Employees at New Seasons' Slabtown location on Northwest Raleigh St. and 22nd Ave. filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Monday. The store is the fourth New Seasons location in the Portland metro region to move to unionize in the past three months, and the third to specifically join the effort for an independent union, dubbed the New Seasons Labor Union.

Workers organizing the union effort at the Slabtown location say they want to have more input in company policies, advocate for higher wages, and address staffing problems at the store. 

“If we could push for higher wages, a better work environment, and have more input in how people are trained—or whatever it may be from the worker perspective—we would hope that it would make for a smoother experience that people would want to stick around,” said Steven Weiss, a New Seasons employee for nearly seven years. “It could feel more like it used to feel—like more of a family, more of a cohesive environment where people wanted to be there and wanted to help each other out.”

Some workers believe New Seasons started to lose its integrity as a neighborhood store when it was purchased by Good Food Holdings, a US affiliate for a massive South Korean company called Emart, in 2019. Weiss believes the change started when New Seasons started its first expansion into Washington and California prior to the ownership change, during which he saw a shift toward uniformity amongst various locations, instead of an emphasis on unique stores that catered to the neighborhood in which they were located. Weiss also believes the loss of the store’s Community Coordinator—a person tasked with engaging the store in community events in the surrounding neighborhood—was a sign of a shift in workplace culture.

“When we started, every store was kind of their own little neighborhood spot—everything was a little bit different and had a personality,” Weiss said. “It started becoming that everything has to be the same across the board. Everything has to be consistent. There's no more ability to add any personality and they wanted everything to be the same, making it a cookie-cutter situation.”

These Slabtown employees also cite high staff turnover and limited staffing capacity as an ongoing problem at the store. 

“I can’t remember the last day we were fully staffed,” said Hans Heintze, a New Seasons employee for five years. “A few months ago, the CEO visited and scorned conditions on our sales floor. A week or two later, our store manager called a long-winded huddle in the middle of the day and said that we all needed to be working harder. We had been short-staffed for months straight.“ 

A press release from union organizers claimed that eight people had left the deli department at Slabtown over the past few months alone. 

In an emailed statement to the Mercury, a New Seasons spokesperson noted that labor shortages have been an issue for many industries and companies throughout the pandemic. 

“We are making every effort to fill all open jobs as quickly as possible, including holding in-person and virtual job fairs, advertising openings in new ways, such as promoting job ads on social media, instituting hiring bonuses, and other methods,” the spokesperson said. 

According to the company, New Seasons currently has 195 open jobs which, if filled, would bring staffing levels at all of its locations back to pre-pandemic levels. The New Seasons spokesperson said that the company has hired 165 employees within the past month.

While worker shortages are a nationwide problem, Weiss believes New Seasons has lost the qualities that used to make it an attractive place to work, including competitive wages. New Seasons offers a $16.25 starting wage—about $2 higher than Portland’s required minimum wage. The New Seasons Labor Union, however, argues that the starting pay at the store is not an adequate living wage based on current estimates. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, a living wage for a single adult with no children in Portland is $20.84 per hour.

The New Seasons spokesperson said that the company respects their employees’ right to file for a union vote with the NLRB.

“The decision to join a union is one for staff to make, just as it’s always been and always will be,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “This is also not the first time in our company’s history staff have explored this option, and—as we always have—New Seasons respects this decision process.”

Workers at stores that have also filed to unionize don’t agree that New Seasons has been respectful of the unionizing process. Employees at New Seasons’ Seven Corners location, which filed to unionize in May, filed two unfair labor practices claims against the company with the NLRB shortly after launching their union effort. Workers claim that management had removed zines about unionizing from the break room and circulated a letter from New Seasons CEO Nancy Lebold that warned employees about being misled about the benefits of a union.

Weiss cited the union efforts at both the Seven Corners and Sellwood New Seasons locations as inspiration for Slabtown workers. 

“When Seven Corners [filed to unionize], it was kind of like a bombshell,” Weiss said. “It was like, ‘Holy cow, they just did that and we can do that.’ It was an eye opener for a lot of people.”