Co-op workers vote to unionize

Workers of the Takoma Park-Silver Spring (TPSS) Co-op voted in favor of the unionization of their workplace on August 21 in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The election was for a bargaining unit of 33 workers. Twelve voted for the union; 11 voted against; and 10 abstained.

According to TPSS Co-op employee Kenneth Yates, the close vote was due to a lack of awareness of the benefits of unionizing. “We are confident that as we begin discussing and hammering out the details of our contract, the benefits will become clear, and we will likely see a more united Co-op,” he said.

Jay Levy, a 42-year Takoma Park resident and one of the 6,000 Co-op members, views unions as an important protection for people in the workplace.

“It gives them more protection and a place to work out on-the-job hassles besides going right to management. You have a broader representation. You’re not representing yourself; you’re representing a whole bunch of workers if the union is going to bat for you,” Levy said.

Yates further articulated on the role of unions as a protective entity for workers, describing the end to ‘at-will’ employment as a result of the Co-op unionizing.

“The employer will need ‘just cause’ to discipline or terminate an employee. This provides workers with the opportunity to raise issues or concerns without the fear of retaliation,” Yates said. “We can now have a hand, as workers, in shaping the policies that govern our working lives. This was not previously possible without community intervention or some form of economic direct action.”

The NLRB election was the first step in the management’s response to the workers’ demands for an increased wage and unionization of the Co-op at the end of July.

“The Board and Management are strongly committed to the principle that our employees are free to make their own choice about union representation,” the Co-op statement reads, later expressing willingness to negotiate wages if the workers voted to be represented by a union.

Although the workers voted to be represented by the IWW, any negotiations and bargaining regarding the demand for increased wage cannot commence until the union is certified by the NLRB, according to Co-op Interim General Manager Martha Whitman.

“Once the union is certified by the NLRB, TPSS is ready to start negotiating in good faith with the union over the terms and conditions of employment including wages and benefits. TPSS can’t make any changes to the terms and conditions of employment except through the collective bargaining process,” Whitman stated.

In order to prepare for the bargaining process, the Co-op employees will convene to determine their collective needs.

“We will be meeting as a union over the coming weeks to determine what fellow workers want to bargain for. We will definitely address wages, benefits and opportunities for workers to gain skills and expertise,” Yates said.

Levy hopes that future negotiations result in a fair wage for the employees.

“I’m sure they could stand to have their wages improved even if it’s a year-by-year incremental increase,” he said, noting uncertainty about the Co-op’s financial ability to immediately provide $15 minimum wage. “In supporting the Co-op, I feel the Co-op should in turn support the folks who live here and work here. Being a part of Takoma Park, there’s a socially responsible feeling of a good portion of the people who live here, and that would include providing a living wage to its employees.”

Although the NLRB election was only for the unionization of the TPSS Co-op, Yates hopes the worker and labor movement extends throughout the city of Takoma Park.

“Our organization’s goal has always been to build new relationships with one another, as workers, based on solidarity and mutual aid,” Yates said. “We hope to be a resource for workers wishing to improve their working conditions in the area. Imagine a Takoma Park where all workers are represented by a union!”