February 3rd, 2012 | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Activism

Grocery Union Leader and Others React to Anti-Labor Language in New Seasons Market Handbook

elieen-bradyEileen Brady
A story in this week's print edition of WW exploring mayoral candidate Eileen Brady's work behind the scenes at New Seasons Market during the company's early days has provoked strong reactions from labor unions and other City Hall candidates.

Brady has repeatedly said she wrote New Seasons' first employee handbook in 2000. The first bound, published employee handbook distributed to workers in March 2001 included controversial language about the non-union company's views of organized labor.

The handbook says New Seasons sought to "avoid disruption and petitioning by extremist groups such as anti-human rights organizations and by promoters of the old style 'company vs. union employee' relations system."

Brady's husband, New Seasons founding President Brian Rohter, told WW that he takes responsibility for the controversial language, saying he added the language to Brady's draft of the handbook without consulting her.

A number of sources reacted strongly to the language in the handbook. Other City Hall candidates are calling on Brady to stand up and explain the company's past statement about unions, given Brady's desire to align herself with New Seasons' success story.

"I find that paragraph very disturbing. It implies that unions are an old style archaic, institutions. I would argue that in these economic times, unions are needed more than ever," says Jeff Anderson secretary treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. "The language is very troubling because a progressive is a progressive across a range of issues. The struggle for labor rights should not be dismissed lightly."

Anderson says his union, which represents workers at large grocers, such as Fred Meyer and Safeway, has its eye on the natural foods sector. "One of our plans is to start organizing New Seasons and Whole Foods," Anderson says.

Greg Hartman, a leading Portland labor lawyer, whose firm represents numerous unions, took issue with the language, which remained in the New Seasons Handbook from 2001 until 2005.

“The language of the handbook, which lumps together anti-human rights organizations with union formation, certainly shows a lack of respect for the rights of employees,” says Hartman, who's not affiliated with any mayoral campaign.

Some politicians also founds the words troubling. One of Brady's two principal rivals in the mayoral race, former city commissioner Charlie Hales, called on Brady to set the record straight.

“We have a long and proud tradition here in Portland of honoring unions and supporting collective bargaining rights," Hales said in a statement. "Slandering that process and calling unions ‘extremists’ shows an incredible lack of understanding of how Portland works.”

“My opponent either needs to take full responsibility for the official employee guidelines of the company she helped found, or she needs to set the record straight about exactly what her role was at New Seasons. Brady simply can’t have it both ways.”

In response to the article, the Brady campaign posted the document Brady says she wrote on the campaign website.

Neel Pender, a spokesman for Brady, says potential constituents, including at least one who identified himself as a union organizer, have responded positively to the document. Pender says Brady is proud of the progressive values incorporated in the document, which he says have helped New Season grow to employ 2,200 people and become one of the city's most popular brands.

"We released the document because its important that people judge Eileen on the totality of the work she did on it, not just one clause," Pender says. "It's unfortunate that opponents are attacking Eileen Brady and New Seasons—a company that didn't lay off a single employee during the recession."

But another candidate, Steve Novick, who is seeking the City Council seat that Commissioner Randy Leonard is vacating, thinks Brady still has some explaining to do. Novick's father and brother were both union organizers, although that didn't stop most unions from backing his opponent, now-U.S. Sen Jeff Merkley (D-Portland) in the 2008 Senate primary.

"This episode raises two questions: if she's not anti-union, why did she allow that language to stay in the manual for years during which she says she was the de facto human resources manager?," Novick says. "And if she knows that was wrong, why isn't she stepping up to take some responsibility, rather than letting her husband try to take all the blame?"

 
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