Say What? The Kitchen Language Controversy at City Market.

The relationship between City Market‘s management and its union has had its moments of tension over the years, but, for the most part, conflicts have been handled out of the public eye. However, things boiled over on Thursday, November 14th, when Local 203 posted the following on its Facebook page:

First UE Post

This statement was quickly disseminated on social media by activist members of to co-op, many of whom reacted quite angrily. A lively discussion went down on Vermont Workers’ Center Executive Director James Haslam’s Facebook page as to how to respond, with some advocating an immediate boycott and picket, and others counselling patience to see the results of the grievance process. On Saturday the 16th, the union posted that:

Shortly thereafter, the Vermont Change Committee (an anti-racist group that came together in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin affair), created and began promoting a Facebook event entitled “Rally AGAINST Racism at City Market” scheduled to take place an hour before the co-op’s monthly board of directors meeting.

On the 17th, the Co-op addressed the issue publicly for the first time with the following post on its Facebook page:

UE3To which the UE Local 203 responded on the 18th:

UE4As all of this back and forth was getting very confusing, I sent a message to Local 203 with a request for additional information, and received a phone call this evening from Evelyn Prim. Ms. Prim explained that the origin of the controversy was an allegation of harassment by one non-English speaker against another. According to her, rather than dealing with the individual case specifically through the discipline process laid out in the contract, the department manager instead instituted the expectation that all workers in the kitchen area communicate with each other in English, which the union believes violates Vermont statutes that protect the rights of refugees.

When asked as to the union’s thoughts on the community response to their publicizing the issue, Ms. Prim responded that they’ve appreciated the support. She stated that the Local will be sending a delegation to the Vermont Change Committee’s rally on the 25th, but that they won’t be attending the board meeting that evening, as they are continuing to work through the grievance process as it is laid out in their contract. She also mentioned that the union is opposed to a boycott as it would “further victimize the workers,” but encouraged supporters to contact management with their concerns.

As to the nature of the desired resolution to the situation, Ms. Prim stated that, first, they want the co-op to knowledge the validity of the issue that they are raising. Second, they want a public announcement at a department-wide meeting that the rule will not be enforced.

As of the time of writing, the grievance meeting has been scheduled for December 2nd. In the meantime, I’ll add any relevant updates to this post as I become aware of them, and I’m going to make a point to swing by the rally and board meeting with my camera on Monday to get more folks’ thoughts on the controversy. Stay tuned!

*Edit* 11/20 at 1:00pm – received the following statement from City Market GM Pat Burns via email:

In our kitchen alone, our employees speak at least 6 different languages. We encourage employees for whom English is a second language to speak English in order to gain fluency, improve customer service, enhance opportunities for promotion, and to help ensure a comfortable work environment no matter which languages our employees speak. English fluency is an expectation in every job description at City Market and we have many staff members who are in different places on that continuum. We’ve reached out to some of our community partners around the topic of a diverse workplace, including the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV) and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP). They have shared that they also encourage their clients to speak English for many of the same reasons as the Co-op. In addition, they spoke of the Co-op as a valued partner, based in part on the benefits and support that we offer our employees, including bus passes, medical insurance, retirement planning, and more.

One question that we’ve been asked is why we denied the recent union grievance. The union’s grievance was, in part, based on an alleged violation of the no discrimination policy in our contract. The grievance, as it was written, stems from a recent department meeting during which a manager incorrectly stated that employees needed to speak English in that particular department while at work. Our Director of Human Resources was in this same meeting and clarified that what we expected was for employees to refrain from talking about sensitive issues that would make others uncomfortable at work, like politics, religion, and gossiping about each other. Since the clarification occurred in the same meeting as the misstatement, and the union was grieving a language policy that doesn’t exist at the Co-op, we had hopes of settling the grievance at the first step meeting with a discussion. We denied the grievance itself as the underlying assertion (the existence of a language policy) wasn’t based on our actual policies, while at the same time we reiterated that our goal is to treat all employees with respect and encourage employees to speak English at work. We also clarified that while we encourage our employees to use English, we don’t require it and staff will not be sent home or disciplined for speaking other languages at work. Due to holiday scheduling, the earliest we can meet to discuss this further with the union committee is December 2 and we’re hopeful for an amicable resolution. We continue to remind managers and staff (and our community) that there is no language policy at the Co-op and we continue to provide a safe and supportive work environment for each individual staff member, no matter their native language.

We have reached out, via Facebook, to the community member who initiated the rally on Monday and who have shared other feedback in order to facilitate face to face discussions. As a Co-op where most of our staff are also Members – we believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. We would continue to hope, as we reiterate our values and continue to put them into practice, that community members would seek us out with questions or concerns so we can have meaningful discussions about staff treatment and Co-op values. There are many ways that we can support our diverse staff and we’ll continue to seek out best practices to make sure everyone’s efforts and differences are valued in meaningful ways.

Edit 2: Interview with GM Pat Burns, and video of union representatives announcing the resolution of the grievance:

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Matt Cropp is co-founder and co-host of Cooperative Vermont.

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