PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Two local New Seasons stores have filed to unionize. Their efforts are completely separate from one another, but both are going after the same goal: they want a seat at the table when it comes to deciding how their workplaces operate.
The Seven Corners store near Southeast 20th Avenue and Division Street in Portland has chosen to form an independent union called the New Seasons Labor Union, while the Orenco Station store in Hillsboro is attempting to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.
Both stores said changes brought about by the South Korean company that bought New Seasons in 2019, Emart, have worsened working conditions for employees. They said the pandemic emphasized how necessary it is to change their policies.
One thing both unions hope to accomplish is a change to their absence policy.
Employees said before the new ownership, sick time and paid time off were accrued separately. Now, they’re coming from the same bank.
“If you’re sick, you are using PTO, and if you want to use that time to take a vacation, you’re drawing from the same bank. And so, you’re eating into your vacation time if you need to use it for sick time and vice versa,” Nicky Warne, a front-end clerk at the Seven Corners store explained.
UFCW 555’s communication lead, Miles Eshaia, said the Orenco Station store began considering unionizing several months ago. The Seven Corners store employees said they started discussing the idea in April.
Employees at both stores felt motivated by recent successful unionizations they’ve seen by workers at places like Starbucks and Amazon. Suzanne Bernardi, a produce clerk at the Seven Corners store, said she’s also been emboldened by Trader Joe’s stores recently filing to unionize.
“People are remaking what unions and labor organizing looks like right now,” she said. “Watching other people do this and other workers organize has been super inspiring and gives us hope.”
The two stores both filed their intent to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board on May 27. Both stores said they had no idea the other had a similar plan in mind. They both filed at the same time and ran into each other at the office.
The two stores support one another’s efforts and are hoping to accomplish similar things: better wages, better time-off policies and better control over their schedules.
“The importance of a union contract is that you have the protections of that union contract, you have it in writing that these are your working conditions, these are the policies, these are the wage increases,” Eshaia said.
He said things like this are especially important as inflation rises and workers try to keep up with their cost of living expenses.
“The biggest thing is we just want a say,” said Stephanie Strahan, a front-end and home goods clerk at the Orenco Station store. “It sounds really simple, but it really boils down to currently the workers do not have a say in any type of policy that we have. And that’s something, especially after dealing with the pandemic and everything, we feel like we deserve.”
Strahan and her coworker Ryan Van Domelen said employees from their store spoke with New Seasons CEO Nancy Lebold Wednesday for several hours. Strahan said Lebold called it a “spicy conversation.” She said it was an opportunity to talk about the issues employees are facing.
The two Orenco Station store employees didn’t share many details about the conversation, but Strahan said she was pleased with the outcome.
Employees at the Seven Corners store said they’ve filed an unfair labor practice charge after someone removed informative zines they’d created with information about the union movement from the break room. They believe this is a violation of labor laws and are expecting a hearing on the issue in the future.
In place of the zines, they said their managers printed out a letter from Lebold acknowledging that she’d heard a union is seeking to represent staff at their store. The letter was left in break rooms and taped to time clocks.
According to the National Labor Relations Board filing, New Seasons hired legal representation from Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart in response to the employees’ decision to file a petition for a representation election. The law firm is representing the company in both unionization petitions.
Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart is a labor and employment law firm that, in the past, has represented management at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City when workers went on strike after contract negotiations broke down. The company also represented Powell’s Books in January when union workers filed a complaint that the company had violated the National Labor Relations Act.
The law firm is also representing New Seasons in the case of the Hillsboro petition.
Employees from the Seven Corners story said the fact that New Seasons has hired legal representation does not change their strategy and they will continue moving forward.
They’re prepared for New Seasons to attempt to delay the election or challenge votes after the election. They said the company could also challenge which employees will be included in the union. Both stores will need more than 50% of eligible employees to vote in favor of forming the union.
The employees from the Seven Corners store and the Orenco Station store said they like working for New Seasons and they plan to continue working for New Season, but they want it to be better and to live up to its publicly advertised values.
“There’s a lot that we do as a company that means a lot to me and that I’m glad and proud to be a part of and I just also want us to be taking good care of our workers,” Bernardi said.
News Seasons sent KOIN 6 News the following statement regarding the two labor union filings:
New Seasons staff are the heart of our business, and we’re proud of our legacy as a progressive and community-focused employer. We are aware of interest from some staff in two stores in forming a union, and we respect their right to consider representation via the steps set forth by the National Labor Relations Board. The decision to join a union is one for staff to make, just as it’s always been and always will be. New Seasons respects this decision and will respect the process.