Daniel Bingham is a software engineer for EllisLab and a member of Dandelion Village. He is also a permaculturist, Ultimate Frisbee player, rock climber and cook. Time not spent doing these things is devoted to playing with code and to writing.

Dear Bloomingfoods, Please Don’t Hire Union Busters

posted on September 15, 2014 with comments

I’ve shopped a lot at Bloomingfoods over the last 4 years. When I first started shopping there, I assumed the prices were higher because the employees were well cared for.

Over time, I realized that wasn’t really the case. My last article, told the story of my general disillusionment with Bloomingfoods. One of the concerns I mentioned was the lack of a union or employee representatives on the Board of Directors.

It seems that Bloomingfoods employees have decided to rectify the lack of a union part.

Except for the union, of course…
Everyone except the union.

I’m generally supportive of the right to unionize. Sure, unions have their problems, but what organization of people doesn’t? Unions are a tool with which workers can advocate for themselves. They provide workers protections in dealing with those who have power over them and give them a strong voice in their workplace. A strong voice they can use to improve that workplace.

So I was pleased to hear about the union organizing drive. I was really hopeful that the Bloomingfoods administration and Board of Directors would use this as a wakeup call. Hopeful that they would respect the push and take advantage of the possibility it offers for additional systems of accountability with in the co-op.

Imagine my disappointment when I heard that the administration had secretly hired a union busting lawyer.

That Has To Be Just A Rumor

At first I was skeptical. I tried to convince myself it was just one of the many overly hyped rumors that have been flying around.

I had the name of the firm, so I decided to do some research. I did a search for the name, Barnes and Thornburg, and “union avoidance”—a poor euphemism for “union busting”, but one that seems to have come in to wide use. Low and behold, right there on their website, I found this.

A union flyer was posted on one of your facility’s employee bulletin board last night. What should you do next?

Fortunately, you don’t have to know the answer—because we do. We have the experience, depth and understanding to deal with any situation at a moment’s notice. We will get you through this – our professionals have worked with employers from coast-to-coast, across most industries and with most of the major unions. Our passion is to preserve a client’s freedom to manage and to assist our clients in helping them remain union-free.

Emphasis mine.

My jaw dropped. I hadn’t expected them to be quite so blatant about it.

From further down the page I found this bit.

An effective union avoidance strategy involves a number of other components, including:

[ ... ]

Rapid Response Capabilities. We have been called in by clients to manage rapid responses to organizing activities and have prepared our entire team with campaign management tools that allow us to quickly address union organizing activities in the event of any card-signing or other union activity.

It’s pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a firm you hire when you want to fight a union organizing campaign. They all but say, “Call us and we’ll help you to remain union free!”

My immediate next thought was “Bloomingfoods cannot have hired these folks, and if they did, the board cannot possibly know about it or have approved it.”

So I reached out to Tim Clougher, the board president. I quoted him the same things I’ve quoted here and linked him to that web page. “Folks involved with the union push are now saying that George placed the law firm Barnes and Thornburg on retainer. Can you please confirm or deny this?”

It took him a little while to get back to me, but when he did, I found myself deeply disappointed by his answer.

Thank you for getting in touch and voicing your concerns to us! Like you, we really care about our Co-op, the employees, the members and our community. We recognize the rights of co-op employees to consider whether they want to join a union or refrain from joining a union. We are resolved to respect co-op employees’ decision on this issue, whatever it might be. Federal law imposes numerous requirements designed to ensure that the process of contemplating a union is free of improper influence. We are committed to making sure the law is followed. We are in the process of learning as much as we can about this situation and our role in this process in order to best represent our members.

We appreciate your continued communication and support in this effort.

On behalf of the BCS Board,

Tim Clougher-President

That’s not an answer.

Just to be sure, I casually asked a former labor lawyer that I happen to know and she told me, with the usual disclaimer that this wasn’t legal advice, that there was no law she knew of that would prevent the board from answering my question. Nothing to prevent them from publicly stating the name of the firm or firms they were working with.

There are two possibilities here.

In the first, they are deliberately refusing to answer the question in order to avoid a member-owner backlash. I will only say, that when one finds oneself in a public service position—as serving on the board of a co-op is—wanting to keep something secret for fear of the ire of those you serve, well that’s a darn good hint that you shouldn’t be doing that thing in the first place!

The other possibility is that Tim, the board president, was unable to get a hold of George, the General Manager, to get a yes or no answer to my question in the 26 hours it took him to get back to me. Personally, I think this is unlikely, but should the board plead lack of knowledge, I will only say that it makes me question their ability to provide adequate oversight of the Bloomingfoods administration.

