Don Kreis: Wine and Cheese Party at the Hanover Co-op?

Consider what happens when your food co-op – the place where you buy all of your groceries, because you love the customer service and the idea that no outside investors are extracting wealth from you and your neighbors – does something you think is awful. Let’s say, for example, that for no reason apparent to you, the co-op fires your store’s wine guy and its cheese guy. Each is a friendly employee who has, countless times, helped you find just the right item to make the meal you are about to prepare just perfect. You smiled whenever you saw either of them in the store; you chatted them up whether or not you needed wine or cheese on any particular day. Now, they’re gone.

Then you read in the local newspaper that the co-op fired your favorite food purveyors because they had been talking to their fellow employees about forming a union – an activity that is expressly protected under federal labor law. The newspaper’s columnist says it is so, apparently because the two fired employees told him that.

What do you do, if you are a loyal member of the co-op? Well, the other day I got an email from a longtime member of a co-op who is in precisely this situation. The member in question said he spends about $6,000 a year at his co-op, and has resolutely defended it against the claims that circulate in the community that the cooperative is an elitist organization whose prices are higher than those of the local supermarket chain stores.

But, said the member, the treatment of the two fired employees “is simply wrong” – so wrong, in fact, that “unless there is some meaningful action from the [cooperative’s] Board I will cash out my shares and organize my life so that I do not have to spend another dime in the co-op.”

Righteous indignation in the face of alleged injustice feels good, of course, but in this instance I would respectfully suggest the member in question is doing precisely the wrong thing. Allow me to explain. Continue reading

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Why Burlington Needs A Co-op Brew-Pub

Until relatively recently, a great deal of peoples’ social drinking and general conviviality took place in spaces that were collectively owned by their patrons. Fraternal clubs (such as the Elks, Moose, KofC, Masons, etc.), union halls, and the like served as community hubs as well as a place to grab a pint with friends, and they were ultimately accountable to the needs of their members. However, over the last half-century, as the memberships of such organizations have aged and they have failed to recruit a critical mass of new members (for a number of complex reasons), the prevalence of such spaces has declined precipitously. In Burlington, this can be seen in the number of old buildings that used to serve that purpose (the Masons building at the top of Church Street, the Ethan Allen Club on College street, and the old Eagles Aerie on Maple street) that are now put to commercial and educational purposes, with the only apparent survivors being the VFW post on South Winooski Avenue and the St. John’s Club.

Filling the void left by these community-owned social spaces has been a proliferation of bars. Differentiated by price, culture, and clientele, they nonetheless all share one key feature: they are for-profit businesses whose ultimate goal is to part their patrons from as many of their dollars as the market will bear. As a result, while communities can and do form around such spaces, the presence of the profit motive means that the sense of belonging that community members feel is, at best, incomplete. If the long-term financial interests of the owner comes into conflict with the long-term interests of the community that calls his or her establishment home, that the former will prevail over the latter tends to be a foregone conclusion.

Black Start Co-op Members Gather for the Unveiling of their New Space.

Black Star Co-op Members Gather for the Unveiling of their New Space, 2009

This trend of moving from community-owned social spaces to alienated for-profit bars has been proceeding apace for decades, but, in the past few years, a countervailing force has emerged: cooperative brew-pubs. Owned by their patrons and governed democratically by the same cooperative principles by which City Market is organized, the first example of this model in action was the Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery of Austin, Texas. Organizing began on the project in 2006, and the doors opened on their space in 2010. It was a smashing success, and by 2014 the community-owned brew-pub could boast over 3,200 member-owners and employs 27 people. Inspired by Black Star’s example, similar projects have taken root across the U.S. (examples from Michigan and Seattle), and I believe it is high time Burlington followed suit. While the craft brew market is pretty saturated (three new craft-breweries have opened in the Burlington area in the last month), a brew-pub co-op would offer something that none of the bars in Burlington are structurally capable of offering: authentic community ownership and control of our social space, the profits of which would be returned to the members, with a portion used to fund democratically-determined community projects.

Some big things start small... :)

Some things start small… 🙂

As to how we get there from here, as a modest first step I’ve created a Facebook page on which supporters can congregate to discuss the nascent project. Once we hit a critical mass of supporters, the next step will be to collect formal pledges from prospective members to buy a share of the co-op should we choose to launch it. As we collect those pledges, we will need to conduct a study to determine the total amount of start-up capital we’d need to accumulate, and we will need to figure out exactly how to scrape that sum together. Then, once the members are organized and the dollars are wrangled, we’ll be well on the way to creating a beautiful new Third Place for Burlington!

Matt Cropp is Co-Host and Co-Founder of Cooperative Vermont. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.

#BlazeFAILS: The Free Speech Fight for the Future of Bank Transfer Day

Since first coming to understand the implications of the credit union model during the 2008 BTD MaskFinancial Crisis, I’ve been firmly convinced that promoting a mass consumer migration to cooperative finance is one of the most effective tactics for realistically challenging the political and economic hegemony of the Too Big To Fail Banks. As such, I was incredibly excited when, at the peak of the Occupy Movement’s influence in October 2011, movement energy coalesced around the idea of “Bank Transfer Day.” With an unpopular Bank of America fee adding fuel to the fire, the call went out for people to withdraw their deposits en masse from the Too Big To Fail banks and deposit them in credit unions on November 5th, in a nod the the date of the revolution in “V For Vendetta.”

The spark was provided by a Facebook event created by Los Angeles art-gallery owner Kristen Christian that spread virally through the then rapidly-growing Occupy social media networks. Within days, tens of thousands of people had RSVP’d to the event, and working groups affiliated with Occupy General Assemblies in cities around the world began working to promote participation and to plan activities in their communities (examples from Portland, L.A., and Vermont). As a result of that strenuous organizing work, hundreds of thousands of people moved their resources into the cooperative financial system in the fall of 2011.

