By COLIN STAUB
It’s the first ever union win at New Seasons Market. Workers at the store at 1954 SE Division St. voted 62 to 15 to affiliate with the independent New Seasons Labor Union (NSLU), in ballots counted Sept. 7. The campaign was the third attempt to unionize that location in the last 11 years.
Founded by three families in 1999, the Portland-area natural foods grocery chain was sold to private equity firm in 2013 and today is a subsidiary of South Korean retail giant E-mart.
Workers at the Division store, known as the Seven Corners store, filed their election petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on May 27. But they started organizing on April 1, the same day the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won its first union election at an Amazon warehouse. NSLU organizers say they were inspired by ALU, a newly formed independent union that won where an established union had failed. (A previous Amazon organizing effort at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union failed in 2021 and again when a re-vote was ordered in 2022.)
Seven Corners workers filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) the same day that United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 filed to represent workers at a New Seasons in Hillsboro. When the NLRB counted the Hillsboro ballots Sept. 1, workers had rejected the union 60 to 37.
NSLU also launched a campaign at New Seasons’ Sellwood store in June. But workers there narrowly rejected the union by 33 to 29 in ballots counted Sept. 8.
The Labor Press spoke with union supporters at the Seven Corners and Sellwood stores to get a fuller picture of what happened.
“Historically, looking through union organizing at New Seasons, so much of it has come from or been centered through Seven Corners,” said former New Seasons worker Isaac Byrd, who was active in Local 555’s failed 2017 company-wide union effort. Byrd is now a volunteer organizer with NSLU, and says many of the same workers are still there at Seven Corners, even though staff turnover at the store has increased in the past couple years.
“There are a lot of people still at Seven Corners who have been there for a long time—people who have seen the company change,” Byrd said.
Seven Corners worker Suzanne Bernardi attributes the union success there in part to on-the-ground conversations. Volunteer organizers asked their coworkers what was important to them, and how NSLU could work to make it happen. Even when coworkers were staunchly opposed, organizers spent time with them, and invited them to union meetings.
Seven Corners union supporter Chris Fellini says NSLU also responded to coworker feedback about the campaign’s direction. Early vocal criticisms of upper management didn’t resonate with some workers, so the campaign shifted its tone.
“Meeting people where they were at was, I think, really pivotal in this campaign,” Fellini said.
The company mounts another anti-union campaign
One of the biggest challenges for Seven Corners union supporters was responding to an antiunion mailer sent out by New Seasons. In it, the company compared New Seasons workers’ current wages/benefits, those offered at UFCW-represented grocery stores, and “Unknown” written under a third column for NSLU. The message was clear: To unionize with NSLU would be to enter scary uncharted territory.
Pro-union workers say the mailer was effective: Some supporters began wavering after being told that they could lose current benefits or face exorbitant initiation fees. To counter that, organizers began talking with everyone they could. They created fliers and responded to the mailer on a chalkboard in the break room and on social media.
Jakob Parsons, a volunteer organizer at the Sellwood store, said a lot of his coworkers are longtime employees who have faith in the company, and it was a challenge to convince them of the value of unionizing.
The Sellwood workers received the same antiunion mailer. New Seasons also created an extensive “Know The Facts” section on its website with six PDFs in English and Spanish conveying the same boilerplate “cautions” that virtually all union-busting employers disseminate. If the union wins, New Seasons told workers, it can’t be decertified for at least a year; management could “no longer deal directly with staff on wages, hours, benefits and other working conditions;” and there is “no guarantee that wages will increase with a union contract.”
Parsons says as the election drew near, New Seasons began stressing the importance of voting—telling workers that not voting was the same as voting yes. That mobilized “no” voters in a real way, and also suggested to passive supporters that their vote might be unnecessary. When ballots went out, management would remind workers to vote over the store loudspeaker.
Having won the union election at Seven Corners, NSLU must now ratify bylaws, elect officers, and gear up to bargain with the company. Because NSLU is unaffiliated with an established union, it lacks the resources of a larger organization. Organizers hope to get help from established labor unions with things like meeting space and advice in writing bylaws. NSLU can be contacted at [email protected].
Parsons said workers and customers will be paying attention to how the company approaches bargaining with NSLU at Seven Corners.
“I think either Seven Corners will get a contract or New Seasons will show their hand,” he said. “If they draw it out and make it really difficult, I hope that people will be able to see that they’re not the company they say they are. Because a real progressive company, if a union formed they would listen.”
For its part, New Seasons management says in the union-focused section of its website that it respects the right of workers to unionize, and that it is “committed to working in partnership with the NSLU” at Seven Corners.
Workers at the “Slabtown” New Seasons store at 2170 NW Raleigh St., in Portland are also seeking to join New Seasons Labor Union. Ballots will be mailed Sept. 29 and are due back Oct. 11.
HOW TO HELP: As of Sept. 15, a solidarity fund on GoFundMe had raised $4,200 since it was set up in June.