A “bad check”
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uses the metaphor of a “bad check” to refer to the unfulfilled promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for America’s citizens of color. Though a very different situation, I can think of no more appropriate metaphor for workers at River Valley Co-op.
At an orientation meeting held at the former Pleasant St. Theater shortly before the store opened on April 30, 2008, RVC workers were promised a different kind of workplace, a place defined by differences inherent in cooperative values. They are still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. So far they are holding, in essence, a bad check.
The struggle to be heard
RVC workers have been struggling for respect and justice in their workplace since virtually the beginning. In 2010, a group of workers and former board members asked the then board of directors to help address workplace issues. I was a part of this group, being a worker at the time and also a co-op founder and former board president. We were essentially rebuffed. Consequently, workers began organizing efforts that resulted in union representation in 2012.
Unfortunately, union representation has not been enough to fully alleviate workers’ concerns about their workplace. Workers reached out to the board again for help in 2016 and again were rebuffed.
When workers, with or without a union, feel that their voices are unheard and that their grievances are ignored or not properly addressed (the store’s most recent staff survey revealed pervasive dissatisfaction), workers understandably might turn to the board.
Why is the board not responding? Good people, with good values, are on the board. They are elected by members, to represent the wishes of members. It’s worth noting that many of River Valley Co-op workers, currently, are members. Why are their voices not allowed to be heard?
The answer to that begins with the fact that RVC workers are not alone in this struggle.
Managerial and structural issues
When the union-organizing efforts received some press attention, RVC workers were quickly contacted by other co-ops dealing with exactly the same workplace issues. Since that time, two of those co-ops have also become union shops: Green Fields Market and the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Other co-ops, both union (Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, VT, and City Market in Burlington, VT) and non-union (Lebanon-Hanover, NH), had, and continue to struggle with, similar issues.
What these co-ops have in common is that they operate with the same tired, hierarchical structure with a single point, the general manager (GM), with ultimate veto power, at the top of the pyramid. All these co-ops’ boards also operate with a system of governance called policy governance, which specifically prohibits boards from communicating with workers. (See what’s been going on with this issue at the Putney Co-op here.) With the exception of Hunger Mountain Co-op, each board’s only point of contact with store operations is the GM. When our group of workers and former board members approached the board in 2010, the board said they didn’t know how to speak to me — a co-op founder and former board president — because I was a worker! Imagine that!
While many of us believe that justice in the workplace is a cornerstone of a successful co-op, it is important for owner-members to understand that a co-op doesn’t automatically operate, in its workplace policies, in a manner any different than a conventional grocery store. Decisions are not necessarily made in a collaborative manner and workers’ voices are not necessarily given any more weight.
If the GM does not create a culture which values workers’ voices and supports more collaborative decision making, workers labor under policies created at the whim of the GM, the human resources manager, or department managers. Sometimes, adding insult to injury, workers are subject to group procedures which purport to encourage workplace democracy but in fact are just hollow mechanisms for the GM and managers to continue to assert control. The end result for workers is further disenchantment.
Co-ops like RVC do great work, supporting a higher percentage of local growers and producers than conventional stores, for example, but if we’re failing to advance workers’ rights and create just workplaces, are we really something to hold in such high regard? Where do we go from here?
Fundamentals for change
Let’s go back to the “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King warned of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” and stated, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Again, entirely different situation, however wise words for this context also. RVC workers are fed up with incremental change. They are still fighting for their rights, a voice, respect, a living wage, wages for time spent being shuttled to and from an off-site parking lot! They want real change, and they need our support! Let’s make good on promises unkept, at last.
Policy governance has to go. The board has to be empowered to listen to worker perspectives, guide the GM to a corrective course, and make sure they stay on course. Staff representation on the board is also essential. The board needs to hear and understand workers’ perspectives if they are to make the best decisions for the co-op as a whole. To be clear, though, workers don’t want the board to solve their problems; they want to be empowered to solve them. I cannot speak highly enough of my former coworkers — they know what’s wrong and are the best people to be involved in corrective action.
Change is up to us as owner-members
Without owner-member involvement, however, it’s all doomed to fail. Yes, many of our workers are owners, but that number is dwarfed by the overall membership, which today exceeds 9,000. We need owners from outside the store to hold the board accountable for the structural change which will transform the workplace into an example for co-ops and conventional businesses alike. Without pressure from us, change will not happen, guaranteed!
Understand also that positive change at River Valley Co-op, a co-op industry leader, ripples out to other co-ops in the Northeast and beyond. Our problems are not ours alone, and solutions are not ours alone either.
Empowering workers to help create a more egalitarian workplace is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. Decisions made with worker input are better decisions. Workers who feel supported, empowered and listened to are happier, more productive workers. Workers who earn a living wage are better able to lead healthier lives and support their families and communities to do the same.
Step one: demand paid shuttle time
It’s going to take a while to create a truly just workplace at RVC. Active owner-member engagement is the key to making it happen. We need to listen to workers and to ensure that the board also listens and allows for needed structural change.
Let’s begin the effort by getting our workers paid for all their work hours. Above, I mentioned the unpaid shuttle time. If you haven’t visited the shuttle page already, please do so to learn about the issue, and then take action: sign the petition telling management to do the right thing.* Further, contact one or more of our board members. Let them know that you listen to workers’ voices and that you care about their rights, starting with compensation for all work time.
Our co-op is a great place to shop. If we make ourselves heard as owner-members, we can make it a truly great place to work as well.
*Ed note: For an update on this issue, see “Why Didn’t management Give Us a Clean Shuttle Settlement.” It’s a story of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then sign the Petition for a Clean Settlement.
David Gowler is a founding owner-member of River Valley Cooperative (member number 10). David served on the co-op board for 10 years, was the first board president and worked for 7 years in the store as scanning coordinator. He is currently working to develop a worker- and member-owned food co-op for Holyoke, where he resides.