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Summer 1984

WHO WILL DO THE WORK?
One bright summer morning, the little red hen thought how lovely it would be to have fresh bread for her family. “Who would like fresh baked bread?” she asked her chicks.

“We would,” they all shouted.

“Then we shall bake some,” replied the hen. “We must gather the wheat from the field. Who will help?”

“Not us,” said the chicks. “The cats in the field frighten us.”

“Very well,” said the hen. “I shall gather the wheat. I will return soon.”

The little red hen set off for the field. Within a couple of hours, she had gleaned enough ripe wheat, grain by grain, to make her bread. She wrapped it in her apron and hurried home.

“Now,” she said, “who will help me grind the wheat into flour?”

“Not us,” said the chicks. “We are not strong enough to turn the mill wheel.”

And so, the little red hen ground all the grain herself, until she had enough fine, soft, brown flour to make her bread.

“Now,” she said, “who will help me mix the dough and set it out to rise?”

“Not us,” said the chicks. “We have already made plans with our friends to go down by the stream to play.”

The little red hen worked on alone. When the loaves were in the oven, she poured a jugful of thick cream into the churn. Just then, the chicks returned from the stream.

“Ah!” said the hen. “Which of you will help me churn this cream into butter for our bread?”

“Not us!” chorused the chicks. “We are too tired to do another thing!”

So, the little red hen churned and churned, until the cream turned to lumps of rich yellow butter.

At last the bread was ready!

“Now, who will help me eat this bread?” asked the red hen.

“We will!” shouted the chicks.

“No, you won’t,” said the hen. “You wouldn’t help gather the grain, or grind the flour, or mix the dough, or watch over the loaves set to rise. You wouldn’t help churn the butter. You will all go straight to bed without your supper. I did all the work, and I will eat the bread.”

(Of course, the little red hen saved most of the bread and butter for breakfast, and the chicks mended their ways. And so, the story ends happily, as well as wisely.)

Who will do the work? Olympia Food Co-op has an enviable group of skilled and knowledgeable member workers, a paid staff collective whose success puts them in demand as consultants for other co-ops, an experienced and dedicated Board. They will do the work … won’t they?

This article hopes to present a look at recent events in co-op labor management; to raise some questions about directions for the future; and finally, to motivate you to come to a decision about your beliefs about the co-op as a workplace. If you will send your ideas to the “News”, results will be published next issue.

The story behind labor coverage at the co-op is remarkable. Like the organic produce we market, the record bears abundant spots and blemishes reflective of the natural, imperfect aspect of human beings working to serve ideals. Yet with all the differences among our workers, with the logistical difficulties of operating as a cooperative, even with our individual and collective failings, we are strong and growing.

Our labor management has a long way to go. 30+% growth assures our continuing existence but puts enormous strains on our working systems. In the months to come, solutions for difficult labor issues may well become the major challenge we face.

CO-OP PAID STAFF
For several years, our staffing was an amazingly informal affair. Policy was loose and ambiguous. It’s a good way to start out. It leaves room for change and adjustment, for trials and, of course, errors.

This is a good time to acknowledge that the continuity of the co-op is partly a tribute to the devotion and determination of staff members, past and present. At times when owner-member involvement waned, staff not only kept the store running, they actively struggled toward greater member education and participation. The major advances in our Co-op history are the fruits of various staff dreams: Beth Hartmann, providing a sound financial system; former staffperson Robin Bergren, who turned a marginal produce bin into a veritable garden of fruits and vegetables, and worked to strengthen local farming; Debbie Leung, expanding the department and the concept of consumer education. Tyra Lindquist fought for a stronger, educated Board of Directors, and coordinated the recent remodeling effort. And others, each making a unique contribution to the store we enjoy now. Credit is due.

Now we are seeing some interesting changes in staffing. The beginning of 1984 brought with it an experiment in cooperative management. For the first time, staff have identified specific areas of administrative responsibility and assigned “managers” to each. Other staff are designated “general” staff; they and the managers share in the operational work, as always.

The staff chose not to have a general manager to oversee the operations, instead banking on open and responsible communications and mutual accountability. According to personnel manager, Karen Berkey Huntsberger, transition has been successful.

Recently, long-needed new staff were hired, bringing the workload closer to under control. The concern for keeping labor costs in line fought it out with the obvious need to relieve existing staff of overwork; as it happens, the acquisition of additional staff is in line with the rise in sales, and labor costs, considered in context, are still pretty reasonable. In fact, the Board has now approved reconvening the hiring committee to consider the addition of one more person, probably from among the recent applicants.

With the recently announced resignation of long-time staff person Tyra Lindquist, new staff may soon equal or outnumber experienced staff … a situation that has both advantages and disadvantages. The impact of these changes are sure to be felt in the months to come.

Nationally, co-ops have been staffed from the under 30’s, single, bright, energetic cream of the conunter cultural crop. These dynamic and idealistic folk came equipped with a passion for their work. They absorbed long hours, low pay, and the frustrations and traumas inherent in such organizations with pride. Members and boards naturally assume that staff work for something more than money; good thing, because as a rule, there has been precious little of it paid.

