A "Non-Working, Non-Worrying" Member

"Non-Working, Non-Worrying" member Paul Cultrera responds to the article about exemptions for co-op member labor programs in the July-August 1991 issue of Cooperative Grocer by Shady DeJong and Kathleen Campbell of La Montanita in Albuquerque, NM:

Dear Cooperative Grocer:

I'd like to respond to the article in the July-August issue, "Exemption Sought for Co-op Member Labor Programs." I have experienced member labor as both a member laborer and as a co-op manager, and neither perspective has left me particularly fond of the concept.

While I found the role of a member-laborer to be one in which I often felt mis-utilized and somewhat of a burden to whomever was trying to manage the store at the time, my major negative Pavlovian response to the ML word came during my more then ten years as a manager. During that period the co-op which I managed (Cape Ann Food Co-op, Gloucester, Massachusetts), evolved from a store with annual sales of $200,000 to one with $1.4 million, and its member labor program went from the no-choice stance (gotta be a member to shop, gotta work to be a member) to the pro-choice option (anyone can shop, work if you want).

As sales volume grew along with a commitment to customer service (minimal definition: any customer shopping at any time can expect to find the items they came for, properly displayed and priced correctly, and be checked out by a cashier who knows what he or she is doing and who will bag your groceries), and a reduction in the discount given for member labor was implemented, the store's dependence on member labor was greatly reduced, relegated mostly to out-of-store tasks.

In my experience, a high dependence on in-store member labor was connected with spotty service, inefficient labor, and managerial dizziness. Managers spent countless hours training and retraining members, filling in when members didn't show up, and basically were rarely able to focus on their responsibility to manage the store.

So much for my experience. Having been around co-ops for a long time, I realize that if there is anything to the theory of the "co-op difference," it is probably just that: they all are very different from one another. And though I would be willing to wager a month's member labor discount (if I had one) that much of what I have described is not an uncommon scenario in co-ops using member labor, I also recognize that there are examples of stores committed to using member labor that somehow find a way to integrate it into their operations without total breakdown occurring.

But what I want to respond to in the article are a number of contradictions that I find there. And let me say in fairness to the authors of the article, Shady DeJong and Kathleen Campbell from La Montanita Food Co-op in Albuquerque (the city I now call home, the co-op I currently am a member of, whose hand-that-feeds mine I am not interested in biting) that these contradictions are not particular to their analysis, but are ones that I frequently find surrounding the discussion of member labor.

The article states, "The benefit of coreworker programs goes far beyond a discount. It creates a sense of community, education and belonging for member/owners and paid staff. The tragedy is that those most affected are students, low and middle income and the elderly." If, on the one hand, the benefit is something other than the discount, why does a reduction in the discount given usually result in a marked drop-off in participation in member labor programs? That is, if members really are looking for a sense ofcommunity in their co-ops, why do they start to disappear when the financial incentive is lowered, and/or why do co-ops traditionally have low turnouts at annual meetings and very low participation in elections even where a strong member labor program is in effect? In the case of La Montanita, the Labor Dept. wanted proof that members were earning at least a minimum wage. If they weren't, how does such a system benefit students, low and middle income and the elderly?

The article goes on to state that "The coreworker program was essential in aiding La Montanita's growth from an all volunteer storefront operation to a member owned multi-million dollar natural foods market. However, when we researched the financial aspect of our member labor program, we found that there was no financial benefit to the store to be gained by keeping it." Which would lead me to assume that in fact member laborers were earning what was in effect a relatively high wage. This would tend to give more credence to the "it benefits limited income members" theory, but it makes me wonder how giving discounts that do not financially benefit the store aids the co-op in its growth and development. You can choose to argue this one either way, but not both ways at once.

Finally, the article states, "If we value cooperatives, then we must demand laws that allow them to maintain their viability." While member labor may be an entrenched feature at many co-ops, I see little that can convince me that it is an essential element in the viability of co-ops. And as stated, from my personal experience I can judge that for many reasons it may contribute to non-viability. There are numerous cases of highly viable co-ops in which member labor is not a part of the equation.

Essentially, I believe that the discussion of the merits and drawbacks of member labor programs, while valuable in itself, tends to misplace the focus of our attention from what truly makes co-ops unique and viable. If what we want are organizations that promote a sense of ownership and community, then we should be looking at programs that foster that, such as workshops on the cooperative principles, fair and meaningful member investment, open and contested board elections, newsletters that inform the members of more than new ways to prepare zucchini, and a lowering of the barriers that keep most of the population out of our stores.

If what we want is a way to make the goods we sell affordable to those on limited incomes, then we can address this through special discount programs geared to those people, e.g., anyone on foods stamps, WIC, AFDC, etc., qualifies for a discount. You're probably not getting their business now, so what's to lose?

If we want well-run stores with satisfied customers and well-paid workers and managers who might think of sticking around long enough to build up a co-op gene pool, maybe we ought to wonder why Bread & Circus, Whole Foods Market, Alfalfa's (or co-ops such as Hanover, Hyde Park, or North Coast) haven't decided to go with a shopper or member labor program. I believe that we need to view member labor as one means that we can choose to use or lose, and not as our be-all and-end-all. And maybe we owe the Labor Department a "thank you"?

Non-working, non-worrying, Paul Cultrera
Albuquerque, New Mexico

See other articles from this issue: #036 September - October - 1991