A strong employee union would help in that regard, by the way.

Confirmation

At this point, I have confirmation from one of the union organizers that Bloomingfoods has consulted with one Nathan A. Baker of Barnes and Thornburg.

I’ll quote a relevant section of his publicly posted profile.

His labor relations practice has also included all aspects of traditional labor law. He has represented management in union-free training, arbitration hearings, unfair labor practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board and union organizing drives and counseled clients through strikes and lockouts. Nathan also represents employers in collective bargaining negotiations as well as in resisting union organizing attempts.

He represents employers in “resisting union organizing attempts.” Is there a clearer way to say “he helps employers bust unions”? This is what a modern union buster looks like. They aren’t tough goons with sticks anymore (most of the time). They’re lawyers.

The biggest problem with the co-op hiring one of these guys is that it makes it impossible for us to give the board and the co-op’s admin the benefit of the doubt.

Plausible deniability is these union avoidance lawyers’ bread and butter. The whole reason they can do what they do is that they are experts at staying in the grey area just inside the red line—or at dancing over it in ways that are very hard to trace back to them.

If we, as member owners of the co-op, truly respect the right of Bloomingfoods employees to consider unionizing, then we cannot allow the administration to continue to consult one of these lawyers.

I really want to believe Tim when he says, “We recognize the rights of co-op employees to consider whether they want to join a union or refrain from joining a union. We are resolved to respect co-op employees’ decision on this issue, whatever it might be.” But as long as Bloomingfoods is consulting a lawyer who specializes in “resisting union organizing attempts”, I can’t.

The egregious lack of transparency only worsens this state of affairs.

The Way Out

I want to give the Bloomingfoods board and administration staff the benefit of the doubt. But so long as they are following the classic union busting playbook by secretly hiring a union avoidance lawyer, and so long as they blatantly dodge my requests for transparency in the matter, I cannot.

I have to assume they’re following the union busting playbook intentionally, because the first line of that playbook is “Maintain the appearance of respecting the worker’s right to organize.” Every other line in the playbook is about undermining that very right. It’s the most divisive and deceitful playbook out there and is wholly unbecoming of a cooperative.

So, Tim, Bloomingfoods board and administration staff, if you want to win back my trust and repair some of the damage you’ve done in the last few weeks, here’s what you can do.

Start by being transparent. Publicly state whether you’ve consulted with, retained or hired Nathan. Clarify his role in your deliberations and the nature of those deliberations.

Next, fire him. A union avoidance lawyer has no place in a cooperative environment. There are many lawyers who can advise the co-op as to the legal intricacies involved in this process who refuse to engage in any sort of union avoidance. These are lawyers who we, as member owners, can trust to provide truly neutral, objective advice to the co-op. I know some local labor supporters who are currently assembling a list of such neutral lawyers. If the board doesn’t have it already they should have it shortly.

Finally, maintain transparency through out the rest of this process. Be open and honest with us about your worries with respect to Bloomingfoods unionizing. Tell us what your lawyers are telling you. Give the union organizers a chance to respond. Allow us to have a truly objective, open air and cooperative discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of unionization.

Then stand back and let the employees make their decision.

Please, allow us to deal with this as a cooperative and not adversarially as labor supporters fighting an untransparent corporation.

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Why do I Shop at Bloomingfoods?

The Start of a Quest

posted on August 09, 2014 with comments

Why do I shop at Bloomingfoods? This is a question I’ve found myself pondering recently. It started last Thanksgiving when my mother returned to living in town full time. We went shopping for the big meal and I was trying to convince her to go to Bloomingfoods instead of Kroger or (god forbid) Sam’s Club.

Her primary value when purchasing food has always been quality first and low price a close second. She seems pretty representative of a large share of the American populace who have been indoctrinated with the idea that the most patriotic thing they can do is consume. And the best way to consume is to find a deal.

I was trying to talk her out of this conditioning, but found myself unable to craft an argument in favor of Bloomingfoods. I could only argue against the alternative. Through out the discussion her point was, “I can get the same stuff at Kroger for much less.” I couldn’t respond with the statement that Bloomingfoods takes care of its employees, I know that it doesn’t. Meanwhile, Kroger has unionized labor. So why shouldn’t my mom go to Kroger to get the same products for less? And why don’t I?

Why do I keep coming back?
Why do I keep coming back?

Why do I continue to shop at Bloomingfoods?

I’ve been a Bloomingfoods member owner since I moved back into town about four years ago. While away at college I became involved first in the local food movement, and then with the environmental, sustainability and permaculture movements. When I returned to Bloomington I knew I wanted to get involved in all of these movements locally. Joining the coop was one of my first moves in that direction.

