The problem with being a co-op supermarket catering to the affluent granola crowd is that sometimes your customers' lefty political beliefs can interfere with business. Case in point is the current controversy facing the Puget Consumers' Co-op.
A stubborn group of PCC members wants the local natural foods grocery chain to stop buying goods from China, in protest of that country's human rights record. But the PCC board of directors is opposed to a boycott, claiming it's not the right way to send a political message and that the action would deprive PCC members of their ginseng, medicinal herbs, and many other Chinese imports.
Voters approved a China ban in an election three years ago, but that boycott had a sunset provision and expired last year, according to PCC officials. So members concerned about China's use of prison labor and suppression of democracy circulated another petition for a new boycott election during the month of May. The ballots are all in, but will not be counted until June 8.
The PCC board has been quite open about its opposition to the boycott. But some activists believe the store crossed the line when it began paying its employees to lobby against the member initiative. Employees who wanted extra paid hours were asked to stand outside the store, hand out the opposition statements, and explain to members why they should vote "no."
"It's one thing to have a position. It's another to pay with members' money to make people vote a certain way [on a members' initiative]," says Daniel Kramer, a boycott supporter.
PCC CEO Jeff Voltz says the small number of employees who participated did not constitute a misuse of members' money. (Only two workers, a produce stocker at the Green Lake store and a board administrator, agreed to lobby shoppers.) Voltz adds that PCC encourages members to "vote with their dollars" on an individual basis, rather than to categorically prohibit the sale of products a "silent majority" of customers choose to buy.
Voltz says only about 5 percent to 7 percent of the PCC's 35,000 members vote in most elections, and that a minority of members with "special interests" organized the China boycott. The board is now seriously considering raising the percentage of member votes needed to make an election valid; as it is now only 3 percent of members need to vote for an election to go through.
Though PCC membership cards refer to their carriers as "member-owners," the real power lies with the company's corporate board. In effect, the elections function as opinion polls, not binding directives, since the board can overturn any member election. It did so once, in 1995, when members supported what Voltz calls an "irresponsible" measure to keep open an Everett PCC branch that Voltz says had to be closed.
Voltz says he believes the cooperative is the "right economic model." But he also supports overturning the votes of members, and promoting views contrary to theirs, when it's necessary to "protect" the business. He points out that the co-op has responsibilities towards its vendors and the bank, as well as towards members.
An e-mail from ban proponents warns that the China flap "may be the last gasp of PCC as a true co-op."