Choosing to be union

Jeff Brown, CEO of Brown's Super Stores, owns 11 ShopRites across the Philadelphia region. (Photo: Michael Pronzato / Staff)

Anyone reading the newspaper would assume that unions and management can't possibly get along and that the worst thing that could happen to any business would be for it to have a unionized workforce. Yet, when Jeffrey Brown founded his 11-store chain of ShopRite supermarkets, "I chose to be union." Here's why:

"Well, I was coming from my dad’s business that was unionized," Brown, founder of Brown's Super Stores Inc., which operates supermarkets in and around Philadelphia, told me during our interview, published in Sunday's Inquirer. "I was accustomed to operating that way. I guess one side of union that’s not really advertised is the employees are sort of guaranteed a certain level of compensation, because they’re going to have someone experienced to negotiate for them.  I think if you’re going to work in this business, you’ve got a better job if you’re working in a unionized store.

Question: You mean your employees will do a better job?

Answer:  No.  The employee has a better proposition with health insurance and there’s somebody bargaining for them.

Q:  Why is that good for you?

A:   Because I think it enables me to get the more serious people about the business.  If you really want to do this as a career, you probably would be better off in a unionized store. 

Q:  Do you find any problem firing people who don’t do a good job?

A:  You know, today the laws are so much more significant than they were when I started the business and you just can’t fire people, whether you’re union on non-union.  There has to be a process of progressive discipline and communication and giving the person a chance to correct whatever it is they’re doing wrong.  And often if you do that, they do correct it once they understand what they’re doing wrong. Then, you don’t need to fire them.  I would say we spend a similar effort whether they’re union or non-union.  For an employee that’s not doing their job it’s a similar amount of effort, because I have the law to contend with and there’s also morality.  You want to give a person a chance to fix their problem.  You just don’t want to fire them, because who wants to work for someone who’s firing everybody?  

Main unions at Brown's supermarkets are United Food and Commercial Workers Locals 1776, 152 and 1360. 

Yesterday: Moving supermarkets from marginal to profitable in low-income neighborhoods.