by Ellie Bayer
We are proud to work at Hunger Mountain Cooperative — a business that defines itself as “a member-owned, community based natural market, committed to building a dynamic community of healthy individuals, sustainable local food systems, and thriving cooperative commerce.” Hunger Mountain is a cooperative business — a co-operation — a coming together of community members. As a cooperative that reflects the values of its members — of our community — it’s a business that seeks more than profit. A cooperative is more than a grocery store. It represents a commitment to positive social and environmental impact, a commitment to the employees and vendors, and to the member-owners that are the Hunger Mountain Cooperative.
The co-op conducts an annual employee survey — the results of which help guide decision making by co-op leadership. With high marks in several areas, it’s clear that the employees believe strongly in the co-op’s mission and its positive role in the community. The results of this year’s employee survey can easily paint a rosy picture, but as leaders of the local union, we see it as evidence of a rift between employees and management. At the root of this division lies several failing grades related to internal communication and conflict resolution. While this is not a new phenomenon in the business world, we’d like to believe that a cooperative business would be less susceptible to the perils of office politics. Decisions are made that seemingly contradict the co-op’s mission statement in favor of a particular financial result. While these decisions can often be framed in the context of “what’s best for the business” — the result is a perception by staff that the co-op is focused on being a competitive and profitable grocery store — where success is easily measurable as improved margins, reduced labor costs or a better bottom line. This is underscored by a customer service program encouraging an employee to “be an excellent grocer” rather than a proud and productive member of a community.
The cooperative model is what sets Hunger Mountain apart from other businesses. Cooperatives date back to a time when working together as a community was the key to survival. While our survival and access to goods is no longer dependent on a cooperative model, those ideals remain the reason that staff members take pride in their work, the reason that people become member-owners and the reason that vendors are proud to have their goods sold here. While financially driven decisions and shaky management/employee relations have become expected in a corporate environment, we cannot allow our co-op to succumb to competitive economic pressures and lose sight of the larger — and more important — mission. As an example of a better way to do business, a cooperative works to move closer to a living wage for employees and fair prices paid to its vendors. A cooperative thrives on building and supporting community. It cannot — and should not — compete in the same arena as larger corporate grocery stores.
The staff of Hunger Mountain want the co-op to be successful. They want the community to have access to quality food and they want to support a thriving local economy. To remain engaged, co-op staff need to see transparency in decision-making from management. They need to see action taken on their input and ideas. Most importantly, they need to be involved, valued and have an equal opportunity to participate. As a member of the community — it’s important that you participate. Become a member, vote, attend council meetings and voice your opinion. Cooperation requires that people work together — which only happens when everyone gets involved.
submitted by Ellie Bayer for the Officers of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 255