By Rene Thompson
Albuquerque, NM August 18, 2016.,-
The La Montanita Co-op, which is a member-owned cooperative run by 280 staff and an elected Board of Directors, has been a staple of Albuquerque grocers for 40 years. But, the company recently made some changes regarding their products that some critics don’t agree with.
Beginning this spring the company started carrying the “Clean 15” which is a variety of conventionally grown foods and contains fewer pesticides than the “Dirty Dozen,” according to Environmental Working Group. This change is in addition to the local conventional, organic and fair-trade products they already stock, and the issue has stirred up much controversy among some of the company’s employees, member owners who pay a yearly fee, and the hundreds who came to protest the change at the Santa Fe location in June.
General Manager Dennis Hanley, who was hired in December of 2015, is now under much scrutiny as he is the innovator for stocking nationally distributed conventional produce. He has also been criticized for coming from a corporate past and having more than a dozen employers no longer than two to four years.
Hanley said “Some of the remarks I get that I’m a hatchet man or the evil empire, I’m fine with because none of its true. No one should care about my past, because I really am so far from a corporate bully, and I may be the one pushing more corporate type policies, but that’s just how I am and how I get results.”
Hanley and Outreach Coordinator, Robin Seydel explained since opening the Westside location the Co-op has seen losses which accumulate to $960,000. According to their site, the location opened in 2013.
The company has also implemented the SNAP Double Bucks program at five of their locations, which affords$390,000 in state funded federal grants, while providing double the amount of locally-grown produce for New Mexico families in need. Hanley said the goal is to bring in customers from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and believes increasing the variety of foods will help the Co-op get back on its feet while changing the perception they’re too expensive to shop at.
Opponents are saying Hanley and the Board of Directors are going about it all wrong though, with little regard for employees or members along the way.
Employees at the Rio Grande location have since unionized their store, attributing the change to the quality of food and employment they say has changed dramatically since the new General Manager took over. Also since unionizing, many feel they are not being heard, and feel they are being treated differently than employees at other locations, as workers stated hours are being cut in their departments but the amount of work given has risen.
Employees clarified hours are based on sales made by each department and were told labor cuts would affect the budgets in all stores, but four employees including one from Westside, one in Santa Fe, and two from the Nob Hill locations all confirmed they had not seen any real changes made to the amount of hours distributed in their departments.
Former Rio Grande worker Atlas Hardage said he quit the Co-op because of the conventional produce but also because of the major changes in the atmosphere among his coworkers since taking steps to unionize.
“The original aspect of the Co-op is to be a Cooperative and let everyone’s opinion count and matter, and that’s no longer happening with La Montanita, because these type of corporate values have been instilled with little regard to what the members or employees want, and If I wanted to work in this type of environment, I would go work at whole foods,” Hardage said.
“The way they have been treating employees makes it harder for them to do their jobs, and with the hours being cut back, most of these people can’t even afford to shop at the store they work for”, he said.
“Everyone still there is so stressed out and I was too— it’s why I had to leave, because the way we were suddenly being treated made me sick to my stomach. “
Tonya Cole, who recently quit as well, said she’s fed up, especially with the board who she believes should be on the side of the employees. When staff from the Rio Grande store attempted to air their grievances at board meetings, she said they were ignored and the next day an HR person came to tell them the meetings are not the platform to address their concerns.
“Yet they aren’t communicating with the store or addressing people’s issues at all. The board is also supposed to answer to the members and they didn’t seem to consult anyone whatsoever,” she said. “It feels like there’s so much more going on here that we don’t know about, and that’s the problem because we’re member owned.”
Many other employees, who still work at the Co-op, were willing to speak about the issues they’re facing, but also did not want to be identified by their names for fear of losing their jobs.
One employee said,
“I always felt until recently that the Co-op’s values aligned with my own, and I was happy to work in a place that could happen, but it is really more devastating to lose that sense of worth than the changes that have been happening in the workplace. It was why we put up with lower wages because we used to feel like we were doing good in the world.”
Another explained space was becoming limited for merchandise in their department since the changes but workers were expected to preserve sales with less hours and more work.
