Why food co-op workers in Minneapolis have flocked to unions


Why food co-op workers in Minneapolis have flocked to unions
By Kristoffer Tigue | 08/16/17    MINNPOST


Linden Hills Co-op workers    Courtesy of UFCW 653

Workers began negotiating their first contract last May, making Linden Hills the third Minneapolis food cooperative to unionize this year.

When Adam Hulst learned that his employer, the Linden Hills Co-op, would be merging with The Wedge Community Co-op last October, he quickly voted yes on forming a union.

“There was a sense that we should have a union for a long time,” he said. “I think that the presidential election and the announcement of the merger were two factors that functioned as a catalyst for us to really get our stuff in gear.”

Hulst wasn’t the only employee who felt that way. About 85 percent of the roughly 80 employees at Linden Hills voted to unionize back in February. Those workers began negotiating their first contract last May, making Linden Hills the third Minneapolis food cooperative to unionize this year. Eastside Co-op started its first bargaining session earlier in July and Seward Co-op — Minneapolis’ largest food co-op — voted to unionize back in June.

Together, about 450 employees between the three co-ops are now organized under United Food and Commercial Workers Local 653, according to union officials. “As expansions were happening, as consolidations were happening, this sense of being a worker on the floor was shifting … to more of a corporate model,” Hulst said. “We felt like anonymous, interchangeable workers.”

Less about wages and benefits
Unlike typical union contracts, Minneapolis co-op workers say their efforts weren’t primarily about wages. “For most people … it’s less about wages and employee benefits and more so on what the co-op’s going to be doing in the next 40 years,” said Max Storey, a worker at Seward Co-op’s Friendship store.

Traditionally, Storey said, co-ops operated on a model where members and workers have some say in how the business runs. But as Seward expanded over the years into three different locations, he said, many workers began feeling less included in those decisions and began expressing concern over diminishing communication with management. “It no longer felt like the co-op they had been working at and that is what kind of motivated them to change,” he said.

However, Hulst said that wages aren’t entirely off the table — at least at Linden Hills, where workers make less on average than those at other Twin Cities Co-ops. According to union data, about half of Linden Hills employees make between $9 and $13 an hour. And Hulst said they’re hoping to raise those wages even before the Minneapolis $15 minimum wage begins to phase in over the next five years.

Alex Slichter, board president for Linden Hills, declined to comment on contract specifics but said negotiations are going well. “We definitely support our employees,” he said. “They’re critical to our success and we look forward to coming together to make a decision that works for everyone.”



Seward workers    Courtesy of UFCW 653
Seward workers celebrating back in June after 94 percent of their nearly 300 workers voted to join the union.

John Lacaria, the general manager over at Eastside Co-op, echoed similar statements, and said they’ve already held two bargaining sessions with their workers since they began negotiations last month. “Those have been really productive,” he said. “We’re just continuing to work through the process.”

Seward workers have yet to begin negotiations, but Storey said they’re hoping to establish a list of demands by the end of the month, and so far, everyone seems happy. “Everything the co-op stands for, are union values at the end of the day,” he said. “The equity, the accountability, all of that.”

Part of broader efforts
Minneapolis’ co-ops unionizing isn’t entirely new, said Jennifer Christensen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189. In fact, she said, it comes amid efforts to organize more co-ops across the state.

Three years ago, Christensen said, UFCW 1189 negotiated the first contract for The Wedge Community Co-op. Around the same time, the union also negotiated the contract for local workers who supply co-ops with warehouse labor, she said. They’re currently negotiating the first contract for the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth.

To Christensen, co-op workers see unions as the best way to preserve their workplace values as co-ops continue to grow in popularity.

“We’ve been talking to workers for several years and it seemed like the timing was right,” Christensen said. “The co-op ideal and the union ideal of workers being able to make real contributions to their workplace are really consistent.”

The Wedge, which opened in 1974 and is Minnesota’s first certified organic grocery store, will renegotiate its three-year contract next year.


Union co-operatives: what they are and why we need them

Union co-operatives: what they are and why we need them


Jan 13, 2017 United Kingdom

By Simon Taylor



The United Steelworkers headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
Flickr user Joseph under a Creative Commons Licence

Neoliberal policies contribute to alienation, disempowerment and non-unionised jobs, but a new model for unions could break the vicious circle, argues Simon Taylor.