I was really excited to be a part of it. I had images of a business I would have a say in. That I could volunteer for—like the coop I’d briefly been a part of in New York. One that would take care of its workers, seek out local and organic food and try to minimize its environmental impact. One that would actively try to do good in the world and one that I could happily support.

Almost immediately part of that image began to dissipate. There were no volunteer opportunities—that I knew of. There was no way I could lower my price burden by working for the coop, as there had been in the New York cooperative. 1 I told myself I would make it back with the end of the year profit sharing check. This coop just used a different mechanism. But when that check showed up, it was a measly $30—after I’d spend thousands.

It also quickly became apparent that there was almost no transparency. The newsletter didn’t talk about coop issues. The minutes from board meetings were conspicuously absent. Indeed, until recently I had no idea when board meetings even were. They weren’t advertised.2 The newsletter mostly included fluff articles and local events. I had no idea what was going on internally to the coop, and no clear channel for finding out.

It took befriending many of the coop’s employees for the rest of this vision to chip away.

As I became more and more privy to internal gossip, I learned that the employees weren’t actually well cared for. Loyal employees who’d worked there for years were still working part time and making below living wage. There was no union, nor any kind of employee representation on the board. The employees at the bottom felt like they had no channel through which their voices could be heard.

The more I shopped at Bloomingfoods, the more I realized that they carried very little local produce. What they did carry all seemed to either not be labelled with its origin or came from one farm, Stranger’s Hill. As it turns out, George Huntington, the general manager has partial ownership of Stranger’s Hill. Most of what Bloomingfoods carries is big organic. Much of it is even conventional.

As I got to know local farmers, I started to learn about what the coop required of them in order to carry their produce. One local farmer I spoke to told me that he had given up trying to sell to Bloomingfoods. When he’d attempted in the past he’d been told to match the prices of the big organic farms in California. Which is impossible for him to do, and unreasonable for a coop to ask of him.

And yet, even as I learned all of this it never translated into questioning my shopping there. Until I tried to convince my mom to follow suit, and realized I couldn’t.

Cooperative? Or coop only in name?
Cooperative? Or just another grocery store?

So, now I am on a quest. A quest to understand what’s going on with Bloomingfoods. Why is it that this coop operates in a manner apparently so far from its advertised values? And what can we, as member owners, do to change this? Are there good reasons for the ways in which it departs from its mission statement and image? Or is it simply a matter of poor management and member owners who haven’t demanded better? I hope to find out, and to start a conversation among member owners. What can we do to make Bloomingfoods do better?

1. A friend and Bloomingfoods employee has informed me that there are, in fact, volunteer opportunities. Any member owner can volunteer 2 hours in a week for a 10% discount that week. This fact just isn’t widely advertised. To quote “We have 11,000 members, obviously we can’t have them all volunteering.” In the course of writing this article, a page describing the opportunities appeared on the Bloomingfoods website.

2. After receiving pressure from both employees and several member owners, the times and locations of the board meetings are now advertised on the website.

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Of Mulch, Compost and Water Flow

The Founding of Bing End

posted on April 04, 2014 with comments

On Tuesday March 11th 2014, I finally closed on the house that I have been trying to buy for the past year. It has been a long and arduous journey just to get to this point. So much went wrong that that I went to the closing still convinced another shoe would fall. Even after all the paper work was signed I was sure something more could go wrong. But it didn’t. The house was, at last, mine.

Mine?
Mine?

In the wee hours of the next morning, I awoke in a deep panic. The purchase process had been so long because no bank would lend on the home. It’s a bit a of a fixer upper, to put it lightly. Foundational issues, bad wiring and plumbing, a leaky roof. The one terrifying me at that instant, as freezing rain fell in a light pitter patter, was the foundation.

Now, here, you might ask, “Daniel, why on Earth did you buy this place?” It’s a fair question. I wanted a house in town, but with enough land that I could build an urban homestead on it. I wanted to be close to Dandelion Village. I wanted a small house and a big lot. But mostly, I’d made the mistake of renting the house before buying it and I’d fallen in love with it. Despite all its flaws, it had become home.

I ended up paying more than it was worth. It was underwater and I didn’t feel like trying to compete with institutional buyers in a short sale. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to. But by the time we got to that point, I’d already been through two attempts at obtaining a mortgage. I’d been at it for over 8 months. I had spoken to every kind of contractor on the planet. I knew what the home was worth, and I knew every single thing that was wrong with it. It was a long list. But, after all of that, I still wanted it. I ended up essentially paying for the land and 3 - 5 years worth of rent. Whether or not that’s what I’ve actually purchased remains to be seen.

