It seems like a normal November day at Bloomingfoods East. Employees wheel boxes of organic produce past lines of chatty customers during a fairly busy midmorning rush.
But change is coming, and no one is quite sure where the chips will fall.
In five days, Kaisa Goodman, a Bloomingfoods employee, will know whether the union spirit she’s tried to foster since September will take hold. The workers will vote.
“Do you want to be represented by a union? Yes or no?”
Bloomingfoods, a cooperative, prides itself as a socially conscious bastion of organic produce and community values, but some of its workers feel slighted and unheard. A pile of unanswered grievances came to light, much to the confusion of a city that cherishes Bloomingfoods as one of its most progressive institutions.
Kaisa said she wonders if they’ll finally have a voice.
Someone was cut from the schedule this week without much warning. Kaisa, 21, is a full-time employee, but managers have been trying to convince her to drop down to 34 hours a week, two hours less than the full-time minimum. She’s defended her managers because they’ve done right by her and the unionization effort, but now she’s being told she’s uncooperative.
She sits down with potato soup from the commissary during her break from cashiering and pulls her long, springy hair back. She has too many things to do and a long list of things to say. She exudes composure. She’s not afraid to talk about the unionization effort in a booth right by the cashier lanes.
She thinks the union will protect employees — her friends and family — and restore the communal spirit of the store they all love.
“I’m trying to get a human response from the managers,” she said. “I mean, isn’t this weird?”
Take one for the team, they say.
“No,” she said. “Take one for the workers.”
She thinks she’s taken enough for the team.
A manager walks by. She suddenly falls silent, looking at the table.
When the workers announced their intent to unionize in September, tension skyrocketed. Rumors broke that the store met with Nathan Baker, a union-busting lawyer from Indianapolis — and at a bad time.
Competition had been creeping in. Lucky’s Market, another natural food store, will open in spring 2015, and Whole Foods is rumored to arrive in 2016. Workers’ issues are erupting at a time when the store’s interests are split between focusing their message and preparing for the holiday season.
But Kaisa, her husband, Dakota Walker, 24, and their rallying troop of close friends believe if Bloomingfoods is to survive, everyone will have to see how the sausage is made.
It’s complicated. At the annual meeting in October, the board announced no grievances had been filed in the past year. However, many workers said they felt the grievance system was broken. They provided a laundry list of alleged issues to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union — verbal abuse, condescension, inappropriate behavior, poor standardization of raises — and said they felt they had “hit a brick wall” when they tried to report anything.
The grievance process requires employees to speak with the person who wronged them and then work their way up the managerial hierarchy until the issue is resolved. Human Resources is considered an option at all times. But if you have a grievance with HR or any members of the hierarchy, where do you go?
George Huntington, general manager of Bloomingfoods, said many of the issues might have been exacerbated by failures of communication on both sides.
“As our organization has grown, we’ve made efforts to strengthen our resources,” he said.
Bloomingfoods has recently hired another HR employee, making a total of three HR employees for the organization.
“People didn’t give the procedure a chance to operate,” said Jeff Jewel, branding and communications director for Bloomingfoods. “They’re making a judgment that it doesn’t work without trying it.”
Some of these issues came to light while Kaisa and Dakota were on their honeymoon in August.
Dakota, an IU alumnus who studied social work, is deeply centered and thoughtful. He usually defers to Kaisa when they talk. But his fellow workers came to him when they had concerns at his store. He’s not afraid to speak up when the time is right.
He also happens to have a wife who was raised on the bread and butter of unions. Kaisa has attended the Eugene V. Debs award dinner in Terre Haute, an event honoring Indiana’s most famous union organizer, every year of her life.
“We were the perfect people at the perfect time,” Dakota said.
They’d been burned, too. Dakota constantly fights to maintain full-time status in the face of labor cuts. Kaisa had been convinced to move to the Elm Heights store on a promise that she’d get promoted. But after she brought it up to her manager multiple times without avail, he screamed at her on the store floor, accusing her of making it up. Feeling like she’d been tricked to work hard for someone else without recognition, Kaisa moved back to East.
They know that if the union effort fails, they will quit. They might not have a choice.
Kaisa, Dakota and their committee have a steep hill to climb.
Their unionization effort goes against the trend happening right here at home, said Joseph Varga, professor of labor studies at IU. He’s writing a book about deindustrialization — something that’s heavily affected union presence across the United States, including here in Bloomington.
Indiana is a Right-to-Work state, meaning that even if a union is elected by the workers, workers are allowed to opt out and not pay dues. Unions still support workers who do not pay dues within their store, but companies only have to satisfy the demands of a majority of dues-paying workers. The fewer dues-paying workers, the less a company has to negotiate and finagle with contracts.
Bloomington was once a hub of unionization. At the city’s unionization peak in the 1960s, about 4,500 factory workers, working at plants such as Westinghouse, RCA, General Electric and Otis Elevator, were part of a union. Now, that number is about 400 unionized workers, mostly at the GE plant that was just sold. Everything else has closed down and moved out.
What happened? The oil embargo in the ‘70s for starters, Varga said. The panic that ensued forced companies to find profits in new ways. In the age of globalization, relocating to a country with cheaper wages became the favored solution. Union strongholds began to die off. It was too easy to threaten to move away for good.
But Bloomingfoods is part of a union awakening in the service industry, the only sector that’s making any union growth, Varga said. Unlike old factory jobs, service jobs experience a lot of turnover. But one bonus for service work: you can’t outsource it. These unions are gaining steam due to the Fight for 15 movement and the increased demand for a higher minimum wage.
“People know the system is unfair and unsustainable,” Varga said. “They instinctively know that.”
But sometimes that doesn’t matter.
The Nestle plant in Anderson, Ind., was said to have fired all seven workers who approached them about unionizing — Nestle budgeted for lawyers and hired new employees instead of allowing the unionization to take place.
