Abuse -- and Answers
Themes from this edition on co-op managers, their boards of directors, and co-op members:
Retail management is a complex, demanding job: juggling product, people and planning; making marketing decisions while trying to satisfy suppliers, staff, owners; and giving good service, service, service. Co-op managers have all these challenges and then some.
The extent to which the cooperative structure is a strength or a burden for the manager depends to a great degree on the level of understanding within the co-op about its purpose and proper care. The board of directors can be a supportive leadership group that builds organizational vision and member loyalty. Or it can be the co-op's Achilles heel, interfering with management of the operation and not planning for the future.
In addition to the board of directors, many co-op member owners themselves want to be a part of operational decisions. This usually accompanies a lack of understanding of the business that the co-op is in - its need for capital planning, professional management and staffing, profitability, etc. While each member's need is important, individual viewpoints are often myopic. On the other hand, management's assessment of owner needs, as the article on member surveys shows, must be thorough and professional, not arbitrary or haphazard.
Consumer co-ops, with their member-based democratic structure, seem prone to abuse of their managers. Historically, consumer co-ops have often diverged from labor rather than acting in solidarity; conversely, organized labor was in another era more supportive of worker and consumer co-ops. Many members fail to appreciate the critical role skilled management and staff play in the continuing existence of the co-op and its services.
But the desire to avoid exploitation of labor has been strong among today's co-ops and is a primary motivation among the few remaining collectively managed stores, such as this edition's feature, the Olympia Food Co-op. Many co-ops do quite well by their management and staff, judging not only from wage and benefits comparisons but also from the comments and longevity of many managers. It is not consumer co-ops as such but rather those where the business definition is weak that make work unnecessarily difficult for their managers. Co-ops that undervalue their manager and workers are likely to be those in which the members and directors do not understand their part in the business.
Whether for good or ill, co-op managers have the additional task of educating the members about the business of the cooperative. This responsibility is an important part of continuing cooperative education. Manager's columns in the co-op newsletter are a common form of this. For a good example, see the accompanying manager's column by Lisa Johnson of Upper Valley Food Co-op. [Lisa Johnson's column is appended below.]
A Manager's Message to Co-op Members
Co-ops are not about discounts. They are not about getting a ridiculously low price.
Cooperative ventures are designed to bring individuals together so we can accomplish something no one of us could do alone. The need could be virtually anything: in our case, we now have access to a wide selection of natural foods. Before our co-op formed, we couldn't get these foods.
The equity each of us pays into the Co-op is not a fee. It is not dues. We're not charging $25 a year for the privilege of shopping, like at one of those big warehouses that "wholesale" food the public. It is not punishment. We do not have to invest. It is not a "should."
That equity is our investment in the dream that we can do together what no one of us could do alone. It is the material which builds the store where we can get this wide selection of natural foods, and may be the material which someday builds the next venture that will fill another unmet need.
If you choose not to invest $100 to create a store, it doesn't make you a bad person, or one who doesn't care about community. If you choose not to invest $100 to crease this store, it means it is not worth $100 to you that this store exists.
This Co-op doesn't exist to make a profit for anyone. We aren't here to sell food to you.
This Co-op is our community's storehouse, which is filled with the natural foods you requrest, sold at a price that creates the tinest of surplus for its continuation into next year. This Co-op is one business among a multitude, but one driven by service rather than profit. We are here to buy food for you.
Co-ops are not about benefiting some people over others, or about having a store that provides for any one person's personal needs. They aren't about promoting a left-wing political bent, or pushing a certain kind of food, or excluding certain kinds of food.
Co-op are economic democracy in action. Without telling you what you can't buy, we offer you the items requested by enough people to justify shelf space.
What goes on here is not dictated by distant stockholders. It is not driven by the staff, or by the manager, or by the Board. It's not here for someone else's benefit.
It is driven by you. It is here to benefit you.
-- Lisa Johnson, Upper Valley Food Co-op