The economics of the whole thing get better if I can start getting most of my food from the land right away. And so, I haven’t wasted time getting started on building the long dreamed of urban homestead. Before the closing, I had started laying down mulch as the foundation of four raised beds in the front yard. If things fell through and I ended up walking away, I figured I could just move the mulch onto Dandelion’s land. But closing went through and I forged ahead.

I’d originally purchased the mulch from Good Earth intending to lay it down in the side yard. Every time it rains the whole thing turns to a muddy slush that the dogs track all through the house. I was expecting the mulch to be something closer to wood chips. What I got was half way between finely ground mulch and compost. It was never going to work as mud prevention. I wound up ordering straight woodchips to use for the side yard and was left with 10 yards of composting mulch. Perfect for the raised beds I’d been planning.

Mulch, then compost.
Mulch, then compost.

I used the mulch to build the bed’s foundation and then I ordered a load of compost from Bloomington Speedway Mulch. I’d heard that Speedway’s compost was more nutritious than Good Earth’s. What arrived was not quite what I expected. Instead of well aged, rich humus, I got a fairly light and dry powder that smelled strongly of shit and ammonia. It was almost raw manure and there was clearly too much nitrogen and not enough carbon. Suddenly I was very glad I’d laid the foundation of the bed with mulch. The mulch would absorb much of the excess nitrogen and the two would combine and rot to form the perfect soil.

I decided to layer the two, lasagna bed style. On top of the foundation of mulch I put a solid layer of compost. Then a somewhat thinner layer of mulch, and a thinner layer of compost. Finally, a very thin layer of mulch, just enough to cover the surface. The beds wound up almost two feet high. They’ve settled quite a bit since then. I’m still a little worried that they’ll be a bit too nitrogen heavy and burn out the roots of my plants, but we’ll see. Hopefully I reached the right balance of mulch and compost. Either way, next year they’re going to be amazingly fertile.

More of a swale, really, than a drainage trench.
More of a swale, really, than a drainage trench.

In the mean time, I’m was still fretting about the foundation. The house sits on the side of a steep east facing hill. There’s several acres worth of run off that flows down the hill, and right up against the west side of the house every time it rains. Much of it flows into the basement and gets pumped out by the sump pump. All of this puts pressure on the already bowing cinderblock basement wall. There’s a solid 2 cm crack running horizontally down a seam of the blocks right at the frost line. Directly west of the west wall is a particularly steep section of hill. Whenever it rains with any force at all a large puddle forms on the surface of the ground, right up against the west wall.

To alleviate some of this pressure, I dug a drainage trench directing the water out around the front of the house and down the hill. I’m not sure what I’m going to do over the long term. Visions of terraces, digging out the wall to in fill with gravel, and ponds in the front yard swim in my head. I’ll probably need to do some more research to figure out exactly what my options are.

The closing has acted as the starting gun. It released me from my long wait behind the gate and allowed me to act on dreams I’ve been nursing for over a year. I’m glad to be working and it’s wonderful to see my dreams begin to take shape. But man, do I have my work cut out for me.

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Delirium and Disbelief

A Review of Susan Collin's Mockingjay

posted on January 16, 2014 with comments

I recently read Mockingjay, by Susan Collins, book 3 of the Hunger Games series and I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled.

Collins piled on the pain with out providing catharsis. She was doing plot gymnastics in order to deliever repeated sucker punches. I know what she was going for, the horrors of war and all that. But it resulted in a story that just didn’t hold together very well.

As the story progressed, the punches took their toll. I started falling into a deep depression. But it wasn’t the bittersweet that comes from a sad story, well told. It was a state of delirium and disbelief.

Katniss spends much of the book cycling repeatedly between hospital beds and states of near psychological collapse. When your narrator and window into a world are constantly delirious, it follows that you will be a bit woozy. But Collins takes it to an extreme in Mockingjay, and I spent large poritions of the book positively nautious.

Eventually, the disjointed writing that characterized Katniss’ trauma followed her to portions of the story where it didn’t belong. As if Collins had gotten stuck in that mode of writing and had lost the ability to write with the crispness and vividness of the first two books.

The whole book takes on a nightmarish Groundhog’s Day quality.

When the end finally rolled around, I was ready for it to be over. I wanted a catharsis. At least, as long as she wasn’t going to go full 1984 on me. But if she was going to provide a happy ending, then it ought to have been one that made me feel something.

As it was, the handful of pages she devoted to the aftermath felt weak. As if she was just phoning it in, glad to be done with it all. They weren’t vivid enough to make me feel anything.

