On Nov. 30, member workers and shareholders at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany gathered at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church for the biggest membership meeting in the history of the store. More than 620 eligible voters and 65 non-voting stakeholders wanted to weigh in on the recent decision to end the member worker program on the first of next year.
The decision was a resoundingly unpopular one. Co-op members convened the special membership meeting to recall the Board of Directors on the grounds that the board failed to “protect the assets” of HWFC when they spent money on lawyers and consultants to determine whether the member worker program complies with Department of Labor minimum wage laws, claiming that there was no legal justification for assuming that it does not. They also charged the board with unilaterally cutting back worker hours and withholding important information from stockholders.
People are mad. And no wonder. Coconut oil is expensive, and that 24 percent off means that I can buy the good cheese and happy bacon. Not to mention that the way the issue of possibly ending member labor was raised lacked finesse. But fear not. The question of a member worker program is far from settled.
Those who are angry are largely laboring under the assumption that the board, desiring to end the member program for whatever reason, initiated a series of events to force the conversation-beginning with a comment by recently-ousted board member Bill Frye to the Times-Union in which he expressed concern that the program may not be in compliance with DOL minimum wage laws. Those comments apparently raised concerns with the Co-op’s lawyers, according to the board, who were concerned that the exposure would elicit a complaint, which DOL would then be required to investigate.
Considering the freezing of 24 percent discounts for new members and attempts to cut back on hours worked by older members, there may be some truth that compliance wasn’t the only concern regarding the program. But it’s doubtful that working members have been unaware of the tenuous financial situation the Co-op has been in since it moved to its new beautiful-yet-costly location. In addition to the debt incurred by that move, it has also faced competition from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s just up Central Avenue. While Co-op officials have not characterized the decision as a money-saving one, chances are that the possibility has not entirely escaped their attention.
But on Monday, Nov. 30, a full 87 percent of the voting membership in attendance at St. Sophia’s voted against the determination to end the member labor program and more than 65 percent voted to consider a new management structure and re-evaluate the current leadership team. On the following Wednesday, an HWFC representative Ursula Abrams, along with Co-op attorneys Joanmarie Dowling and John Standards, met with DOL to determine whether the worker program is in compliance with state law and to discuss options.
It seems that, at this point, to immediately re-instate the member labor program would be ill-advised, especially now that the question of compliance has been raised. In a report on the meeting with DOL, Abrams raised the possibility of a complaint being filed by Whole Foods or another competitor. But HWFC has acknowledged the overwhelming desire of its membership to reinstate the program and appears to be taking steps to figure out how to do that in a way that will protect the for-profit cooperative legally.
I’m no big fan of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s-I like to shop local. I like to know that my veggies and cheeses and yummy bacon all come from local farms and didn’t travel long distances or spend time in warehouses. I like the classes they offer and going to get my knives sharpened on Wednesdays for free. Mostly, I like the community. I like the passion and enthusiasm of the member workers and of the paid staff. I like the sort of people who choose to shop there.
So, member workers or no, I will continue to shop there and to support all of those things. And I will advise others to weather the storm, even though emotions are clearly high-especially among those who have dedicated much more time than I. The Co-op is still one of my favorite local resources and, I feel, has earned my loyalty while they figure out how to move forward. One issue they will need to face is whether to keep the process as transparent as possible for members, or to try to maintain some confidentiality as a business. I vote for transparency-I would prefer more cooperation than corporation from HWFC, but that may continue to become more difficult if the store continues to grow. And I hope that it does. I suppose that there may come a day when I decide to buy my apple cider vinegar elsewhere, but that day is not today.