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Union, managers at River Valley Co-op resolve simmering issues after mediation

  • Mark Heitman drives the shuttle that ferries River Valley Co-op workers between the Northampton store and the employee parking lot in Hatfield. Gazette File photo

  • River Valley Co-op on North King Street in Northampton. Gazette File photo



@JackSuntrup
Monday, July 03, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — The River Valley Co-op and the union representing its employees have reached an agreement over long-simmering shuttle and leafleting complaints.

The two sides also announced on Monday higher wages for the cooperative’s lowest-paid employees.

In a joint news release, union representative Jeff Jones, of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, and Rochelle Prunty, the store’s general manager, said federal mediators helped the two sides resolve the issues last week.

The shuttle issue again came to the fore the Friday before Labor Day last year, when employees interviewed say Prunty tried to stop shuttle driver Mark Heitman from handing out leaflets. Heitman denies he was passing out leaflets.

The fliers said employees can lose more than $1,000 in wages per year by using the shuttle, which ferries workers to the North King Street co-op from a lot in Hatfield, a process that adds up over time.

Employees are not allowed to park in the co-op’s parking lot, because there is no room.

Leafleting among employees is considered protected “concerted activity” in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Concerted activity, the shuttle issue, and a wage increase were all discussed last week.

Here’s what happened:

River Valley’s management and the union agreed to reaffirm support of “concerted activity.”

Employees on the lowest pay scale will see a 75-cent per hour pay increase this August. That is in addition to a 50-cent bump already set to take place in October. The result: the lowest-paid workers will need to work at the co-op for one year before making $13.50 per hour, higher than what is considered a living wage in Northampton. Before, it would take those employees three years to reach close to that threshold.

Employees will also be paid for shuttle time.

“We agreed to a plan for making ‘shuttle time’ paid work time,” Prunty said in an email.

Still, Kelsi Sleet and Justin Wentworth, two union stewards who took part in negotiations, said because workers will be on the clock, management had liability concerns, meaning they will have to hire higher-ranking employees to drive the shuttle.

The three current shuttle drivers will be reassigned, raising questions about what jobs they will have access to.

“That was the most troubling part of the agreement,” Wentworth said.

In the news release, Jones said he was pleased with the outcome.

“The long-standing issue of parking has been resolved as well as the role of concerted activity in the workplace,” he wrote. “I feel this paves the way for the Co-op to grow and extend further into the community.”

Jones could not be reached for comment Monday.

Prunty cheered the union-management grievance process outlined in the 2015 bargaining agreement, which she said helped the two sides come to a resolution.

“With strengthened teamwork, the collective capacity of our 150-plus employees to better serve our co-op owners, customers, vendors and the broader community is also strengthened,” she said.

Still, it appeared not all was settled at River Valley.

Sleet said that since mediation ended, she has put in her two-weeks notice and resigned as a steward. She said she has “structural” concerns with the way the store is managed, and took aim at Jones, whom she said does not adequately represent employee interests on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s totally soul-sucking to work at that place,” she said.

Wentworth took a brighter tone, saying the stewards had accomplished their goal last week, as well as an unexpected bump in pay.

“The goal that we were sent there for was achieved — and more,” Wentworth said.

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