One of the Seattle area’s most familiar grocers is embroiled in an election controversy with its employees. 

This week, PCC Community Markets, the 68-year-old member-owned grocery cooperative, began gathering votes from member-customers for three open seats on its board of trustees. And for the first time in a long while, a candidate slate that often features industry executives includes two front-line PCC employees.

But PCC’s upper management isn’t recommending that members vote for those workers, Donna Rasmussen, 56, and Laurae McIntyre, 69; it has its own preferred candidates. Per co-op rules, they’ve had to collect more than a thousand member signatures each to get their names on the ballot.

What’s more, according to Rasmussen and McIntyre and their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which is in contract negotiations with PCC, the co-op has called police on workers during signature-gathering efforts outside several of PCC’s 15 locations.

PCC’s “response was pretty rough,” says Rasmussen, who works at PCC’s View Ridge store. “I was kind of surprised by that.”

PCC officials dispute that they’ve called police on any PCC staff — though one of the co-op’s landlords did summon police “to enforce the landlord’s nonsolicitation policy when the union had set up a table on the sidewalk in their shopping center,” a PCC spokesperson said.

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But co-op officials concede they want board members with more high-level business experience to help the nation’s largest grocery co-op navigate an industry that was already tough before COVID-19. The candidates recommended by the PCC board are Rodney Hines, CEO of Metier Brewing, and incumbents Brad Brown, a retired REI executive and interim PCC CEO from May to December 2020, and Catherine Walker, current PCC board chair and also a retired REI executive.

Although PCC boasts impressive growth — it has 90,000 members, compared with 56,000 in 2015 — it faces the same competition and rising labor costs that are squeezing profits for all grocers, co-op officials say.

In 2019, the latest year for which its financial results are disclosed, the co-op earned $2.1 million in net income on revenue of $300 million, says Heather Snavely, PCC’s vice president of marketing. But in 2020, PCC spent $4 million on hazard pay, extra cleaning and other pandemic-related expenses, which, had that come in 2019, “we would have had a negative net income,” Snavely says.

Add the challenges of rapid expansion — six new stores in the last decade — and you have a business with unique managerial needs, Snavely says. “There are no other grocery co-ops like us,” she says. To help run “a business of that size and scale,” PCC has “a checklist of experience that they look for” in board candidates.

But Rasmussen and McIntyre think it’s precisely PCC’s unique circumstances and challenges that make worker voices on the board so necessary.

Even before the pandemic, they say, customer-members expressed concerns that PCC was losing some of its community-based charm due to rapid growth and increasingly corporate leadership. PCC’s current CEO, Suzy Monford, had been president of QFC, which is owned by Kroger; her predecessor, Cate Hardy, was a senior Starbucks executive.

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Customers “feel that it’s not much different than walking into any other grocery store in a chain,” says McIntyre, a Fremont PCC staffer who says she has worked for PCC for nearly seven years and has been a member since the 1980s.

PCC staff had concerns about the co-op’s strategy earlier this year after the newly hired Monford wrote to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to oppose the city’s proposal to mandate $4-an-hour hazard pay for grocery workers.

“Unlike large corporate grocers who saw a large sustained uptick in sales nationwide, we have not had a sustained increase in sales and do not have a national footprint to rely on to offset these costs nor the cost of doing business in Seattle,” Monford wrote.

McIntyre said Monford’s letter irked her and many of her colleagues. “Well, OK, she doesn’t have our back,” McIntyre says of the sentiment she’s heard expressed by many co-workers.

UFCW officials decided to pursue the worker candidacies last summer. Although the co-op’s bylaws allow up to two staff members on the board, PCC officials said there hasn’t been a staff-level trustee for years.

Rasmussen and McIntyre said they were recruited to run late last year, and they and other union members and UFCW staff started collecting signatures in November. Any member can run for the board, but non-board-endorsed candidates need signatures from 2% of all members. But because the union couldn’t contact members directly — PCC declined to share members’ emails — the roughly 1,800 signatures required by each candidate had to be gathered in person and each candidate had to follow PCC’s rules for on-site solicitation.

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Both Rasmussen and McIntyre say they had no problems with their own store managers, who simply reiterated store policy. Indeed, McIntyre says her store director told her “she thought that I was an excellent candidate” for the board.

But the union said the larger signature-gathering efforts ran into resistance. PCC “management both threatened to call and actually called the police multiple times during the board nomination signature gathering phase,” a UFCW spokesperson said in an email.

That included calls on Nov. 17 by PCC in Burien to the Burien Police Department and by PCC in Redmond to the Redmond Police Department, according to the UFCW.

The UFCW spokesperson also said PCCs at Greenlake Village and Greenlake Aurora called the Seattle Police Department and that PCCs in Bellevue and Ballard called their private security companies “to order PCC workers gathering signatures off the property.”

Pressed several times on union claims, a PCC spokesperson said it was possible “that police were called if nonstaff were breaking solicitation rules,” but otherwise stuck to the assertion that “we do not call the police on PCC staff members.”

How the controversy will play out electorally is hard to say. The vote runs though May 3 and turnout is typically small; last year’s PCC board candidates averaged around 2,900 votes each. (A software glitch in the online voting system PCC uses, which was reported by the union Thursday, had been resolved Friday by the service provider, PCC said.)

Rasmussen, for one, says she’s encouraged by the number of members who encouraged her to run. “What makes me optimistic is what I’m hearing from my customers/members,” she says. “It feels like the right thing to do.”