Madison Willy Street Co-op Workers Vote In Favor Of Union

As grocery co-ops expand, co-op workers across the United States have increasingly pushed to unionize their workplaces. 

By Alice Herman
The Isthmus (9/12/19)

Bjørn Thorson says that in 2014 management at the Willy Street Co-op asked him to help fight an effort by workers to unionize.

“I was asked to keep my ears out and my eyes out and see if I could sway people away from unionizing,” says Thorson, a produce stocker and clerk at the westside Willy Street Co-op store. Thorson agreed to push back against the campaign led by United Food and Commercial Workers.

“If someone would say something pro-union, if I was able to find any holes in their argument or anything that didn’t sound right, I was able to kinda play on that and turn it around against them,” says Thorson.

But following that failed campaign, Thorson grew increasingly fed up with how management treated workers. His thinking shifted in 2016 when managers announced during a meeting that part-time workers would no longer be eligible for benefits.

“I remember that [meeting] very clearly because I had a gel pen in my hand and I remember listening to [management] talk … and as I was watching them I was looking around at my friends who work part time and I saw the hope leave them and they got really scared,” Thorson says. “And I didn’t realize it until I broke my pen with my thumb that I’d sliced my thumb open from gripping the pen.”

Following the implementation of an unpopular new attendance policy early this summer, Thorson contacted a representative of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). The call triggered a second campaign to unionize the Madison food cooperative — which succeeded on Sept. 4 when more than 86 percent of workers (249 to 40) voted in favor of unionization.

Until last week, these workers made up the largest non-unionized workforce at a food cooperative.

Of the 650 union elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board this year, Willy Street Co-op is among the largest 20 workforces to unionize. The successful vote is a rare event in Wisconsin, which has become hostile to unions. Since the passage of Act 10 in 2011, the state has seen union activity decline by more than 53 percent. In 2015, Wisconsin became a “right-to-work” state, meaning that union membership cannot be compulsory.

The Co-op unionization drive was organized by workers representing all nine grocery departments that formed an organizing committee of over 70 employees …

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