Get back

This is addressed to anyone who’s a member of the French Broad Food Co-op or is interested in the cooperative movement as an alternative to the corporate-dominated economy. Please come to the Co-op’s annual membership meeting on Saturday, May 31, starting at 2 p.m.

With its all-organic produce and the largest selection of bulk herbs in the region, the Co-op is a jewel in downtown Asheville. But after serving on the Co-op’s board of directors for seven years, I have come to feel that it has ceased to be an alternative in any meaningful sense—and in fact is not even a real cooperative anymore. Here are some of the reasons I feel this way:
One fundamental principle of cooperatives is democratic governance by members. At the FBFC, members almost never have the opportunity to make substantive decisions except for resolutions that they themselves have put on the ballot, and even then the board can refuse to carry them out, as happened with two resolutions passed by members last year. The role of the board is to represent and protect the interests of the members, but it seems to be dedicated to protecting the management from the members.
A cooperative is supposed to offer something to its members. The FBFC eliminated the member discount in favor of a patronage rebate, but that is contingent on there being a profit, which is small to nonexistent at the Co-op. Since the discount was eliminated, membership has generally declined. Perhaps belonging to a co-op offers a sense of identity, or people want to support the idea of a co-op, but without some substantive reason for being, I wonder how firm a foundation a co-op has.
A cooperative involves a joint effort by its members to work together for some common purpose. A food co-op usually involves members contributing their labor to help run the store. Four years ago, the Co-op’s then manager stopped accepting members into the worker/owner program, supposedly as a cost-cutting measure because of the discount worker-owners get (apparently he did not see any value in the actual work they did). In response to this, the board did nothing. The present manager has put in a new program, but he says they can’t do any work that the paid staff does because of the union contract. In other words, their work can’t be financially useful to the Co-op—which defeats the purpose of a worker/owner program. Seeing that no one was addressing this situation, Co-op members gathered enough petition signatures to put a resolution on the ballot requiring the board to appoint a committee to redesign an effective program. That resolution passed last year, but thus far the board has not implemented it.
The Co-op’s bylaws require the board to have either an audit or a financial review done each year. But I’m not aware of a single audit (reviews are less expensive) during the 10 years I’ve been involved with the Co-op. In my time on the board, I had no way of knowing whether the financial reports we were given were accurate. Instead, Co-op boards have always opted simply to trust the manager. The board’s job, however, is not to trust but to know. And the present board has proposed changing the bylaws so that an audit would never be required and financial reviews would be mandated as seldom as once every five years.

How has all this come about? First, let me say that the employees and manager of the Co-op are people I greatly like and respect, and the board members are some of the most dedicated folks in this community. But at least during the past decade, the boards of directors have regularly been trained by consultants from the National Cooperative Grocers Association—which is not an association of cooperatives but rather an association of co-op managers. These consultants have promoted “policy governance,” which confines the board to establishing general policies, rather than making any decisions about the actual operation of the store. This has some merit in preventing the board from micromanaging the manager. But at this co-op, at least, it has had the effect of almost completely disempowering the board—and, further, of involving the board in keeping the members themselves from making any decisions. All of this leaves the members with no one to turn to.

When people are dissatisfied, they generally don’t complain—they just go away. I know many former members, including a number of former board members, who have left the Co-op in disgust.

Thirty years ago, co-ops met their members’ genuine needs. Today they’re reduced to being small natural-foods stores struggling to survive against corporate competition. Rather than emphasizing our advantages as a cooperative, the FBFC has neglected our strongest economic advantage: our worker/owner program.

Is our society so prosperous, and the capitalist economy so pervasive, that cooperatives are no longer economically useful or important to our lives? Perhaps that would explain why there is such member apathy at the FBFC—members rarely come to board meetings, and very few attend the annual membership meeting or are willing to serve on the board.

I encourage all who still care about the Co-op or think the cooperative movement is not completely obsolete to come to the annual membership meeting on May 31. Anyone who would like to discuss any of these issues with me is welcome to call at 683-6859.

[Leicester resident Rusty Sivils is a longtime community activist who’s been involved with the French Broad Food Co-op for the last 10 years.]

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3 thoughts on “Get back

  1. Melanie Schaller

    I read with interest the article concerning your cooperative losing its direction/principles. I am President of the Board of Directors of Mega Pick ‘n Save in Eau Claire, WI. We run a grocery and fuel business in our area. We are the force to reckon with in our area and the reason is because we have hired a management company to run our operation. Some time ago we realized that a citizen board simply didn’t have the expertise to manage our operation. We are happy with the arrangement and have not lost sight of our reason for being.

    At some point, all cooperatives need to decide if they wish to exist and if they do, they need to be competive in their market. The skills required in the grocery and fuel business to operate in small margins need expert, full-time attention.

    Our cooperative is proud of our success; however, in order to do it, we needed to go beyond the idea of being a “collective” and move towards a competitive business oriented “cooperative” model without relinquishing our principles. It can be done.

    Melanie Schaller
    Board of Directors Chairperson
    Mega Pick’n Save
    Eau Claire, WI

  2. harry

    Rusty:
    Very well thought out article. I share many of your questions and thoughts and appreciate your perspective. At Olympia Food Co-op, we have a thriving member worker program, and a collectively managed staff. It’s no walk in the park but we have achieved many levels of success. Two stores; 12 million in sales; 150 weekly member volunteers; 76 collective staff members with a liveable wage and outstanding benefits; low prices, no patronage refund, member disount and deeper low income member discount. And we’re trying to create a new store that is co-located with organizations and businesses of similar values in our downtown area.

    I’d love to know how the member meeting went. email me at harry@olympiafood.coop

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