Food Front Co-op, a neighborhood grocery store in Portland, Ore., aims to connect the community with producers of regionally grown fresh food. With more than 10,000 member-owners, democratic governance is a stated foundational value of the co-op. For a while, it was a value the workers enjoyed too.
That started to change, and as workers had less input at the workplace, discontent grew for years over deteriorating conditions. Sharp criticism about the “autocratic management” that led to “widespread fear that speaking out leads only to reprisal or dismissal” was chronicled in a local newspaper article in which 10 workers finally spoke up publicly. Workers realized they needed to start working together to address their common concerns, such as management style, favoritism and fears about job security.
Joyce Sinakhone, a United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) organizer and Organizing Institute (OI) alum, took up the challenge to help the co-op workers win a voice in the workplace. Sinakhone related personally as she had been previously fired herself for trying to organize teachers at a language school where she taught in Japan. (A union there helped her win back her job).
Sinakhone later came to an OI three-day training as an activist with Student Works at Penn State (SWAPS), an organization supported by the local labor council. She describes the training as a crash course in organizing, with intense role-playing exercises designed to illicit a spectrum of emotions, from getting a door slammed in your face to having the union-yes breakthrough with a worker.
“The OI taught me a frame of mind that is essential to organizing and how important it is to communicate to people one-on-one on the issues that they care most about,” Sinakhone said.
After an overwhelming favorable vote, close to 100 Food Front Co-op workers, as new members of UFCW Local 555, now enjoy a democratic voice at the workplace through their union. Sinakhone has also found a home at UFCW and is exhilarated by her first win as a new organizer. She credits the training, opportunities and networks she gained through the Organizing Institute apprenticeship as giving her a direct pathway into the labor movement.
Be the next organizer to make a difference! The next training is Dec. 11-13 in New Orleans.