Second River Valley Co-op location planned as labor issues remain unresolved

  • River Valley Co-Op on North King Street in Northampton. Co-op leaders are planning for a second store, though a location has yet to be announced. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

@JackSuntrup
Published: 6/13/2017 10:38:53 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The River Valley Co-op is planning a second location, though management has yet to release details on where the market would be or when it might open.

Rochelle Prunty, the store’s general manager, hinted in a May 23 email to the Gazette that a second location was in the works, but added “we don’t have anything to announce.”

She hearkened back to when the co-op opened its first brick-and-mortar location on North King Street in 2008.

“Having done this once in a manner that is in keeping with our owner’s commitment to our local economy, our environment and sustainability issues, we know that there is a great deal of work that goes into such an endeavor — more perhaps than many of our corporate competitors would undertake in selecting a viable site for expansion,” Prunty’s email said.

In a statement posted on the co-op’s website on May 25, Dorian Gregory, the president of the co-op’s board of directors, said a new location was planned in part to increase the store’s economies of scale.

“We desire to open a second store, both to retain the sales we’ve gained, and, perhaps most important, to realize economies of scale that can come with having multiple stores,” she wrote.

On Tuesday, Prunty said there was no update on a location or planned opening date.

The Amherst Food Co-op also recently announced the possibility of a brick-and-mortar location, though logistics for that project are still being worked out as well.

Labor issues

Gregory’s admission there was a second store planned came as part of a larger response to controversy swirling over labor issues at the co-op.

The Gazette reported in May on a negative atmosphere at the market some employees say is antithetical to the co-op’s brand as a progressive employer.

Specifically, employees interviewed want wages lifted above “living wage” thresholds and to be able to clock in when they board a shuttle that ferries workers to the store each day.

In her online statement, Gregory also said it would not be “financially prudent” to increase wages above what was negotiated between the union and management in 2015. She said profit margins are “slim,” fluctuating between 1 and 3 percent.

“Businesses of our size have several tools to increase profit: benefit from economies of scale by increasing sales, raise prices, or cut expenses. The only reasonable tool from the Co-op’s perspective is opening a second store to increase our economies of scale,” she said.

Gregory also responded to the ongoing shuttle issue. Because there is no room for employees to park in the store lot, a shuttle ferries them to the store from a lot in Hatfield.

Gregory contends the shuttle issue was sorted out in 2015 contract negotiations, where employees would all receive higher wages in lieu of shuttle pay. Some employees dispute that version of events, and say shuttle time can cost workers more than $1,000 per year in lost wages.

Gregory also said the average pay for a co-op employee is $13.55 an hour, higher than the Northampton “living wage” rate of $13.36. She said the co-op offers discounts and benefits for employees.

But employees interviewed say it is misleading to look at average pay. In fact, according to a chart published in Gregory’s note, only 27 percent of employees on the co-op’s lowest pay level make above $13.36 per hour.

Just a third of employees on the lowest rung make more than $12.34 per hour, the rate Living Wage Western Mass considers a “living wage” for western Massachusetts in general.

Employees on the lowest pay scale make up about 45 percent of the co-op’s 152 employees.

In October, pay is set to increase, as outlined by the collected bargaining agreement, pushing more — but not all — workers toward a “living wage.”

Management and the employee union are scheduled to discuss the shuttle issue and another conflict over leafleting with federal mediators on June 26 and 27.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.




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