Managing Working Members

Member work is still the subject of a lot of controversy in many new wave food co-ops. Staff members at many stores particularly feel that member work is something that makes their jobs much harder and holds their co-ops back.

If you don't want to keep member labor in some form, then carry that case to your membership and persuade them that member work no longer works for your co-op. Both proponents and opponents of member work agree that it's difficult to administer, and doing it half-heartedly often does more harm than good.

If, on balance, you do want to keep member labor, then hire for it. At the Boston Food Co-op, interacting with the member work system is probably the most complicated part of paid staff jobs, and one that we focus on strongly when we hire new people. Someone who doesn't like working in the way that a member work system requires staff to work will not be very happy and usually not very successful. Many of the business skills required to work in a store like ours are more easily learned than the personal interaction skills, and we're very aware of that as we look at job applicants.

We also schedule our workers at all levels as much around the needs of the member work system as around other needs of the store (delivery schedules, etc.). In particular, we schedule stocker/cashiers to be available at times when we're likely to need more workers than we get, and use them to take up the (considerable) slack that the member work system leaves in the overall amount of work that needs to
be done in the store. This lets us reduce to manageable levels the difficulties caused by the unpredictability of member worker availability.

What Do You Hope to Accomplish?

With a staff (and board and membership) that's optimistic about member labor and feels that it's worth a major effort to make it work well, you're ready to analyze carefully what works well and what doesn't in your present system. What do you hope to accomplish with member labor? To get work done cheaply and productively? To increase a sense of involvement in the co-op on the part of member workers? To help create more of a social network and sense of community among your members? You may have a number of ways in which you'd like to see member labor make a contribution. How can you modify your system to better accomplish these goals?

At the Boston Food Co-op (BFC), we wanted to get work in the store done cheaply and productively, to hold down store expenses and food prices. We concluded that many of our workers weren't very productive because they weren't well-trained or supervised. We wrote thorough information sheets on most member jobs and made sure that members read them periodically before working. And we restructured our staff and work patterns to emphasize having department managers or other supervising staff in the store as much as possible during the busiest member work hours, increasing our supervision levels tremendously. We try to plan ahead enough to have member workers in an area where they can be well-supervised, rather than in another area without supervision where there's more of an emergency. We also try to ensure that paid employees have work prepared and organized in advance for member workers (e.g., grocery cases pulled onto carts ready to go onto the floor).


We also looked hard at the compensation members reeived for working. Since our prices for non-working members and non-member shoppers have to be competitive, the differential between working and non-working member prices really determines what we "pay" working members. We initially set that differential at 15 percent, but found that many non-working members felt they couldn't afford to shop at our store without working. We lowered it to 10 percent, which seems to be a level at which both working and nonworking members feel OK. This also seems to be a reasonable amount analytically. If most members spend between $50 and $80 per month at the co-o~all our work discounts are on an individual basis and not transferable then working members are getting five to eight dollars for their two hours, or $2.50 to $4.00 per hour.

The issue of "shadow wages is worth touching in passing. The compensation working members get is tax-free, so for most people $4.00 is really $4.60-$5.60lhour. This, however, is good for both the co-op (which doesn't pay out this extra money -- the co-op "expense" is $4.00) and for the member. In fact, for the co-op, $4.00 of member labor "expense" costs less that $4.00 of payroll expense, because the co-op pays additional taxes on every payroll dollar (FICA, unemployment taxes, workers' compensation insurance, and any benefits which might go to the workers in question). At the BFC, that adds up to 16 percent before any benefits are included, so it costs us $4.60 to pay a worker with no benefits $4.00 (and then they pay their taxes). So at a given level of compensation, member labor saves everybody money.

It's misleading to think that this kind of analysis is the only or even the major way of looking at member work. It ignores (and indeed can't easily measure) the other effects of member work. How much extra volume does the store do because members who have already worked for the month make an extra effort to do all of their shopping there, or because members who sometimes work feel more loyalty to the co-op than they otherwise would?

Scheduled Work Teams

We also wanted our member work system to help foster more of a sense of community among our members, but because most members worked at completely random times, they seldom worked with the same person twice. (Staff members also worked on a randomized schedule, and moving to a fixed staff schedule has helped a lot here also.) We set up scheduled work teams with an incentive for participation (an extra hour's credit for a two-hour work shift at a regularly scheduled time and job). Work teams bring the same group of people together every six weeks to, say, cut cheese, and encourage members to get to know each other.

Recruiting members for work teams was sometimes difficult, but once on work teams, member response was quite positive. This program is a little more work to administer than most of our other member labor systems, but we hope to expand as well as simplify it in the future.

Our next addition was a refinement of our scheduled worker program called Food-At-Cost work. FAC workers work two hours per week at a scheduled time and job, and receive a 14 percent discount below shelf (working member) prices. The "shadow wage" rate for these workers is very low, and their frequent, regular schedule makes them extremely useful workers -- frequently more productive than our paid stocker/cashiers, because the jobs are less boring for two hours than for eight, and their attitude toward the work is usually better. We have recruited some of our best parttimers from the Food-At-Cost ranks. Member response to this program has been extremely good, and it has increased the overall amount of member labor we have in our store a great deal.

An important factor in these changes was the decision to assign a staff member to concentrate on the member work system and make improvements.

What are the currents running through all this?

  • Provide good supervision and training.
  • Analyze and adjust your discount systems so they seem reasonable to everyone involved.
  • Investigate other options. Explore results at other co-ops (scheduled work was inspired by Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn; many other stores use something like Food-At-Cost work.) Think about what you'd like to improve about your member labor system, and look for new ways to accomplish those things.
  • Assign clear responsibility for member work systems to a staff person and give them the time to work on it. Few stores would try to get along without a produce manager or a bookkeeper, but the system that supplies a large part of the store's labor is often supposed to run by itself.

Our feeling is that member labor still has an important role to play in differentiating our co-op from competing stores. Even members who don't work express the sense that being checked out by another co-op member rather than by an employee strengthens their sense that it's a different kind of store, more "their" store. It clearly creates a strong impression among those who participate in it, and our experience suggests that that impression lingers even long after the member ceases to work very frequently.

Certainly some kind of monetary investment also helps create a feeling of ownership and sense of identity, but it would be hard to come up with examples where investing in something leads to the same kind of identification that expending time and effort in a social setting does. Member education -- about cooperatives, nutrition, products, and issues -- is clearly an area needing enormous improvement, but it doesn't seem likely to produce that kind of identification either.

See also "Another Look at Member Labor" in CG #8.

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