“I just don’t see how were supposed to maintain all those sudden changes without some support— I work really hard at my job and when our sales drop it can be scary not knowing what’s going to change next,” they said.
Hanley denies cutting hours to weed out workers, and said the company’s labor budget is already higher than most other food retailers. who spend roughly eight to ten percent on labor costs.
“We’re spending about 19 percent, so if we we’re going to cut, we definitely have room to go, but the fact is that’s simply not true,” Hanley said. “La Montanita has probably one of the lowest efficiencies on labor in the state, so we need to improve our productivity, and we did have stores decrease their payrolls by one percent, but there is no reduction of hours because our Westside location is growing,” he said. He explained there are also many perks to working for La Montanita, such as healthcare, even for part-timers, 401k and monthly massage or acupuncture packages, which many workers utilize.
Contracts for the unionized store have yet to be negotiated, but it was determined during court hearings in July that managers or “team leaders’ are excluded from eligibility under union contract but assistant managers will be included.
Union Rep. Chris Saavedra said department managers were classified as excluded under federal law which was determined by their power to make decisions such as hiring or firing. Saavedra said what workers hope to accomplish with contract negations are better wages with more frequent raises, safer working conditions and having more of a say with how things are stocked and ran.
Hardage said produce was originally being labeled as the Clean 15 and not as conventional, which many customers did not understand the terminology, nor did they realize it was not organic while purchasing.
It has been confirmed by other employees that the appropriate conventional labeling was not done originally at least three locations. Staff also confirmed that once customers and members found out what was being sold to them, many were furious and demanded for proper labeling of the conventional foods.
A number of members at the Board of Director’s meetings in May and June had many positive things to say, but several were concerned about the direction the Co-op is heading. Many felt disenfranchised from the once democratic member-owner process, and some said they would want to vote on financial issues which dictate the quality of services and products. A couple addressed the conventional misleading labels, as well as newer conventional distributors of companies they find questionable, such as Chiquita bananas or Driscoll’s berries.
Local farmer Jose Luis Ortiz, who sells produce to the Co-op, said at the meeting that he completely supports the Co-op because they can play a pivotal roll in educating the local public about their food, but said he does not agree with the Clean 15 initiative or their tactics in wanting to go up against big box retailers.
“What I don’t understand is why they would try to compete with larger or more corporate based entities, because they should instead by trying to cultivate more within our communities,” he said. “As a member owner I am also concerned about the labor union and I don’t know what is guiding that process, but the people who work there know the importance of the food we eat, and they’re valuable and skilled people because of these actions.”
Ethical Fair-trade Distributors:
Workers also showed concern for the overall quality of products that are being stocked, as produce staffer said their worries were more about the distributors, and conventional as well as some organic coming strictly from what he calls subpar vendors.
“Anyone who has worked locally at other stores knows this is produce you don’t really get unless you’re desperate for product in your stores. Like really, a last ditch effort to get something in the store, and we have been told people in management have said to other providers that we’re no longer allowed to order from them,” they said.” it’s just not up to the standards we used to hold at the Co-op— our customers want quality produce and we are no longer are able to provide that.”
Hanley believes the quality of food is not always at the fault of their distributors, as he said it could be the grower, shipper, or the person taking care of produce in store.
“There is no validity to Pueblo Fruits and Vegetables being subpar, or being a supplier that doesn’t supply quality products, Hanley said. “If they do have subpar quality, we’ll go back and figure it out, because it is not the job of a retailer to criticize their vendors, but instead to tell them how to get better and they are doing a fine job for us.”
He explained they may be stocking brands like Chiquita, but they are also making sure these companies are compliant with labor laws, assuring that the Co-op is still making strides to ensure their products are well researched for stock in their stores.
Workers from other stores not unionized yet said they would be interested in learning about unionizing too, but there isn’t any organization yet.
An anonymous staffer said, “A number of employees have considered it, myself included, and basically we’re just waiting for something to happen.”
In the near future Hanley said he does not anticipate any lay-offs happening, but that the company and the needs of the market are constantly evolving and must be met in order to stay a locally successful grocer for 40 more years to come.