Manual Dexterity

When Eileen Brady helped run New Seasons, the company equated unions with extremists.

Eileen Brady's association with New Seasons Market has been the central narrative of her campaign for Portland mayor. It makes sense that she wants to identify herself with the grocery that calls itself "the friendliest store in town."

Brady's ties go beyond her claim she is a co-founder and an original co-owner of the store. She was, according to early employees, one of the people who helped establish the progressive New Seasons ethos.

Brady has been on the defensive about some of those claims, however, since WW two weeks ago raised questions about her role as a founder and owner ("Extra Seasoning," WW, Jan. 18, 2012).

WW cited the company's financial disclosures to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which never listed Brady as an owner. The OLCC requires full disclosure of ownerships when granting licenses.

Brady says she worked behind the scenes, even though she was never employed by New Seasons or served on its board.

For example, Brady says she wrote the original employee handbook for New Seasons and effectively oversaw the company's human resources until it hired a permanent HR director.

"We [New Seasons] didn't have a human resources director for many years—five or six years," Brady told WW. "I was the person that provided all the backup HR."

Eileen Brady talks about her early role at New Seasons.

Part of building New Seasons' culture, Brady says, was creating the document that outlined employees' rights and responsibilities. "I wrote the first staff handbook,” Brady told WW. 

The first handbook published, bound and distributed to employees, dated March 2001, expresses many of the ideas and themes that make New Seasons unique. 

But the handbook also includes language that equates labor unions with "extremist" and "anti-human rights organizations"—groups the chain sought to ban from soliciting on company property. 

The handbook also said New Seasons banned its employees from soliciting support for groups promoting an "old-style 'company versus union' adversarial employee relations system."

Brady referred questions about the handbook to her husband, Brian Rohter, who was New Seasons' founding president and later its CEO.

Rohter says Brady did indeed write the original draft of the handbook, but he takes responsibility for the published version that included anti-union language.

He says Brady's original 47-page text was kept in a three-ring binder at stores for employees to read. Her version, he says, didn't include any reference to unions.

In the fall of 2000, Rohter says, he revised the manual, adding sections after consulting with employees and lawyers. Rohter says he never showed Brady the changes, which included the comparison of unions to extremist groups.

"The comment about the union was a mistake on my part," Rohter says of the 'company vs. union' language. "I brought it home and showed Eileen. Her comment was, 'What the fuck is this?'"

Rohter says there is no discrepancy between Brady's assertions that she was deeply involved in New Seasons' human-resources issues, and his decision not to show her his changes to the handbook. 

He says she was busy with her own full-time job and raising children. "I am not going to check with Eileen on feedback from an attorney," he says.

Rohter says the language was intended to exclude right-wing groups, such as the Oregon Citizens Alliance, from gathering petition signatures at New Seasons stores. 

He says he received other complaints, including from employees, and agreed to change the language. But Rohter says the company didn't do so until 2005. 

Later versions omitted the words "company versus union" but continued to ban "promoters of the old-style adversarial employee relations system."

The language in the 2001 New Seasons handbook surprised two labor law experts WW asked to read it.

"Making this reference to 'old-style' unionism seems to be saying we have a different approach to management-employee relations," says Elizabeth Ford, a professor who specializes in labor law at the University of Washington Law School. "It's an interesting approach, but what an employer is not allowed to do is pick and choose groups for the employees."

Ford says that provision may run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which makes it illegal for employers to ban workers from talking about unions or distributing literature during non-working hours.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” Ford says. 

Bob Bussel, director of the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, says the New Seasons employee manual's comparisons are troubling. 

"It's an interesting juxtaposition to have 'extremist groups' on one side of the conjunction and unions on the other," Bussel says.

Rohter and Jon Isaacs, Brady's political consultant, say the important point for voters is that Brady's work informed the core values that have made New Seasons a Portland icon.

Isaacs says those values—including wages, generous benefits and workers' rights—have resulted in New Seasons' employees having never sought to form a union.

"What matters," Isaacs says, "is that what unions have to fight other employers for, they don’t have to fight for at New Seasons.” 

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