By Leigh Shelton | CNews Advertising Representative
Since he was a child, Joseph Mohrmann has survived off discarded food from New Seasons.
“It was essentially ‘Blue Slips,’” Mohrmann said, using the store term for edible-but-unsellable food up for grabs for employees. What employees don’t take is donated to community groups.
“We went to a church that got food donations from New Seasons,” Mohrmann said. “I remember packing paper bags for others in need, but it was for us, too. We needed them too.”
Now, at age 24, a five-year grocery clerk at New Seasons Concordia, 5320 NE 33rd Ave, Mohrmann still relies on the discarded food to get by. At $18.80 an hour, after rent and bills are paid, he said he has about $200 left to spend on food and anything else he may need or want in the two weeks before he gets paid again.
“I’m very frugal,” Mohrmann said, who shares an apartment in Cully with his sister. “We don’t heat the apartment much. I shop at thrift stores.”
For about a year, Mohrmann and his co-workers have been meeting after hours to figure out what they can do to improve conditions in their workplace. In December, they filed for a union election and voted 94–16 in favor of joining the New Seasons Labor Union, a new independent union the workers formed themselves in 2022. Seven other Portland-area New Seasons stores have voted to join them, totaling 800 newly unionized workers.
“It took a lot of energy and time to cultivate our working-class solidarity,” said Raël Adkerson, a seven-year New Seasons employee and Concordia resident. “In a time when people are very polarized, we have to get back to understanding that our labor is something that brings us all together.”
Adkerson said the progressive language the company touts no longer matches his day-to-day experience. “The things this company was built on, we want to see some of that back,” Adkerson said.
Negotiations are underway for the workers’ first contract.
New Seasons is a 19-store grocery chain founded here in Portland in 1999. In 2009, New Seasons’ founding members sold off a majority stake of the company to Endeavour Capital, a private equity firm. In 2019, Endeavour sold New Seasons, along with a suite of similar West Coast grocers, to E-mart Inc, South Korea’s largest retailer.
New Seasons markets heavily its Certified B Corporation label. Awarded by global nonprofit B-Lab to achieve the “B Corp” label, a for-profit business is supposed to meet certain criteria in areas of sustainability, worker standards, and accounting transparency. When New Seasons first won the award in 2013, it did so with a score of 120 points. In its most recent survey, its points slipped to 80, the minimum required to hold the label.
In an email, a New Seasons spokesperson said, “From the time our company was founded in 1999, we have been rooted in taking care of our staff first and foremost, and B Corp certification is a recognition of the great work we’ve done. We’re proud of our legacy as a progressive employer that offers industry-leading wages, a 30 percent discount, and generous benefits, including paid parental leave, paid time off, paid adoption benefits, 401K matching, twice-a-year automatic wage increases and so much more.”
On a rainy Saturday afternoon in early February, New Seasons employee Dan Morrissey gathered with co-workers at the edge of the parking lot and approached customers as they came and went from the store. It was the first time the workers brought their struggle to customers’ attention. “Once people understand that we work here, and just want to talk to them about what’s going on in the store, they’re incredibly supportive,” Morrissey said.
Morrissey said he joined the union hoping for better pay, but most importantly, he’s seeking respect from the management.
For Joe Meyers, a 15-year New Seasons employee, who currently works in produce, respect is top on his list as well. “‘Patronizing’ is a word I keep coming back to when I think of how the company treats its workers: like high school kids who need a parent figure instead of full adult humans, critical to their success and contributing members of society,” wrote Meyers in an email.
Meyers said as the company has grown, he’s seen an explosion of middle management positions, while his job gets narrower and more mindless.
“We used to problem solve,” he said. “It’s not just pay, but training, resources and respect are all in short supply. In my view, the company had maybe a very small opportunity in the beginning to ‘create good jobs in the community’ as all businesses like to promote, but they chose money instead and now seem hell-bent on not listening and creating a desperate transient workforce.”
Leigh Shelton is the ad rep for Concordia News. She loves getting to know her Concordia neighbors and exploring ways we can better support each other. Reach out and say hi at CNewsBusiness@ConcordiaPDX.org.