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Food Co-op Employees Raise Questions About Policy

Employees Are Questioning The Co-op's 'Prohibited Political Activity' Policy
The front facade of the Fredericksburg Food Co-op in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The Fredericksburg Food Co-op’s disagreement with a group of employees has provided a glimpse into how some businesses are now navigating political and social issues. And that’s raising more questions.

As hyperbole previously reported, the Co-op sent a letter to owners alerting them to a “list of demands” by a group of employees for higher wages and freedom to wear pins with their desired political and social messages. Several employees of that group, which numbers ten and represents about a third of the Co-op staff, made themselves available for a discussion about their experiences at the Co-op.

They all speak of a positive, upbeat work environment and jobs they all enjoy. To them, the Co-op is a bright, vibrant hub for the community. But they see a starting wage of $14.00 as lagging behind in an increasingly expensive cost-of-living area, as well as a murky process regarding how compensation is determined.

Performance reviews, given annually to employees by management, seem to be “purely symbolic” and have no bearing on pay raises. Some employees report only being made aware of receiving a raise, usually between $0.50 or $1.00 per hour, after receiving their most recent paycheck. They say this lack of transparency makes it difficult for employees to discuss their salaries with one another, and it doesn’t get any easier when taking up these issues with department management.

“Dismissive,” is how one employee described their interaction.

Another issue, perhaps just as important to the employees as pay, would be the Prohibited Political Activity Policy, a document that surfaced after employees began wearing pins in support of Palestinian freedom and a cease fire in Gaza. This policy prohibits employees from wearing pins or otherwise engaging in expressions for “any political conflict.”

This took some Co-op employees by surprise.

In the past, the Co-op has allowed employees to wear pins related to Black Lives Matter, Pride and other social and political issues. The organization also permitted collection box for food donations to Ukrainian war victims in recent months. Some employees saw this as a reversal on what was once a free and open policy, and weren’t sure what spurred the sudden change. They suspect that their actions caught the disapproval of one or more board members.

“It’s frustrating because predominantly Ukraine is white and Palestine is not. We had no reason we couldn’t wear that,” one employee said, referring to pins that said “Free Palestine” and one that simply said “Cease Fire.” To them, it seems this one issue is being singled out.

The policy isn’t an insignificant one. Once they are made aware of the policy, discipline for continued infractions could include anything from a verbal warning to a written write-up, suspension and termination.

When asked about the policy, Co-op General Manager Suzie Grumko empathized with employees, but said the policy concerning political statements was drafted with the assistance of the Co-op’s legal counsel and that the organization and staff were to adhere to what it stated. She said allowances for Black Lives Matter, Pride and other social issues were made based on the representation of the current Co-op staff, and that the policy could be revisited in the future should the Co-op hire a Palestinian or Muslim member of staff.

The Co-op received two complaints from customers in regards to employees wearing the now disallowed pins, which Grumko says were addressed with employees as soon as management became aware of them. Apart from the “Free Palestine” prohibition, it’s not entirely clear what else the Prohibited Political Activity policy would pertain to, or how the prohibited expression “Cease Fire” is delineated from other commonly accepted terms like “stop the violence.” The Co-op declined to provide a copy of the policy or the law practice that assisted in drafting it.

Regarding the Ukraine collection box, Grumko was more contrite, admitting that she was interested solely in trying to help people and didn’t recognize at the time that the act could be interpreted as support for either side. She says she wouldn’t allow such a collection again or in the future.

When it comes to pay, Grumko explained that the Co-op, which opened in 2021, still has yet to make a profit. A recent power failure in April that cost the organization $80k in lost product doesn’t help matters. She says meeting demands for starting wages of $16.00 / hr. and $20.00 / hr. for leadership is an uphill battle that nobody can predict when the Co-op will be able to climb.

A large part of the divide seems to involve communication; the Co-op refuses to meet with the group of employees until they have properly organized under the National Labor Relations Board. The employees claim this shouldn’t impede them from being able to discuss their grievances together as a group.

As the bridge between the employees and the board, it puts Grumko in a tough spot.

“I feel like my hands are tied behind my back.”

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