Employees at the Forest Street and Cordata Co-op locations have voted in favor of unionization after workers from both stores said they experience “abysmal” pay, limited benefits, and a lack of respect and accommodation from upper management.
Approximately 170 employees voted, with over 86% voting in favor of union representation, according to Rich Ewing, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 231. The organization has been working closely with workers at the Co-op since July.
Co-op employers were given the opportunity to voluntarily recognize a union after Teamsters Local 231 filed for representation on behalf of Co-op employees with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Jan. 10. They declined, leading employees to a vote, which took place on Jan. 31 at the Forest Street location downtown, and Feb. 1 at the Cordata location.
“They want to increase employee retention and longevity with their employer,” Ewing said. “They have a lot of turnover because of the poor wages and working conditions.”
Currently, entry-level Co-op employees, such as grocery baggers and cashiers, make $16.50 per hour, only 22 cents above Washington state’s minimum wage. That number will increase to $17.30 on May 1, per the City of Bellingham’s recent minimum wage increase initiative. Co-op employees will be making 2 cents over Bellingham’s minimum wage.
This information was shared with employees in a financial report through the online payroll app Paylocity by head of Human Resources Renee Hall on Dec. 6.
For Gregory Berry, a hot bar attendant at the Cordata store, unionization means taking the promises made by management, including yearly raises and cost of living raises, and putting them in writing.
“We are glad our employees exercised their right to vote and will work with the union to support our employees,” Amy Drury, marketing and outreach director for the Co-op, said in an email. Drury did not respond to questions about wages or working conditions.
The votes will be certified by the NLRB within 10 days of the election, according to Ewing. Once votes are certified, Teamsters and Co-op employees will begin negotiating with the employer to form a contract.
Teamsters provide support and assistance to companies all around the country, with the local branch representing almost 600 employees in Whatcom County including workers from Sanitary Service Company, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham, among others.
“The trick with the first contract is that you can’t expect to instantly get the same wages as some places that have been unionized and bargaining contract after contract for generations,” said David Groves, communications director for the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC).
The WSLC is a state federation with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, and is the largest union organization in Washington state, according to Groves.
“Once you have a contract, it’s all spelled out right there,” Groves said. “It’s not just wages and benefits, but also grievances and discipline.”
The most important aspects of contract negotiation are making sure everything gets put in writing and that progress is made every time a new contract is negotiated, Groves said.
Neal Walker has been employed at the downtown Co-op for almost a year. They said that the main motivation for unionizing lies in a “dissonance between the Co-op’s image and how it actually treats its employees.”
“We aren’t valued,” Walker said. “We are expected to go above and beyond, and treated unfairly.”
Walker said that their department’s hours have been sharply cut, with few staff members qualifying as full-time. Representatives from the Co-op did not provide information on hours being cut.
According to Chloe Quan, a downtown Co-op employee, at least 30 hours per week are required to retain health insurance benefits. Losing hours can be harmful, putting health insurance availability into question for workers.
“Some of the main motivations [behind unionizing] are the security of being able to have our benefits,” said Quan, who has been working at the Co-op since August 2022.
Quan said their experience working at the Co-op has generally been positive, but they could benefit from more secure hours and scheduling.
“I was hired under the expectation that I would have hours every week,” Walker said. “And now… people are struggling to make rent.”
Upon starting, Walker and the other new employees were excited to work at the Co-op until they learned of the strong anti-union stance of upper management, Walker said.
In a Jan. 26 announcement to employees, Hall listed all benefits and explained them in detail.
At the end of the post, shared through the online payroll and HR app Paylocity, Hall said that the union winning the election would put all benefits up for negotiation and that employees could end up with “less than you have now.”
“Contract negotiation is a give-and-take process, and no one – not the union and not the Co-op – can guarantee that these benefits won’t change,” Hall said in the post.
“I love working at the Co-op. I just wished the Co-op loved the work that I do,” Walker said.
All employees could benefit from working in a better environment, Berry said, describing the training process at the Co-op as “being thrown into a pool and told to swim.” Berry also shared that from his perspective, upper management has become disconnected from workers.
“It’s an exciting time and a very nervous time for these employees,” Ewing said before the vote. “I have to commend all of these workers on their bravery for standing up.”
Franny Vollert (she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a sophomore majoring in journalism with a news/editorial concentration. She enjoys reading, taking walks, and spending time with friends. You can reach her at email@example.com.