Throw it all together and the result is a book that just doesn’t cut it. The rest of the series was wonderful. A well told story set in an excellently crafted world with a thought provoking allegory woven through. But Mockingjay was a dud.

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On Owning Recipes

posted on December 31, 2013 with comments

With Fridge to Food 3.1, I decided to slim things down and remove some features that I’d previously thought were integral. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made to me to have users “own” recipes. Very few recipes are actually invented by the person who shares them. Rather they are found in a blog post, the author of whom found them in a book, the writer of which was taught them by their mom and so on. Recipes are common knowledge, passed down from person to person. Tweaked, shared and then tweaked again. Yes, chefs sometimes do “invent” new recipes. As in, make them up with out finding them. But often as not, someone else had already “invented” that recipe independently. They were invented and forgotten about. Invented and not shared, or just invented and kept quietly in the family.

I realized that I was hesitant to post any recipes, even as “community” recipes. I didn’t feel I owned them. But that beat the whole point of Fridge to Food. I started Fridge to Food because I wanted to be able to search a database of recipes by ingredients and by tags. And I wanted to be able to rate those recipes by voting, instead of stars. In hanging on to this feature that was preventing me from using Fridge to Food, I was beating the whole point of the site in the first place.

So I removed the users from everything, except the photographs. You no longer “own” the recipes you post. You just share them. I removed reputation, because with out the ability to “own” recipes it doesn’t make any sense to build a reputation with them. And really, what did reputation mean before? That you were good at finding and recognizing good recipes? That’s not what it was supposed to mean. It’s gone. No reputation. No ribbons, no ownership of recipes.

For now, your user account will still remain attached to the recipes you post so that you can edit them. At least for a while. I will probably change it so that it detaches after some amount of time.

Photographs will remain owned, because they are copyrighted by the user who posts them.

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A Desire for Sadness

My Experience of Periodic Depression

posted on November 17, 2013 with comments

Every so often I get depressed. I don’t know what causes it to come and I don’t know what makes it go. It sneaks up on me. Coming on so gradually that I don’t even notice it until it’s here.

When it starts, I feel a little melancholy. But only a little. I can easily write it off as a minor, momentary glumness. I’m just low energy. I need to rest and recharge, that’s all. Days pass and it grows stronger. Melancholy develops into sadness.

I go searching for reasons. Trying to rationalize it, trying to pin it on some life event. My relationships aren’t fulfilling enough. My friends aren’t there for me when I need them. My life isn’t stable. I’m failing at work. It could all come crashing down at any moment.

None of these things have changed from the week before when I was perfectly happy. When my friendships were deep, fulfilling and numerous. When my life’s instability seemed manageable. And when I had confidence in my abilities at work.

The truth is that I go seeking those thoughts. I want to be sad and I want to give that sadness a reason.

In this state, I seek out powerful emotions. I seek out music, television, movies and books that will at once feed my melancholy and allow me to escape from it. Stories, songs or poems that will take me on an emotional roller coaster. That will make me feel, intensely. That will make me cry, from sadness or bittersweet happiness.

I wallow. I want to wallow. I can’t stop wanting to wallow. And that makes me sad.

Eventually, I start getting distracted by life. I go out and spend time with friends. I get exercise. I’m productive at work. I forget to be sad. And suddenly, I’m happy. Or content, anyway. The desire for sadness is gone. Just as it snuck up on me, it slips away and life goes on.

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A New Leaf

posted on October 03, 2013 with comments

I’ve used Wordpress to run my site for several years. I loved the blogging and writing tools it provided me, but struggled with site design. The default Wordpress theme is bland. But days spent digging through the free theme archives always ended in frustration. I attempted to learn the theming system several times, but always gave up. It felt overcomplicated. So I resigned myself to being disatisfied with my own website.

In August of 2012, I started working at EllisLab. My first task was to learn ExpressionEngine. I quickly grew to appreciate the Channel module and templating system. They’re clean and straight-forward and they force very little on me. With in days, I was eager to switch over. But I kept putting it off, never quite feeling as though I had the time.

I finally got started last May. The redesign and rebuild took shockingly little time. I completed it in an evening here or a weekend there and in no time I found myself with a mostly finished site needing only content. The rest of the time since then has been focused on just that, creating content. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what a content management system should allow you to focus on!

So here we are, the new site is launched. It’s still rather lacking in content, but time will fix that. I love the new design. I love that ExpressionEngine enabled me to create a design I’m happy with. Now I can finally stop cringing every time I visit my own site and focus on what matters, my writing.

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