store has repeatedly thrown out the publication, workers say. And a bulletin board that used to be open for announcements had new rules after the union campaign began. Now, all postings must be approved by management, be dated and be removed after 14 days. Those things led workers to file an unfair labor practice charge against the company on June 1.
Workers say the company has otherwise been fairly quiet in response to the campaign, but that its decision to retain noted anti-union law firm Ogletree Deakins speaks for itself.
In a emailed statement to the Labor Press, New Seasons CEO Nancy Lebold said management is “committed to honest, transparent and collaborative conversations with staff through this process.”
NLRB filings were not available by press time, but the New Seasons Labor Union said the company filed a position statement proposing a larger bargaining unit that would include assistant managers.