By Cris Rivera’s reckoning, it took six years of planning to open the Durham Co-Op Market and seven months for it to waver on its supposedly progressive mission.
As a 25-year resident of Durham, Rivera, the co-op’s finance director, knows what this type of locally sourced, locally owned grocery means for her city. And that’s why she was so disappointed by a plan recently unveiled by the market’s board of directors to strip employees of the ability to purchase a special class of shares in the co-op.
Under mounting scrutiny, the board decided against a vote on that plan, which was originally scheduled for Sunday. But board members say they’ll bring it back for discussion at some point down the road, following conversations with the co-op’s employees and owners.
Co-opswhich are owned by the people who use their services and governed by a board elected by the ownersare supposed to share the wealth and decide their future democratically. But the board’s proposal would deny workers both money and influence, Rivera says.
“The more I think about it, the more upset I get,” she says. “It would have been really nice [for workers] to be asked.”
Under the co-op’s bylaws, modeled word-for-word after those of the 27-year-old Weaver Street Market in Orange County, workers who have been employed for more than six months can purchase their own “worker shares,” which are set apart from the consumer shares that finance the co-op. Worker shares would allow the co-op’s 40 employees to collectively own about 10 percent of the business. They also guarantee representation on the board. Given that most employees earn less than $10 an hourbelow the Durham Living Wage Project’s $12.53-an-hour thresholdthat representation may prove vital to boosting their pay.
But board members, who were advised by a national co-op consultant firm called CDS Consulting Co-Op, say it’s not a “best practice” to offer the shares to employees.
Board president Frank Stasio, who hosts the WUNC program The State of Things, calls it “untenable,” saying Weaver Street Market leaders have personally acknowledged to him the difficulty of navigating the inevitable clashes and conflicts of interest that accompany such a model. (Weaver Street officials declined to confirm or deny Stasio’s comments).
“You’ve got this artifact that Weaver Street has learned to manage,” Stasio says.
Under the proposed (and postponed) revision to the bylaws, workers would have been able to purchase the standard consumer stock in the co-op, but they would lose out on the chance to leverage greater control via the board of directors.
Some workers and member-owners say it’s hypocritical of the co-op to consider slighting its employees, particularly given that a precedent for success exists in the thriving Weaver Street Market.
“It’s imperative that the workers have a choice,” says Rivera. “To be solely consumer-owned, it would just add to the feeling that this isn’t our store.”
The resemblance to Weaver Street Market is no mistake. Spread upon a tract on Durham’s West End, the co-op is a mirror image of the Orange County institution, which has groceries in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.
When Durham’s last co-opaffectionately known as the People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracycrumbled in debt in 2009, the machinery was already in the works for a replacement, one that would theoretically build upon Weaver Street’s success.
Naturally, then, the market’s first board copied Weaver Street’s bylaws and articles of incorporation, including its hybrid model of worker-owners and consumer-owners. Michael Bacon, a former co-op member who helped steer its organization, says that was intentional.
Co-ops across the country are typically shopper-owned or worker-owned, but Weaver Street may be unique in packaging the two together.
“It’s part of why a lot of people were excited about the Durham Co-Op,” says David Roswell, a customer-owner. “This was doing business in a different way. Without worker ownership, it feels a whole lot like Whole Foods.”
Curt Brinkmeyer, chairman of Weaver Street’s board of directors and a worker-owner himself, calls worker-owned shares “an essential and valuable part” of Weaver Street.
“I can’t imagine Weaver Street Market existing without them,” he says. Brinkmeyer declined to discuss whether the model has ever proven problematic, as Stasio alleges.
Beyond that, there’s also the question of hypocrisy: A market that opened earlier this year touting its hiring of workers from Durham’s underserved neighborhoods is now moving to ensure that those workers have no say in how the co-op is run.
“This is a fight to take away from workers. With Frank Stasio, a champion of labor, presiding over the decision, it seems pretty messed up,” Roswell says, referring to Stasio’s coverage of labor issues on WUNC.
But Stasio says it’s more complicated than that. Based on the consultant’s recommendations, he says, the co-op is adopting what is known as “policy governance,” delegating management of daily operations to its general manager rather than an overly meddlesome board of directors. Issues will arise if the board micromanages such an organizationand having workers on the board will lead to more interference, he says.
Moreover, workers would face constant calls to recuse themselves over conflicts of interest when votes affect them, Stasio adds. And the store’s general manager would also have to oversee employees who could, as part of the board, push to fire her.
“In the long run, I think this is the way to go,” Stasio says. “In our hearts, we truly believe that.”
As to concerns about employees’ wages, Stasio says the board has tasked general manager Leila Wolfrum with developing a plan. “It’s up to her to make them happy,” he says.
Tyler Jenkins, a Durham resident who works for a nonprofit that develops both worker- and consumer-owned co-ops in North Carolina, is one of six candidates, including Stasio, seeking election to four seats on the board this year. Ahead of Sunday’s board meeting, Jenkins told the INDY the board would be making a mistake if it axed worker ownership.
“Considering many employees make less than what would be considered a living wage, this is a really important avenue and a unique way cooperatives can address growing income inequality,” he says.
“It’s intellectually lazy and misleading to say that the fact that something isn’t common is a good justification for getting rid of it,” says Sam Hummel, a consumer-owner in the Durham Co-Op and a former member of the People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy. “There are hundreds of food co-ops that would love to be as uncommonly successful as Weaver Street has been as a hybrid consumer and worker-owned co-op.”
While Weaver Street’s hybrid model may be unique, more than a dozen co-ops across the country guarantee worker representation on the board. That fact, Jenkins says, is the primary reason why board members are now reconsidering their proposal.
The board’s difficulty, Bacon says, is in returning value to consumer-owners while still giving employees a fair shake. “It’s really difficult to implement,” Bacon says. “And the board is really struggling with it.”
Rivera understands that dilemma, but she’s still struggling to find justification for the board’s push.
Yes, she says, having workers on the board would make the co-op harder to manage. “And if they made their board all upper-class white people, a homogenous group, yes, there would be less conflict, but it’s just an easy way to explain it away.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Disappointed, frankly”