Is the Durham Co-Op Market betraying its progressive roots? | Durham County | Indy Week

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Is the Durham Co-Op Market betraying its progressive roots?



By Cris Rivera's reckoning, it took six years of planning to open the Durham Co-Op Market and seven months for it to waver on its supposedly progressive mission.

As a 25-year resident of Durham, Rivera, the co-op's finance director, knows what this type of locally sourced, locally owned grocery means for her city. And that's why she was so disappointed by a plan recently unveiled by the market's board of directors to strip employees of the ability to purchase a special class of shares in the co-op.

Under mounting scrutiny, the board decided against a vote on that plan, which was originally scheduled for Sunday. But board members say they'll bring it back for discussion at some point down the road, following conversations with the co-op's employees and owners.

Co-ops—which are owned by the people who use their services and governed by a board elected by the owners—are supposed to share the wealth and decide their future democratically. But the board's proposal would deny workers both money and influence, Rivera says.

"The more I think about it, the more upset I get," she says. "It would have been really nice [for workers] to be asked."

Under the co-op's bylaws, modeled word-for-word after those of the 27-year-old Weaver Street Market in Orange County, workers who have been employed for more than six months can purchase their own "worker shares," which are set apart from the consumer shares that finance the co-op. Worker shares would allow the co-op's 40 employees to collectively own about 10 percent of the business. They also guarantee representation on the board. Given that most employees earn less than $10 an hour—below the Durham Living Wage Project's $12.53-an-hour threshold—that representation may prove vital to boosting their pay.

But board members, who were advised by a national co-op consultant firm called CDS Consulting Co-Op, say it's not a "best practice" to offer the shares to employees.

Board president Frank Stasio, who hosts the WUNC program The State of Things, calls it "untenable," saying Weaver Street Market leaders have personally acknowledged to him the difficulty of navigating the inevitable clashes and conflicts of interest that accompany such a model. (Weaver Street officials declined to confirm or deny Stasio's comments).

"You've got this artifact that Weaver Street has learned to manage," Stasio says.

Under the proposed (and postponed) revision to the bylaws, workers would have been able to purchase the standard consumer stock in the co-op, but they would lose out on the chance to leverage greater control via the board of directors.

Some workers and member-owners say it's hypocritical of the co-op to consider slighting its employees, particularly given that a precedent for success exists in the thriving Weaver Street Market.

"It's imperative that the workers have a choice," says Rivera. "To be solely consumer-owned, it would just add to the feeling that this isn't our store."

The resemblance to Weaver Street Market is no mistake. Spread upon a tract on Durham's West End, the co-op is a mirror image of the Orange County institution, which has groceries in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.

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