Submitted by Konstantin_Levin on Fri, 01/28/2011 – 6:28am.
The Nebraska Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the newly-formed Open Harvest Workers’ Union have been engaged in a month long struggle to improve treatment and compensation of workers at Open Harvest Cooperative Grocery in Lincoln. On Monday, January 3rd, the Nebraska IWW met with the Open Harvest board of directors. We presented a list of 5 demands, which the board agreed to address. In fact, we left the meeting feeling somewhat optimistic, as the board declared at that meeting that the current grievance policy was not compliant with their policies on fair treatment of workers.
Subsequently the board ruled that the general manager was to formulate a new, compliant grievance policy. We considered this to be a small victory as one of our demands was the complete overhaul of the grievance procedure. We previously stated that the existing grievance policy was unfair and intimidating because it forced the worker, who may very well have a grievance with management, to address part of management – the general manager – with any grievance and the general manager is given the power to throw out any grievance he or she felt was without merit, instead of passing it on to a board of directors committee for review. We argued that a fair grievance policy should bypass management altogether and go to a “grievance committee”, a committee which should include members of the board and at least one democratically-elected peer (a non-management worker).
Our impression following the meeting was that most of the board members were sympathetic to this proposal and the rest of our demands (in fact a couple even stated so in private to us after the meeting). Our other demands are as follows: the reinstatement of IWW member Andrew Losh until his grievance is reviewed by a grievance committee; that board positions be made available to workers (a growing trend with progressive co-ops); wage increases for workers (workers currently start out at minimum wage and are given little opportunity for advancement, our goal is a living wage and benefits for all co-op workers); and full-time hours/benefits made available to non-management workers (currently only management receive full-time hours and insurance benefits). For more on this meeting see this article: http://www.iww.org/en/node/5312
Unfortunately our optimism soon began to fade. All demands, except the first one, were not given a concrete deadline, all we asked was that progress be made; but we did set a one week deadline for our first demand – the reinstatement of IWW member, Andrew Losh. This deadline (Jan. 1, 2011) came and went, so we announced our intent to picket the co-op in order to further expose the problems at the co-op and to encourage swifter action from the co-op bureaucracy.
Finally on January 15th at around 8 PM (the night before our scheduled picket), Andrew received a letter from Kelsi Swanson, the Open Harvest general manager, which informed him that she would not be passing on his grievance to the committee. Underneath its veneer of professionalism and politeness, this letter stated that Swanson was using the current grievance policy (even though it was ruled as “non-compliant” by the board) to completely dismiss the grievance of Losh.
On Saturday, January 15th we went ahead with our picket. The intent of this picket was not to prevent people from shopping at co-op, and we openly stated so; our intent was to publicize the concerns of Open Harvest workers. Despite this, store management presented all staff with a memo on how to deal with the picket “out of concern for their safety”. The Open Harvest Workers’ Union sees this as a propaganda tactic – the promotion of a “siege mentality” – that is, spreading the idea that the co-op is under attack by a group of vindictive and possibly violent outsiders, and that the IWW does not have the workers’ interests in mind.
In addition, the general manager posted this flippant dismissal of worker concerns on Facebook: “Please do not let a few sour apples stop you from getting your fresh organic apples from our wonderful produce department!” These are tactics often used by private employers to undermine efforts by workers to organize. Open Harvest members need to be made aware of the fact that the management of their cooperative, intentionally or unthinkingly, embraced what is clearly a hostile anti-union strategy. At the picket we handed out informative handbills which stated the issues and our demands and we spoke with many patrons who were sympathetic to our efforts and we all felt that it went very well despite the dishonest tactics used by Open Harvest management.
At this point we are focusing our efforts on spreading the word about worker concerns at the co-op. On January 26th we had an opportunity to speak about our Open Harvest campaign on KZUM and we plan to continue to get the community engaged in improving the situation at the co-op. The IWW will be attending the next Open Harvest board meeting and we encourage all members, patrons and workers who support the co-op reforms to show up and weigh in. The next board meeting is on February 7th at 5:30 PM, at the Irving Recreational Center (located at 20th and Van Dorn Streets).