Trade unionist Jimmy Reid described alienation as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making’. This frustration is endemic in contemporary neoliberalised economies, and according to commentators, including George Monbiot, it contributes to the rise of populist backlashes and disempowerment.

Unions play a vital role in counter-balancing alienation and frustration, responding to organizations imposing alienating practices on their workers. However, neoliberal policies have contributed to a long-term decline of union membership and influence in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.

But workers and unions can counter alienation and other negative effects of neoliberal policies – such as outsourcing, precarity and union decline – in new and imaginative ways.

The United Steelworkers (USW) union in the US is one of many good examples, responding to decades of deindustrialisation and declining union membership. They are developing worker co-operatives that place unions at the heart of enterprises, a model known as union co-ops. They have modified the resilient Mondragon worker co-op model by replacing its social council in co-operatives with more than 50 workers with a Union Bargaining Committee. The committee represents the worker co-operators interests as workers, while other structures represent their interests as owners. Worker representation structures are important according to Mondragon and the USW because there is an inherent risk in worker co-ops that when enterprises achieve scale, workforce engagement in decision making is diluted.

The benefits of worker co-ops have been discussed widely elsewhere. They include empowering workers by involving them in the crucial decision-making processes affecting their working lives, overcoming the alienating factor of lack of control. Indeed, the USW believes that worker co-operators are unlikely to offshore or outsource their own jobs, to design precarity into their employment, or to make themselves redundant in response to business downturns – all tools that neoliberalism makes attractive options regardless of the consequences to workers and communities.

The USW also believes that the active involvement of unions in worker-coops will result in higher union membership within the enterprise, thereby contributing to trade union renewal efforts in some measure. After all, placing unions at the heart of the enterprise allows them to find potential members in a way that is impossible in other contexts.
In a recent study, I examined union co-ops in the US, and Britain’s experience of union involvement with worker co-ops. It sought to determine whether UK unions should be noting the example of their US counterparts, and considered whether lessons can be drawn that should be applied to Britain’s context (and elsewhere).

In the study, I found that the USW’s and other organizations’ efforts to establish union co-ops in the US are ongoing. They have considered the role unions can play in establishing and supporting enterprises to become sustainable, while forging an effective bargaining and representational role.

In Britain, I found that unions often struggle to carve out a role for themselves in worker co-ops, choosing not to engage with them and favouring their traditional role in conventional employment models. Despite sharing common historical roots addressing the iniquities of industrialisation, union and co-operative movements have often nonetheless been wary bedfellows.

The closest parallel to the union co-op model found in Britain was the relationship between Suma Wholefoods (a worker co-op wholefood wholesaler) and the Bakers Union (BFAWU). Suma is a long-established business, and operates a flat pay structure – meaning all its worker/owners are paid the same. They sought to recognise a union, and came to an agreement with the BWAFU, working collaboratively wherever they can, only moving to opposite sides of the table when a dispute or issue arises. I found that the arrangement is working well, suggesting that the BFAWU have successfully defined a beneficial role for themselves in worker co-ops. The BFAWU cite Suma as a good employment model to others, and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other worker co-ops.

A sector that may be ripe for the union co-op model in Britain is adult social care, although it is noteworthy that the USW and others are developing union co-ops in the industrial sectors they organise in. Skills for Care, an organization working with employers to increase skill levels in the social care industry, report that the number of adult social care jobs in Britain in 2014 was estimated at 1.55 million, and since 2009 local authority jobs in the sector had shrunk by 50,000, while the private sector had grown by 225,000.

However, in my study I found that some unions seemed to be failing to target this growth area of employment in public services. Instead, they were choosing to adopt an ideological mantra that public services should be delivered by the public sector, or were oblivious to the opportunities presented by alternative models of work organisation.
Arguably their ideology or lack of interest flies in the face of the trajectory of the neoliberal assault on public services, and it abandons workers to largely non-unionised employers operating alienating work practises, and denying unions the oxygen of membership growth and innovative thought and action.

There are already examples in Italy, the US, Britain and elsewhere of how social care coops are successfully meeting rising social care demand in the private sector, often encouraging union membership and participation in the process.

