Letter: Can democracy work at the food co-op level?

Graphic by Lori Deaton

The French Broad Food Co-op will hold its annual membership meeting on Saturday, June 3. Ideally, a large number of members should come together to make decisions through a democratic process. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen.

First, the bylaws require 3 percent of the members (now called “owners”) for a quorum. The co-op is not important enough to its members to persuade even this small number to attend a meeting once a year, thus, no business is likely to be conducted.

Also, there is no business meeting on the agenda. The board of directors is not welcoming to members actually making decisions, and the members don’t seem to care. They are rarely allowed to decide any questions other than election of the board or bylaw changes. The last time members were allowed to vote on any substantive issues was 2007, when they approved two ballot questions, but the board refused to implement these decisions.

Member democratic control is one of the seven international cooperative principles, and, in my view, should be the pillar of any cooperative. This is especially important since democracy has collapsed at the national level, and largely at the state and local levels, too. Can democracy work at even the food co-op level?

At this point, people are joining the co-op in record numbers but for unclear reasons. They get no discount. There is the promise of a patronage rebate, but it is always microscopic. There is still a token worker-member program, but it is not economically useful to the store because the worker-members are prohibited by the union contract from doing any work done by staff, and also our members tend to be too affluent to need a discount and too busy to be worker-members, so there is not a sense of a community of people working together.

Membership in the co-op, I will suggest, has become largely a marketing ploy, fully as much as membership in Sam’s Club is a marketing ploy — except that at Sam’s Club, you do get a discount, because they recognize that membership there is a marketing ploy and that they have to give you something to get you to join. What do you get if you join the co-op? Apparently, a feeling of being part of an (illusory) alternative.

I joined the co-op because I wanted to support an alternative to the corporate economy. I would like for it to be more than just a little corporation that has a really nice store and an effective jobs program. I would like for it to be a model of democratic governance, of community, and to fulfill its mission statement “to be a transformative force in our community and in our world.” At this point, is there any way to do this?

Consider the program successfully modeled by the phone company CREDO: Setting aside 1 percent of gross sales to be given as grants to local nonprofit groups that would benefit the community and would be invaluable as a marketing strategy — every customer would know that their purchase was supporting worthy causes, a feeling they would not have at any other store. And it would involve and empower co-op members as they nominated and voted for local nonprofit groups. Of course, they would not be exercising member democratic control over the co-op itself, but it would be, perhaps, a start.

If you have any thoughts on this, please call me at 242-6073.

— Rusty Sivils

Editor’s note: Xpress contacted the French Broad Food Co-op and received the following response from board President Danielle Marie Goldstein and General Manager Bobby Sullivan: “As change is inevitable, co-ops have evolved over the years. Once totally member-run, most co-ops are now run by paid employees — and jobs are good, especially good jobs. The FBFC is, in fact, the only grocer in town that pays a living wage. The nature of democracy is complex. It’s not just about voting, but rather multiple layers of participation and transparency. We offer that. Our owners have the opportunity to run for the board of directors and elect their representatives. We welcome any owner to attend our monthly board meetings, and [we] have an owner comment period each month where we listen wholeheartedly. Throughout the year, we offer a myriad of ways for owners to be involved and multiple discounts that make natural foods more accessible to our whole community.”

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