Our Co-ops Co-opted

Seattle is ground zero for the co-op movement. Some of the largest and most prosperous cooperative businesses in the country are based here: Group Health Cooperative, Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC). But the member-driven democracy that is supposedly the hallmark of co-ops has long been forgotten at many of these institutions. REI and Group Health are virtually indistinguishable in their models from traditional corporate competitors. The battle to keep PCC a grassroots outfit was fought, and lost, at least 15 years ago. These days, PCC's administrators might as well work for Safeway. The "co-op" label is significant mostly for marketing: an appeal to the hip, upscale, progressive demographic that is every bit as central to its identity as the organic produce.

In this context, the current brouhaha at Madison Market is troubling. Formerly Central Co-op, Madison Market is the last truly independent, single-store food co-op in Seattle. Like all co-ops, it has scrambled to keep up with competitors—notably, six years ago, by selling its property at 12th Avenue and Denny Way on Capitol Hill and moving to a new store at 16th Avenue and East Madison Street, a move that saddled Madison Market with enormous debt. While it has slowly worked that debt off, Madison Market has also undergone a succession of clashes between workers and management.

The latest such clash began on Nov. 29, when an outspoken worker named Suzie True, who is a member of the union negotiating team for a new labor contract, was whisked away from her shift for an unprecedented drug test. True and others are negotiating a labor contract, the old one having expired in August 2004. "I don't even drink beer," True says. She says, and store critics echo, that she was singled out for her labor activism. Says one board member, "Suzie tried to create the kind of culture you'd hope to see in a co-op. It was conspiratorial, what happened to her."

"I certainly wouldn't do it again," General Manager Reese Williams says of the drug- test incident. "There was a very strong sense throughout our community that drug testing was not acceptable."

The second incident came last month, when popular worker and board member Beau Ingram was fired for insubordination, a charge he is contesting through the union. Ingram also feels he was singled out for his criticism of management. Ironically, he is on the board. Now, due to his firing, he is barred from a store for which he has fiduciary responsibility.

A group of some 50 alarmed members, mobilized in 36 hours by Seattle Central Community College professor and prominent local activist Richard Burton, showed up at the March board meeting to demand answers. They came away frustrated and angry and are planning to come in greater numbers to the next board meeting Tuesday, April 26.

To complicate matters, Madison Market is entering elections for a new board. The current nine members are essentially split 5-4, with the critics a vocal minority.

"It's nothing really bad compared to what's gone before," says longtime board member John Foss. He has a point. The co-op has had four general managers in the six years since moving, with the last two essentially forced out by revolts of the staff.

At some point, the co-op has to be run as a business. But co-ops aren't just businesses. "Madison Market is one of the last democratic institutions in Seattle," says Ingram. "I'd just like to see members get involved. Management does not own the store, but they act like they do. Somebody has to step up and intervene. Obviously workers can't do that, or they get fired or drug tested."

Back in the day, I helped manage a food co-op in Virginia. When I moved to Seattle in 1990, I was astonished at how corporatized PCC was even then. (And yes, PCC has had its own prodigious labor problems over the years.) Madison Market has mostly not gone down that road, and has paid for it. "There definitely has been some mismanagement for there still to be [a financial] crisis after six years," says Williams, and the personnel clashes are also an outgrowth of how Madison Market is run. Those are the costs. The benefit is that Madison Market is a quality food co-op that is still small enough for members who care to make a difference in how it is run. And that's something worth preserving.


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