Tag Archives: cooperatives

Diary of an "essential worker"

I thought I’d dust off this ancient-looking blog and start to keep a diary of this time of virus and anxiety from the perspective of a grocery worker.  While most people I know are off work right now, fearing for both their health and their jobs, we are working all the time.  In fact I have been wanting to write something for days but haven’t had the time or energy. It seems important to document a little of this to remember later.  If there is a later…

Six foot distances marked for safely waiting in line. Pic taken at 6 AM.

It’s nice to be officially considered an “essential worker” for once.  I mean, I’ve always considered the big picture of what we do – bringing food to the people – essential. And I always knew that in the back of my mind, because I like reading history, that grocery workers have had a special place in times of turmoil and trouble:  wars, disasters, general strikes, etc.  People need to eat.

One of the reasons I like working with food is because it is such an essential need for everyone. But that has never been more clear than the last few weeks when reaction to COVID-19 has made our store busy in an unprecedented way.

Three weeks ago I was comparing it to Y2K, but we surpassed that a long time ago. 

Two weeks ago I was joking that this is all the work of the food holidays with none of the fun.  It was fun to say that at the time.

This week, after it was clear that a shelter in place order would be given, things amped up even more.   I have no comparison for it at all.

Stay a cart away from each other, please!

I’ve worked at this co-op for almost 26 years.  With holidays, it may be extra busy for a while but there are breaks.  As a buyer of cheese – a less perishable perishable – I am used to a pattern of buying where you usually put on the brakes after a certain amount of days because you can predict a slowdown.  After two solid weeks of solid busy all my experience told me that it couldn’t keep going like it was… Instead of braking I have my foot jammed on the accelerator.

On a micro level – a level I still have to operate on in my daily work life — I get itchy when I have less than three whole wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano in stock.  Right now everything we have is on the shelf. We are doubling the amount of commodity blocks we cut at a time and still running low or out before we can replenish. Because of the nature of cheese in cold storage, we have less out-of-stocks than other departments but the nature of distribution these days is “lean” and “efficient” which means more disruption in the supply chain right now.

This may be different in other stores and other places – a large-scale worker-owned co-op is a special place —  but I am seeing people stock up and buy a lot, but not seeing hoarding. I am seeing co-workers trying to figure out the safest ways to do things in an unknown environment. I am also see us working way too much to try and meet demand. I am seeing regular customers here on unusual days, their patterns disrupted. Mostly, I am seeing people be extra caring to each other, even if in fleeting and physically distant ways.  I am also watching people trying to interact without the familiar touching or even facial expressions when people are trying to stay 6 ft. apart and half the folks I see are wearing some kind of mask.

There are still moments of beauty.

We have instituted measures that even a week ago I didn’t think we could implement.  We are only allowing a certain number of people in the store at once.  We have a line to get in where people are waiting six feet apart. We have shortened our hours (for a list of like 10 reasons). We are trying to reserve 9-10 for seniors and most at-risk members of the community. We are offering gloves to every customer.

But we are making these things up as we go.  Some won’t work out and may cause more hassle before we get them worked out.  Everything right now is on a trial basis and a social experiment.  There will be lines and the few things open will take longer. That’s our (temporary) reality. We’ve come a long way in a short time

And let’s not kid ourselves, this is intense. There is a frenetic energy because of the crowds and the multiple legitimate anxieties everyone, including those of us still working right now, is holding right now. We are all pretty exhausted.  Essential, but exhausted.

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

Co-op Conference review

The Western Worker Cooperative Conference was at Breitenbush Hot Springs, a worker collective and an intentional community in the national forest land of rural Oregon. It’s an amazing, beautiful place and even if I actually think it’s bad for the movement to have the conference there (culturally alienating to many people, hard to get to, not super accessible, hard on the backs of old people like me) I do love going there.

I only took a couple of dips in the hot springs though because, man, it was hot up there. The conference used to be in late October and there would sometimes be ice on the ground. That’s hot springs weather. If I liked the sun and outside temperatures over 70 degrees I wouldn’t live in San Francisco.

But back to the conference. My favorite workshop was the one promoting peer technical advisors sponsored by the US Federation of Worker Co-ops. One co-worker of mine is actually going through the one-year training program right now, but I’ve informally (for Rainbow) been doing technical assistance for 15 years or so. The meat of the workshop involved small groups using the USFWC guidelines to decide how to proceed on requests for assistance sent to the Federation. These were real requests and – as they often come to me – were confused, hopeful, exciting, depressing, revealing, and baffling all at once. One envisions it being clear cut, “Hi, I represent 10 people trying to start a wood-working collective”, but oh, in real life it so isn’t.

I realized that my years of frustration with this was coming out during the workshop. I knew I needed to tone it down when I tried to get to the bottom of the role play by saying to our (role-playing too well a particularly confused) requestor, “What do you want from us?” The kinda-new-to-co-ops person next to me looked at me in horror and said the much nicer, “We really appreciate your enthusiasm but maybe you could narrow down your focus.” That really probably would be a better approach.

Still, I learned a lot and am going to consider applying to the program. If not this year, then maybe the next.

My favorite request for assistance I ever received at Rainbow, btw, was one that was basically, “Hi, we want to start a co-op and after it gets successful we want to hire a bunch of people at minimum wage to keep it going while our co-op shares the profit. Can you help?”

No. I couldn’t help.

I actually didn’t attend many workshops because most were on the same day as my keynote. I was so keyed up after that talk that I just couldn’t do it. I would have either been too dis-engaged or would have tried to dominate the discussion because once you get into entertaining-a-group-of-75-people-for-a-half-hour-by-yourself mode, it’s hard to turn it off. Other folks were there representing the store, after all. I went and sat by the river with my book.

Sorry Sarah Marcus I was in a van with co-workers trying to get back to SF as soon as possible (11.5 hours, not bad!) I really wanted to visit your farm that I basically passed on the road. Next time!