By : Stephen Grigelevich
7 min read
In the service of transparency, The Boston Compass wants to acknowledge that the owners of City Feed and Supply have long supported the paper by providing distribution and advertising related financial contributions.
On the brink of federal union recognition, workers at Jamaica Plain’s City Feed and Supply grocery store and café continue efforts to engage owners in the collective bargaining process. City Feed Unite (CFU), which formed in early 2021, is seeking pay scale transparency, higher wages and paid training, and more authority in generating workplace policy. With a mail-in ballot vote cast in late May, members of CFU are hoping for official recognition from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal government’s union regulatory entity. The Boston Compass spoke with Emery Spooner and Daniel Tracey of City Feed Unite, as well as with a volunteer organizer from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), CFU’s ally, about the union’s recent history and future direction.
“The past few months have definitely picked up a lot of steam,” said Tracey. “We finally had a clear majority to get the [union membership cards] sometime in late February or March. It took like a year of change. A lot of work from Emery.” Spooner, who has worked at City Feed since February ’21, said conversations among employees began last April, when the owners removed their $2/hour hazard pay with a two-day notice.
“They didn’t consider people who are already struggling to pay bills, and now they have an unexpected reduction in their wages.” Spooner said low wages mean high turnover, which has been challenging to union efforts. “Thinking back on it, there were ten or eleven people at the meeting and there are, like, three [of those] people that still work at City Feed. So, it’s been a changing cast of people who have been involved because it’s been kind of unsustainable for people to stay at this job.”
Shortly after initial talks, CFU sought guidance from organizers representing the Industrial Workers of the World. IWW encouraged them to improve working conditions through individual meetings with owner David Warner, as well as through letters and petitions. “We had a majority of staff sign on to a petition for paid Narcan training in October or November ’21. We also wrote a letter about covid safety because we weren’t getting the mandated sick pay that was required by the state for covid related absence.” CFU’s demands also include policy development regarding workplace harassment, which became more important after a customer was assaulted during a closing shift.
According to Spooner, the response from the owners has been disheartening. “There was no response until the week that we went public with our union. Despite having a vast majority of our staff sign on to this letter, we got the [Narcan] training like five months after we sent our letter of intent [to unionize] to David.” Following an all staff meeting in February ‘22, Spooner said that Warner pulled a number of employees into one-on-one meetings to discuss, and explicitly told Spooner that if they were not happy at the job, they should quit. In addition to these conversations, according to Spooner, the owners disseminated information to staff about union formation. “There was some misleading information, such as ‘dues are 15-20 dollars a month.’ Our dues through the IWW are 6 dollars a month, and they don’t come out of paychecks.” Spooner continued, “[our union is] worker led, worker organized. The repeated misinformation that it is a third party seeking to tell our coworkers what to do is really untrue and misleading.” Owner David Warner declined to comment for this article.
What is next for CFU? According to a volunteer IWW organizer who requested anonymity, citing concern over future employment discrimination, the NLRB will count the workers’ ballots on June 14th. “These ballots are formalizing it as far as the federal government is concerned. When the original letter of intent was presented, there was no guarantee that an official NLRB election was going to be necessary. Pavement, Forge, Bloc, and Diesel have voluntarily recognized their employees’ unions without using an official NLRB election. But in our specific case, the employer said they would not voluntarily recognize the union. So, we functionally had to get the government involved. This is where the NLRB ballots come in.”
According to Spooner, customers have been generally supportive. But City Feed’s owners, as well as some of its patrons, have expressed concern over the potential economic impact of a collective bargaining agreement. Said Spooner, “any collective bargaining agreement that is ratified has got to be terms that both the workers and owners agree to. And so, David isn’t going to sign something that puts his business in jeopardy and we’re not gonna sign something that puts us out of our own jobs.” Spooner noted that law requires management to provide financial evidence if they claim they cannot support the union’s wage proposal. “So we’ll get to see what they can afford and what can be worked out, so that it is sustainable for the business. Maybe it’s a long term raise system. How do we know what they can afford unless we get a seat at the table?”
Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #147 June 2022
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