Union files complaint against Northampton co-op over leafleting

  • River Valley Co-op in Northampton.

Published: 1/19/2017 12:14:07 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A union representing 100 employees at the River Valley Co-op has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after a representative said an employee was stopped from passing out leaflets on the job.

The dispute “blew up” over Labor Day weekend, according to Jeff Jones, a union rep for United Food and Commercial Works Local 1459, after general manager Rochelle Prunty allegedly told the employee that he wasn’t allowed to hand out a leaflet arguing that workers should be compensated for the time it takes to shuttle them to work from a parking lot a mile away.

The union contends that was a violation of the employee’s right to “concerted activity.”

Prunty denied the allegation Wednesday, saying via email that “no, management has never stopped an employee from handing out leaflets.”

“River Valley Co-op is a strong supporter of workplace rights and respects the Union and its member’s right to engage in concerted activity,” Prunty said in an email.

Eve Weinbaum, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Labor Center, said handing out leaflets on the job about workplace issues is protected under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

“Certainly, sharing the information with other workers, informing them about their rights, encouraging people to act together and do something about it — that is protected,” she said. “That’s kind of the bedrock of labor law.”

Jones agreed.

“Store management tried to put a stop to it and said it was illegal and that he couldn’t do it,” Jones said. “But that’s actually an example of concerted activity. He can do it.”

The leaflets

Jones said most co-op employees park about a mile away from the store. From there, a shuttle picks up the workers and takes them to the store, on 330 N. King St.

The shuttle driver is the one who was passing out leaflets, Jones said.

“The general manager confronted him and said ‘you can’t hand out the leaflets,’” Jones said. “At that particular time, he didn’t even have any on him.”

The leaflet, obtained by the Gazette through Jones, argues that workers should be compensated for shuttle time.

“Think shuttle time is no big deal?” the flier reads. It goes on to say that an employee spending 20 minutes on the shuttle per day ends up spending 86.32 hours per year on the shuttle based on a five-day work week. At $12 an hour, that’s $1,036 in lost wages per year, the flier states.

It goes on to quote Massachusetts labor regulations.

“Compensable work time begins at the reporting time and includes subsequent travel to and from the work site,” the flier reads in part.

Jones said the union has reached out to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office to get an opinion on whether employees should be compensated for shuttle time.

He said the union has yet to hear back.

The complaint

At issue now is not necessarily whether employees should be compensated for shuttle time, Jones said, but whether Prunty was in the wrong when she allegedly told the shuttle driver not to pass out the fliers.

According to Jones’ version of events, the union and management followed a grievance process spelled out in a collective bargaining agreement signed in February.

The union and management had reached stage 3 of that process after the parties weren’t able to reach a resolution through other means.

Jones said managers refused to acknowledge that they had violated the worker’s right to concerted activity.

He said that was “pretty much” the only lingering issue that was to be sent to stage 4 — federal mediation.

He said both sides did agree to put out a joint statement reaffirming the right of employees to engage in concerted activity, mandating labor law training for management and providing information on concerted activity rights to new employees, among other issues.

Not so, Prunty said in an email.

“We never agreed to sign the Union’s proposed settlement.

“Although the Union presented a settlement offer during the grievance process, we reviewed it and ultimately did not agree to its terms,” she wrote.

“We communicated this to the Union and expressed our desire to proceed to the next step of the grievance process, which is mediation.”

When Local 1459 received this news, representatives decided to file the unfair labor practice complaint against the co-op, Jones said.

“The Employer has refused to sign and repudiated its agreement to resolve a pending grievance concerning Concerted Activity,” the complaint, signed Jan. 12, states.

Prunty said in the email that management never “repudiated” the agreement, because there never was an agreement in the first place.

Regardless, Jones says a round of training in labor law for managment is in order.

“I think they need a refresher course,” he said.

Prunty concluded her email by saying that “River Valley Co-op remains committed to the grievance process and the ideals set forth in our labor agreement with the UFCW and will continue, as always, to utilize those processes in good faith.”

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

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