Perhaps, it is time that the union movement in Britain and elsewhere took note of what the USW and others in the US are doing in respect of unionised worker co-ops. It’s worth considering how the union co-op model could be applied to their own context, how it may counter alienation amongst their members, and how it may contribute towards their renewal efforts.

Simon Taylor recently completed the MA International Labour and Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College.  You can find him on Twitter: @SimonTaylor920.



Drive to change. (BILLNOLL/GETTY IMAGES)

Reinventing the School Bus-iness




Monday, July 17, 2017, 5:00 AM

For years, the yellow school buses traveling New York City streets have had parents, elected officials — and even school bus workers — seeing red.

The Board of Education pays more than $1 billion a year to private bus companies that have little incentive to upgrade or improve service. The buses are prone to breaking down, lack air-conditioning and spew diesel pollution that harms our planet. Concern about wages prompted the de Blasio administration to subsidize the wages of bus drivers through the School Bus Drivers Grant Program — shelling out tens of millions of dollars through a program of questionable legality that skirted the city’s procurement process by rewarding the very contractors that were willing to pay their drivers less. Even with the program, many bus drivers, mechanics and on-board monitors are still struggling to make ends meet.

There is a better route forward.

The city’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 — yes, the same men and women who run city buses and subways — are proposing a pilot program that will demonstrate how New York City can ensure better school bus service, reduce pollution, give parents a seat at the table and create good union jobs with solid wages, affordable health care and good pensions.

Here’s our plan. Let’s establish a unionized, worker-owned cooperative to transport students in non-polluting (and air-conditioned) electric school buses. For the pilot, we envision the worker cooperative entering into a contract with the Board of Education to provide service on approximately 15 existing routes that are not permanently assigned to any private company. !

Why electric buses?

There are approximately 9,000 diesel and gas-powered school buses traveling along thousands of school bus routes in New York City. These buses emit tons of pollution into our environment and contribute to global warming.

A group of leading scientists last year outlined what was in store for our city in the coming decades unless the burning of fossil fuels is curbed: By mid-century, the number of heat waves per year could more than triple, the number of days over 90 degrees annually could double, and the sea level could rise by nearly two feet. By 2100, the city’s flood zone could cover 99 square miles.

It’s 2017 — long past time the nation’s biggest city to adopt an Earth-friendly alternative. Electric buses are made in New York State, and a contractor providing bus service in Copiague on Long Island started using all-electric buses in September.

A pilot program utilizing all-electric buses could support local manufacturing and the creation of much-needed blue-collar jobs in the region. If New York City starts to shift towards electric school buses, more manufacturers would look to set up shop in the state. !

Why a worker cooperative?

Establishing cooperatives — where the workers themselves own the business — is a smart way to address the daunting problem of income inequality. Instead of enriching faceless investors in multi-national corporations or a small group of individual owners, profits are directed toward ensuring that workers are paid good wages and benefits on which they can raise their families. The workers themselves have strong motivation to deliver a good product: job security and a better quality of life.

City Hall has already recognized the personal and societal gains worker cooperatives offer. Two years ago, the city’s Department of Small Business Services, along with partner organizations, launched the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative. With more than $3 million in funding provided by the City Council, the it has been providing technical, financial and educational support to help create or sustain worker cooperatives.

In both fiscal year 2015 and 2016, nearly 50 worker cooperatives were created or assisted by the initiative, including a grocery store in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; a catering company in the Bronx; a landscaping business in Queens, and a janitorial services outfit in Manhattan.

“Worker cooperatives have the potential to provide entrepreneurs with access to meaningful and stable employment and improve the economic landscape across New York City,” Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop and City Chief Procurement Officer Michael Owh wrote in the latest SBS report on the project.

A board of trustees would govern this school bus cooperative. Workers would elect representatives, with some seats being set aside for other stakeholders, including parents. The board would hire a chief executive officer and staff to handle the day-to-day operations, while families would have a real voice and direct access to the highest level of the operation.

The yellow school bus situation has been an intractable mess for far too many years. It’s time to give the green light to a solution that’s better for kids and workers alike. !

Samuelsen is international president of the Transport Workers Union. Garodnick represents Manhattan in the New York City Council