When Kaisa and Dakota heard about what happened at Nestle, it spooked them. But it also fired them up.
“It’s not about losing money,” Dakota said. “It’s about losing power.”
Dakota and Kaisa listed out their friends in order of whom they could trust. They approached their best friends — Bailey McAden, Lia Hirst and Andy Marrs — first, since Dakota and Kaisa knew those coworkers wouldn’t turn them in.
The stress was agonizing. Kaisa wouldn’t eat. Dakota lost five pounds in two weeks and only slept four or five hours a night.
“It was like asking someone out, over and over again,” Kaisa said. The most awkward thing in the world.
They contacted 20 similar trustworthy people in the first week alone. After that, they had enough confidence to ask others. They spent Kaisa’s birthday driving around and talking to fellow workers. By the end of two weeks, they had 80 union authorization cards signed.
But not everyone is 100 percent on board.
The unionizing committee received hate mail and angry comments on its Facebook page, Unite Bloomingfoods. Bloomingfoods West is closest to the administration office and has the most union naysayers, Dakota said. He had to block a few people from the page. One of those people came into his store and accused him of censorship.
“Whatever,” he said. He walked into the back office. Workers on the clock can’t talk back to customers.
Tensions came to a head at the Oct. 7 board meeting.
The office is tiny, meant for only 40 people, including the board and everyone who RSVP’d, but at least 50 made the march from the Monroe County Courthouse to the administration office on South Gentry Street.
In a co-op, everyone buys in and owns a piece of it, meaning all member-owners are welcome at these meetings. But only about 200 of the 11,000 member-owners voted in their annual board elections this past August. Attendance is typically low.
That day, it was packed. Some people shouted angry epithets at those blocking the doors. The unionization committee was concerned the board and administration were trying to quiet their voices by not allowing them inside. In the meeting, member-owners had a 2-minute chance to speak each. Many questioned the administration’s stance on the unionization effort.
It was at this meeting that Bloomingfoods confirmed they had met with the union-busting lawyer.
They announced they’d never had him on retainer — merely contacted him as part of their investigation into union practices. They’d reached out for advice across the spectrum, Jeff said, and had talked to retired union workers, legal practitioners, and other co-op managers who had been through the process to get a sense of what the process would be like.
The anger was palpable, but momentarily stilled.
The meeting next week — the big annual meeting — had a considerably cooler atmosphere. People were calm but clearly curious about what exactly was happening with the store. The crowd lined out the doors and down WonderLab Museum’s winding staircase.
That evening, George spoke to the member-owners about the challenge of balancing their co-op values.
“Deciding how to best allocate our resources is not an easy task,” he said in his speech. “We may have let the balance shift too far in the other direction.”
They announced an official agreement of neutrality concerning the union that night.
When George started in the early 1990s, Bloomingfoods was worth about $2 million and employed about 30 people. Now, it spans five locations, 300 employees and $25 million. It’s no longer a single, off-beat food store nestled in an alcove on Kirkwood Avenue. It’s a fixture of the city. It’s everywhere.
Some workers believe the store may have grown beyond itself — that it’s overstepped its reach. George argued that for Bloomingfoods to continue serving the community, growth is needed.
“We can do better and more if we grow,” he said. “It’s a twist on the conventional business model.”
Growth doesn’t come without pain. Elm Heights, the most recent expansion, experienced more losses than expected when established due to a number of extra wrinkles, including the threat of new competition and diverted attention to the unionization effort, George said.
In a conventional business, a store is out to make money for shareholders. A co-op exists to provide business that member-owners need. An inherent concern for the community, including workers, is part of the co-op mission.
“I believe we are a good employer, but not a perfect employer,” George said. “I am sorry that we were perhaps not in better touch with the sentiments of the employees.”
Jeff and George both noted that the relationship with the UCFW organizers, especially Scott Barnett, was positive.
“We took the most agreeable road possible,” Jeff said. “A lot of people wanted to turn this into a battle, and it never was.”
It’s silent in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel on College Avenue. After months of work, the decision will come down to 15 minutes of counting the votes.
Before, Kaisa dwells on the possibility that they could lose. What would they do then? Quit. But after that?
More member-owners attend the recent meetings than have in years. The store has taken steps to be more open with its customers. Regardless of the outcome, things have already changed.
But what if they win?
Dakota emerges first, face steady. He is even-tempered and controlled—absolutely cool.
“88 to 23. We won.”
Kaisa and Bailey come out, on the verge of tears.
Kaisa immediately begins calling the stores, winded, as if she’d been waiting until now to take a breath. She hugs her aunt. Bailey calls her mom. A fellow worker runs in singing, “We are the Champions.”
Scott and George pose for a photo, shaking hands and smiling.
It isn’t over, and it might not be for a long time.
The first, busiest half of the holiday season passed without complaint. Kaisa and Dakota are sitting at a table at the upper balcony in Elm Heights on their day off.
“Everyone is kind of in a funk,” Kaisa said.
The negotiating team was chosen. Dakota is an official member, while Kaisa and Andy are not. But Kaisa said she believes it’s probably for the best.
“I wanted us to be involved, but then people would say, ‘But it’s just those people again,’” she said.
She is taking every opportunity to learn about interest-based negotiation. She might also have the opportunity to work for UFCW on union leave — a privilege for union member employees so they can still have an income while they do union work in other places.
Kaisa and Dakota agree. “It’s like starting again.”
They have other dreams. Kaisa wants to go back to school to study geology and chemistry. Dakota wants to start a one-man bonsai nursery.
Exposing the truth mattered. But it was also hard to watch.
“We’ll never be promoted,” Kaisa said.
“But we knew that,” Dakota said. “It was worth it to us.”