Co-ops usually hire people into a situation in which they get little or conflicting guidance from their member employers; where they must be self reliant and strongly motivated to fulfill a vision; and then are damned for “taking too much power”. No wonder so many co-ops sink in a morass of anger and bitterness among the various working contingents. And thank heavens we are, in Olympia, growing away from the “us them” mentality, toward a more genuinely cooperative approach to dialog and understanding of one another’s dilemmas and needs.

With time comes change. The fray wears out a good many people, who change to other work, burned out or disillusioned. They leave, taking valuable experience and knowledge with them. Others stick with it, but under increasing stress as they accumulate responsibilities that tax their low incomes. Their supermarket counterparts are rising into the economic upper middle classes, while they subsist on income that averages about 60% of that earned by the supermarket’s cashier. But if the low wages, limited room for advancement and growth, and thin tolerance for a steady stream of criticism eventually drive them into another job market, they may find their years of experience discounted; co-ops share the housewife’s struggle with an amateurish image.

The situation in Olympia is better than most. The business, nearing the end of its first decade, is gaining community respect. Staff member relations overall are good. Even so, according to Karen, every accolade is matched by 10 complaints. Some arrive in the unsavory form of cryptic, unsigned notes; some are out and out abusive.

Staff wages are still marginal, compared with those of similar work in the “private sector”. As Phyllis Villenueve notes, with children and other responsibilities, it becomes increasingly more difficult to make ends meet on a co-op staff income. As member employers, we need to examine the question of fair compensation for workers. We avoid stocking products from third world countries which exploit labor. Might we also need to some social consciousness in our own neighborhood?

In hundreds of co-ops, staff still are implicitly expected to put the store first, before personal considerations. That’s a hardline, 1950’s corporate attitude. Staff in such places may have a hard time maintaining perspective and treating the job as one’s work, not one’s entire life mission. Nationally, burnout is probably the number one cause of turnover.

Most of the co-op staff people I’ve talked with across the country who were leaving their co-ops were doing so reluctantly; they literally were mentally and physically exhausted – or had the foresight to see that they soon would be. It’s not uncommon in our home Co-op. How can we keep that from happening in the future?

MEMBER WORKERS
Summer is a difficult time to talk about member workers. Traditionally the ebb and flow of members sharing the workload bears an uncanny resemblance to population fluctuations at a certain nearby collage campus. With a stronger base of permanent community members in the problem has become less pronounced. But it is still significant enough to be troublesome.

Ideally, our worker system acts as a tool. One of its goals is the prediction of the fluctuations in member worker coverage. We planned to cluster working member shifts quarterly, then schedule paid staff to fill the gaps. For now, however, staff has all it can do to keep up with staff work. A look at the worker hours log is revealing: the same few names keep repeating, two three, six times a week, substituting for others and filling vacant shifts.

Member workers are relatively recent addition to co-op operations nationally. This participation really becomes economically viable when workers are knowledgeable. It works best if they are reasonably self regulating and if they continue working after developing experience. The Olympia Co-op is an “industry leader” in its system, but one with room for further improvement.

Yet in spite of comparative success with member worker privileges, our future probably holds the question of whether to continue the system at all. Many other co-ops have given it up. The problems: the expense of administering (sometimes out and out juggling) a system with too few participants usurps the savings; the uncertainty of getting necessary work done from day to day, and the extraordinary amount of time spent seeking members to cover vacant shifts; the expense of training those workers who quit before even the minimum commitment is met; the burden placed on other members and staff who pick up the erratic, but constant, extra load … all are resource drains.

While these are different (and less exhausting) problems than we faced three years ago in this area, and probably not unsolvable, they are still time, energy and money consuming.

Another consideration: is a system exploitative, if regular member prices depend on the low cost labor volunteered by a few? Probably not, considering all current factors. But the line is a thin one; we need to be vigilant.

Some particularly value the opportunity to contribute in a tangible way to something bigger than oneself, working with neighbors, substituting labor for cash in providing one’s food. For them, the question may not be whether to continue with a working member system, but how can we stabilize it? What can be done, realistically, to equalize the load and continue to improve working conditions?

ON THE THRESHOLD
Olympia Food Co-op rates well among co-ops in its labor handling. But then, the competition isn’t particularly stiff. All consumer co-ops have knotty problems to solve, if they are to be humane workplaces, as well as resources for caring consumers. It won’t work for long to exploit the ideals of our workers in order to keep prices low and our freedom of choice in the spending of our food dollars alive. Like natural resources, this person created one requires conservation and nurturing to endure.

The challenges in our present labor situation focus our attention: a new management structure – the resignation of a valued, experienced staff person – the influx of several new staff in a short time period – the challenge to our hiring process by an application in suit the Human Rights Commission – rapid growth.

What better time to do some hard and creative thinking, to contribute to solutions, not only to the immediate problems, but to the long range planning for answering the question “who will do the work” … our work … and for determining what their working experience, which is in our hands, will be like.

By Cher Stuewe-Portnoff

NEWS Summer 1984 PDF

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