New Seasons management didn't wait long after receiving their workers' petition to unionize to kick off a campaign meant to undermine the labor movement.
On Friday, the day employees at the New Seasons "Seven Corners" location at SE Division and 20th filed their intent to unionize, workers placed handmade zines in the store's break room for workers that included information about what to expect from the unionizing process. That weekend, the zines had disappeared, and were replaced with a flyer from store management noting that any documents posted or left in the break room had to first be approved by management. According to longtime staff, this rule had never been mentioned or enforced prior to this week.
Along with the warning, management had also left print copies of a letter addressed to New Seasons workers by the company's CEO, Nancy Lebold.
The lengthy letter warns employees of being misled or being giving false information about the benefits of unionizing. Lebold points to her own background managing grocery chains that were unionized and those without a union, as well as her past experience as a union member.
"I have knowledge and experience that we can lean on to help navigate what’s ahead," Lebold writes. "Going forward, I intend to share my personal experience and opinions that I’ve formed over the years about why I believe a union is unnecessary for staff at a progressive and independent grocer like ours."
In New Seasons workers' eyes, the zine removal and anti-union letter was a clear violation of labor laws, spelled out in the federal National Labor Relations Act. The act defines several "unfair labor practices" that workers can accuse employers of committing, including when an employer "dominate[s] or interfere[s] with the formation or administration of any labor organization" or "restrain, or coerce employees" from exercising their rights.
"This felt like a pretty obvious violation," said April St. John, a grocery clerk at Seven Corners.
Workers promptly filed two unfair labor practice (or, ULP) charges against New Seasons for the alleged interfering and coercion. They also added another ULP for a new policy that requires management to confiscate any union materials found at the store.
In a statement emailed to the Mercury, New Seasons management said that their company already offers many of the policies and programs workers are requesting—like wage increases and supportive benefits.
"The decision to join a union is one for staff to make, just as it always has been, and we remain committed to honest, transparent and collaborative conversations with staff through this process," the statement reads. "Regardless of any representation decision taken, we will continue to prioritize the wellbeing of our staff as we have always done, and remain an organization dedicated to serving the community."
Management did not respond to the Mercury's inquiry about alleged retaliation described by workers.
This isn't the first time New Seasons' Seven Corners store has attempted to unionize. In 2016, New Seasons workers partnered with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 to unionize, but their efforts were undone by a "union avoidance" firm hired by New Seasons to quash the effort.
St. John has seen several labor organizing pushes come and go since joining New Seasons staff nearly 17 years ago. But she says this latest campaign feels different.
"The uprising of support from the community has been huge this time around," said St. John. "The last round that started in 2016 never got to this stage. It feels like we're part of a larger movement taking shaping across the country right now."
Dubbed the New Seasons Labor Union, Seven Corners' burgeoning union was inspired by the success of the first Amazon warehouse union formed earlier this year and the quick growth of Starbucks unions across the US and Oregon. The group chose not to join a larger established union, like UFCW 555, and instead formed independently.
"We figured if Amazon and Starbucks can do this, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to," said St. John.
Yet the Seven Corners store wasn't the only New Seasons store that announced its intent to unionize Friday. In what appears to be an unusual coincidence, workers with Hillsboro's Orenco Station New Seasons store also filed paperwork to form a union the same day as Seven Corners staff.
"We had no idea until we, quite literally, walked into each other at the [National Labor Relations Board] office," said Miles Eshaia, spokesperson for UFCW 555, which the Orenco Station workers chose to organize with.
According to Eshaia, Orenco Station employees recently reached out to UFCW 555 for assistance in organizing a union, out of concerns about changes to the "company’s culture and business ethics" following the purchase of New Seasons by a South Korean company in 2019. Orenco Station workers are calling for protections similar to those at Seven Corners: Competitive wages, better retirement and health care plans, and stronger safety policies.
Neither group has plans to coordinate their demands to New Seasons management. Eshaia said that Orenco Station staff have not reported any retaliation from management since Friday.
Despite management's response to the Seven Corners workers' union push, workers say their coworkers are more enthusiastic than ever about the decision—and see management's reaction as motivation to organize.
"There were quite a few staff on the fence about the union who are now very excited about what's happening," said Nicky Warne, another clerk at Seven Corners. "It really brought a lot of workers out in the open with their concerns. Staff are exhausted and tired from being majorly understaffed, but the thought that banding together might help work toward something better... it's motivating."