However, as widespread and diverse groups threw themselves into getting ready for the big day, troubling signs began to emerge from the center. As the creator of the event that went viral, Kristen Christian was the natural point of contact for the media, and she soon parleyed that role into becoming the sole, self-appointed spokesperson for the movement who gave numerous interviews to the media. By using that position of power to quickly disaffiliate Bank Transfer Day from the Occupy Movement (with its commitment to democratic processes and rotating spokespeople), she was able to avoid any expectations of accountability to the community of Bank Transfer Day activists. Continue reading

A Win for Democracy at Vermont Federal Credit Union!

by Matt Cropp

Note: These are my initial reflections of my experience of tonight’s Annual Meeting since, sadly, my video camera decided this would be a fine evening to crap out. Some things could slightly be out of order and omitted, so I will try to get my hands on the official minutes and link them here as soon as they become available.

I’ve been to the past four or five VFCU meetings, and this years was, by far, the most well attended. It was the 60th Anniversary celebration, so, instead of being at the DoubleTree it was at the Sheraton, and included a dinner for which close to 400 people RSVP’d. The meeting business began uneventfully, and the nominating committee presented the incumbent two candidates, who, as it was a non-competitive contest, were declared by the chair to have been elected by acclamation, to which a few people mentioned that they dissented from that statement.

The meeting then rolled around to new business, for which I raised my hand and made the proposal which our group of Vermont Federal members had developed. After noting that none of the assembled members had had any say in the “election” that’d just taken place, and that the nominating committees at other co-ops of which I am a member (such as City Market and the Intervale Community Farm) go to great lengths to recruit candidates and facilitate competitive elections, I proposed the following resolution:

“We, the assembled members of the Vermont Federal Credit Union, instruct the nominating committee to include on the 2014 Annual Meeting ballot all legally qualified candidates who have expressed an interest in serving on the Board of Directors, so as to ensure that members have a meaningful voice in the composition of the Board that represents them.” Continue reading

OPINION: Could Mandatory GMO Labelling Hurt Food Co-ops?

While cooperatives tend to stay silent on most political topics (perhaps in subtle deference to the original Rochdale Principle of “Political Neutrality”?), one issue has been recently bucking the trend: GMO labelling. A sandwich-board advocating the Vermont labelling bill recently appeared in front of my food co-op, and the topic has been popping up quite frequently on local and national co-op social media streams.

I personally find GMOs to be problematic for a number of reasons (particularly the fact that genetic information has been granted the status of intellectual property). However, I’ve come to worry that this “mandatory labelling” approach being promoted by many food co-ops might, in the long run, have unintended consequences that might end up undermining the vitality and success of the food co-op movement.

The reason for this lies in one of the key competitive advantages of the cooperative model: trustworthiness. Because consumer co-ops operate on a not-for-profit basis in relation to their members, they have no incentive to behave in a predatory or exploitative manner, since any surplus profits so generated are simply returned to the members at the end of the year in the patronage refund/dividend.

Historically, this structural trustworthiness has been a major motivation for people choosing to patronize co-ops over for-profit businesses, which is made abundantly clear by the example of the very first known food co-op. A century before the Rochdale Pioneers opened their shop on Toad Lane in 1844, newly proletarianized English dock-workers discovered that a local miller had been using powdered lead to adulterate the flour he’d been selling to them. Needless to say, the dock-workers were not pleased, and, after burning down the establishment of the man who’d been poisoning them, they took up a subscription and used the proceeds to create their own consumer-owned mill. Since they owned it, they could be confident about the quality of the product that fed their families.

Similarly, up until the Great Depression of the 1930s, the vast majority of demand deposits in financial institutions were held by mutual banks and savings and loans. In the absence of meaningful regulation and deposit insurance schemes, consumers recognized that their hard-earned savings would be far safer in an institution that had no incentive to screw them over. However, this key cooperative advantage was neutralized when the Federal Government stepped in with its guarantee of deposits in all banks through the FDIC. By artificially levelling the playing field in terms of safety, the regulatory interventions of the 1930s had the perverse effect of forcing mutual banks to effectively subsidize their commercial competitors (for more on this dynamic, see this book). Since commercial banks are able to raise capital more easily than mutual institutions, this dynamic led to the growth of commercial banks at the expense of mutual banks, and ultimately to the horrifically screwed-up Too Big to Fail financial system with which we are currently saddled.

Unfortunately, a GMO labelling law could potentially have a similar detrimental effect on food co-ops. At the moment, a substantial market exists of consumers who desire to consume non-GMO foods. Since for-profit food purveyors have an economic incentive to cheat these customers by claiming non-GMO status for products that contain GMOs, conscious consumers currently have the same reason to patronize cooperatives as dock-workers did in the 1740s.

However, if the State assumes the role of determining whether or not any particular food contains GMOs, co-ops will lose what is presently a leg up against for-profit grocers, while the dynamics of regulatory capture will ensure that the definition of “GMO-free” will cater to the interests of powerful corporations. As such, if we want to advance the agenda of expanding access to honest food, food co-ops should prioritize expanding the number of consumers who have access to co-ops through the active support for cooperative start-up projects such as those in Barre and Morrisville. The success of such endeavours will constitute a far more important and sustainable gain than the passage of legislation that might well have the effect of slowing the spread of a truly democratically accountable cooperative food system.

Matt Cropp lives in Burlington and is the co-host of Cooperative Vermont. Opinions expressed in Cooperative Vermont opinion pieces are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of all Cooperative Vermont participants