Often, when I represent my co-op at events, there is one audience member who insists on being annoying. It usually has to do with their discomfort at the existence of an actual large democratically-run institution that is somehow at odds with their fantasy idea of what we should be.
Our existence by itself is political but that is often not enough for armchair philosophers. I suppose its fair for people to be mad at decisions we make, but in a democratic workplace of 230 people, I can’t give a definitive answer for why we made a decision, I can only say what issues some people brought up and that the majority decided. People, even leftists, buy-in subconsciously to the spin-speak of places with huge PR budgets. We are a democracy: messy, opinionated, and sometimes wrong. It’s unwieldy at times, but it is also our strength.
Recently, after being on a panel discussing alternative workplaces and the philosophy behind them, I was confronted by an audience member.
“You said you pay a living wage, how do you figure that?”
“Well, our starting wage is a couple of dollars over the official SF hourly rate.”
“San Francisco doesn’t have a living wage ordinance, it has a ‘minimum compensation’ ordinance* according to my calculations, a living wage would be $18 or $19 an hour.”
I pointed out that we have an unbelievable health plan free to workers, real profit sharing, discounts on food and numerous other benefits that make our wages even higher, but none of that was really the point and he didn’t seem interested. Because I was representing the co-op, Mr. Leftist simply couldn’t speak to me as a worker, he was speaking to me as the boss. He probably felt brave speaking truth to power and all that except that he wasn’t speaking truth and he wasn’t speaking to “power”.**
Of course, I was also exhausted since I had been working at 7 AM that morning and this conversation happened after 10 PM. You gotta love a conversation about work where it goes on too late for most people who work for a living to attend.
At another talk – actually one where I was doing a reading from my book –someone confronted me about “a friend” that once worked there and got fired and how they had all these criticisms of the co-op. Of course, I was at a disadvantage because 1. I didn’t know who they were talking about, 2. Even if I did, I might not know the situation and, 3. Even if I knew both those things, I certainly couldn’t talk about it in a public setting because it’s illegal. There are one of two cases in my 17 years at the co-op where the folks got fired and I disagreed with it, but in most of the other cases, people had it coming. If someone gets caught padding their timecard***or stealing they aren’t going to tell their friends that. They are going to say, “It’s not a real co-op.” “It’s a popularity contest.” Or some version of “I spoke truth to power.”
The funny thing is that there are certainly valid criticisms of our co-op. We have no real models for what we are doing and have made stuff up as we went along. We could have better systems for some things and we could have more actual democracy in some cases. One of the reasons I finally came around to opposing coupons**** is that I felt like it was affecting our internal democracy. Everyone was too tired and too busy to go to meetings.
But the bottom line is that we are not a philosophical wet dream of a worker co-op. We are an actual worker-coop: the biggest retail worker-coop in the country. I’m proud to work there, warts and all. It’s not a workers’ paradise, it’s a constant work in progress.
*I looked it up later and this is true. At the time of its implementation, the term “minimum compensation” was substituted for “living wage”. However, according to the we are still well above the number calculated in SF for a single person.
**To be fair, he was speaking to 1/230th of the power in the store.
***We operate on an honor system in many ways so offenses like padding time cards, giving out discounts to people not approved for them etc. are firing offenses.
****When I represent Rainbow publicly, discussions of why we stopped coupons are totally the new “Why don’t we boycott Israel?” And no I won’t discuss the second question here.
*****Clearly this whole entry (and anything on this website) is my opinion and I am not speaking for Rainbow here.