What will save Citizens Co-Op (or at least its idea)? COOPERATION

by Joe Courter with help from Ted Lacombe and Davis Hart

The Citizens Co-op’s history goes back to 2008 with a membership drive with a core group and some benefit concerts and the solicitation of “membership shares” from the community.

This fundraising from the community accelerated during 2009 with a couple concerts, a yard sale and by the end had gathered 450 memberships. One concert fundraiser in April alone raised a reported $10,000.

By the end of 2010, a Board of Directors was named and work began preparing the 435 S. Main St. location.

In January 2011, $100,000 in investment shares had been raised. In Spring, there was an exodus of original Board members, and a new, smaller Board announced.

In July 2011, the store finally opened. Initially there were member discounts offered, but due to financial problems they were eliminated in 2012. Also vacancies on the Board were not filled, and in 2013 the first of some controversial firings and demotions took place.

In February of 2014, a new manager was brought in, and two longtime staffers were fired. Comments were made by a Board member that the “worker/owner” position on the Board is an experiment, and that by-laws can be rewritten by the Board at any time.

Workers decided to form a union, and on March 11 sent a notice of their intention to the membership via the Co-op email list, two day prior to the Boards’ General Membership meeting.

At that meeting, an accusation of “theft” of the mailing list was raised, but later, of the over 100 or so people present, great approval was shown for being informed by the workers of their intentions and situations.

Ten days later, on March 24, an early morning email informed five unionized workers they were fired. Three days later, two more workers went on strike in solidarity with the fired workers.

At this same time, the Co-op’s official Facebook page was taken down. Picketing by fired workers attracted press coverage of the situation to the broader public.

Members organized their own Facebook page, and held an Emergency member meeting where 120 members attended on March 30. The decision was made to ask the current Board to step aside and let a new Board come in which is dedicated to transparency and cooperative principles.

Attempts at this are being stonewalled by the current Board. And here we are …

As of press time, things are at a stand still.

There are a lot of lessons that can be drawn from this situation, and for me, the chief one is that the store was, however well intended, more of a community-funded food store than a co-op, and there is blame and credit to go all around.

Raising the money and getting it open was a big achievement, but done by too few people whose overly controlling attitude was, well, not really cooperative. Part of this was understandable; they were under a lot of pressure, they were entrusted with a lot of other peoples’ money, and their business model, which looked good on paper, did not pan out.

Getting all those advance memberships, it was thought, would build a guaranteed customer base. That did not happen; it became evident that many people who put money in to create a co-op did not actually change their shopping habits to shop there.

As I recall, about 50 percent had not shopped there six months after opening.

Striving to be organic and locally supplied proved hard, and for low income people, expensive. If it didn’t meet all of a shopper’s needs, it meant shopping at two places, or even (as I have) three places. Trader Joe’s opening in town could not have helped either.

But fantastic work was done, making an attractive store and heading up a project that created a beautiful community courtyard space. Ironically, within the current crisis a real, grassroots community/cooperative spirit has emerged, pulling together many people who might never have met otherwise in large meetings conducted democratically and earnestly seeking to find a solution.

But sadly, as of now, the solution seems far away.

The fired workers, who righteously spoke up to alert the membership of the distressing behavior by the Board regarding non-democratic policies, are understandably frustrated.

The existing Board seems locked down in a “we did nothing wrong” mindset and fixated on the workers’ use of the Co-op’s email list as a “theft.” A fear is rather than negotiating out of this, they will take the store down, and blame the fired workers for causing the financial problems.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of people who want there to be a functioning Co-op, and many seem ready to roll up their sleeves and try and make a real Co-op work.

The current incarnation of Citizens Co-op is functioning more like a small organic food store; top down management, lack of discounts for volunteer workers, and a lack of the social and cultural functions that a true Co-op would have.

For a Co-op to be successful and compete against the Wards and Trader Joe’s, its supporters must be getting more than just food; it is a sense of community. And to be viable, it may need to cater better to the neighborhood it is in, with some less expensive and maybe not perfectly “organic” products: S. Main Street is not Tioga.

A lot of expertise has come and gone from Citizens Co-op, and hopefully some are willing to try to come back on board, as both leadership and workers, and this time be more committed to cooperative principles.

Negotiations are continuing, but there is also an effort afoot to call for a May 4 vote on establishing a new Board and a way out of this standoff.

There is no call for a boycott of shopping there by the fired workers; at this time that is not seen as productive, though they are regularly having informational pickets.

It is a painful situation for all. All that can be hoped is wisdom and, yes COOPERATION, can bring a solution.

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