Fairness and respect must guide Hunger Mountain labor talks

This afternoon, I sat with a Hunger Mountain Co-op worker at a table outside of the store to talk with shoppers about the contract negotiations that are happening between the workers and the management at the co-op. Most visitors to the table were clearly baffled by the breakdown in negotiations that sent the two sides to federal mediation, which will begin next week. Several visitors to the table asked, “What’s a co-op all about, anyway?” I wondered the same thing myself.

I’ve done what I can to educate myself on what is happening. I’ve read the materials from the co-op and also from the union. I’ve talked to a few people involved, and I’ve read what I could find in the local media. That said, I’m not an expert on this issue, nor on contract negotiations.

I am a member of the co-op, though, and one of the reasons I am is because I want to support everyone in the food chain making a living wage. My preference is to buy direct from the food producers, but it’s not always possible for me to do so, and so I do my best to support economic justice within the system that I am confronted with. I have also appreciated the fact that the co-op is unionized.

I’m not going to get into a he-said-she-said kind of discussion here. Both sides seem to have a few valid points. I will say, however, that I believe the co-op should pay its workers as much as it can, and it should do what it can to raise the average wages in our community. It should treat its workers with respect, and it should expect the community at large to do this also. It should also do what it can to raise the expectations of all consumers so that this is the rule, rather than the exception.

What I am appreciating during this difficult time is the union’s willingness to stand for the workers, and to insist that they are paid well. This is a difficult thing in a small community. Yet, it is incredibly important. We must set our expectations high, and begin from a place of abundance. We can afford to pay these workers well. It’s that simple. And if, for some reason we think we can’t, then we should look at where our priorities are, and have a conversation about that.

Just a few short months ago, hundreds of us stood on the Statehouse steps and in other places around the state and rallied in support of workers in Wisconsin. We cheered at the speeches about solidarity and how we need to work toward economic justice. Yet here, in our own community, we stand by and watch as people have to fight for a few dollars here and there, when the business they work for is prospering. I will probably never meet the people who shut down the Wisconsin Statehouse while I was at a rally here in Vermont, but I see and talk to the workers at the co-op every week, and I will stand in solidarity with them.