Tuesday, July 29, 2014

MA Co-op Tour - Pioneer Valley: Part 2

Scene One:
It’s 6:30am on a weekday morning. The birds are waking you up with their song as you contemplate your morning routine. Then a rumbling begins in the distance, getting louder as it moves up your street. The familiar squeak of brakes and mechanical whir register in your brain: the garbage truck!You hear the crashing of discarded material, the plunk of your barrel hitting the ground. Noise of acceleration commences and repeats down the street.

Scene Two:
It’s 7:59am on a weekday morning. The birds are singing as you ready your mug of coffee to accompany you on the day’s adventures. You are enjoying the peace before the daily rush. But then a gas-powered motor screams as it attacks the neighbor’s leaf pile. A fleet of lawn mowing machines descend upon the green carpets in a malodorous cacophony.

Oh well. What can you do? That’s life, right? 

If you live in the Northampton, MA area, you might experience something else… 

Scene One:
It’s 6:30am. The birds are waking you up with their song. On the street you hear a bike pull up. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you hear the lid of your trash barrel being opened and the bags inside being taken out? Later you go out and put your empty trash barrel away. 

Thanks to Pedal People, this is reality for 600 residential and 50 business customers. Pedal People is a worker-owned cooperative business offering human-powered hauling and delivery services since 2002. They have a contract with the City of Northampton to pick up the trash from the 70 public waste and recycling barrels on Main Street every day of the year.

They have a new lawn care business as well, using no harsh chemicals or loud machines.

And they do all of this on bikes. Even in the snow
Photo by Robin Barber

Chuck and I met recently with Alex Jarrett, one of Pedal People’s co-founders. Alex showed us two of the trailers they use to hitch onto their bikes for jobs. Many of their trailers are made by Bikes at Work, a company located in Iowa. But Alex says it’s not that hard, or expensive, to make one yourself.  The worker-owners of Pedal People believe in doing things more simply, and there are many benefits to this philosophy. We only met Alex, but I have a feeling all of the Pedal People are in pretty darned good shape. They also like being independent of non-renewable energy sources. 

Being a worker-owned business means that each worker has a say in how the business is run. The workers meet monthly to discuss work issues and they make decisions by consensus. If needed, they can call a 2/3 majority vote, but it has not yet come to that. There are currently 18 workers, a few of whom are apprentices. The worker-owners share in the profits of the business and decide when, how and IF they should grow the business. They can decide to focus on efficiency to increase profits, making more stops in the same timeframe and neighborhood. And/or they can expand into other areas, offer different services. Each worker-owner has a vote in these important decisions.

Not only is Alex busy with Pedal People, he is a peer advisor trained by Democracy At Work Network (DAWN), offering technical assistance to other start-up cooperative businesses, and he is on the board of Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (VAWC). VAWC is working to build and strengthen the co-op economy in the Pioneer Valley. They have a co-op development fund, and collaborated with UMass Amherst and the Neighboring Food Coop Association to create an education program focused on the co-operative model. Undergraduates who complete the program receive a Certificate in Co-operative Enterprise.

Alex was a wealth of information on the co-op world and he encouraged us to visit Collective Copies in Florence and speak to Adam Trott. Collective Copies is a worker-owned, cooperatively-managed, full-service print shop in operation since 1983, now with two stores, one in Amherst and one in Florence. Adam is one of 11 worker-owners and is also on staff at VAWC.

The history of how Collective Copies got started is inspiring. In 1982, disgruntled employees of Gnomon Copies in Amherst decided to unionize. In the fall, they went on strike over poor working conditions. After six months, just when negotiations were settled, the store got an eviction notice. The workers decided to open up their own shop, owned by them and run collectively. 31 years later they are still going strong.

For those of you who would like to embark on your own MA Co-op Tour of the Pioneer Valley, start at the VAWC website. When we visited the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, this is what we were looking for - all the local co-ops highlighted in one place.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

MA Co-op Tour - Pioneer Valley: Part 1

What do you think of when someone says "co-op"? I'm guessing that many people think "food co-op", a smallish store that smells a bit funky when you walk in. One that has bulk bins of dried beans, and sells several kinds of tofu and vegan cheese.

When Chuck and I stopped in at the Northampton, MA Chamber of Commerce this week to ask about co-ops in the area, that's all the staff knew to tell us about, the local food co-op. They didn't know about any others. (We knew there were others, but we were sort of testing them to see what they'd say. More on this later.)

We began our self-directed MA Co-op Tour by visiting River Valley Market, a food co-op located at 330 N. King St. in Northampton. We drove up and said, "Whoa!"

It's pretty big! 15,000 square feet, to be exact. And check out the solar panels on the roof!

River Valley Market has over 6,600 members! It's what is called a member or consumer co-op. Anyone can join and become a member-owner by buying a member equity share, for a one-time cost of $150. You don't have to be a member to shop there, but by becoming a member, you are taking on some ownership benefits and responsibilities. You can vote in board elections, run for a seat on the board, take advantage of weekly member-owner sales, discount prices on bulk purchases, AND you are eligible for patronage dividends in profitable years. You don't have to work at the co-op. They have about 100 employees on staff who take care of daily operations. (More on that below.)

We spoke with manager Rochelle Prunty who gave us the history of the co-op. The current green store opened in 2008. Right now, about 30% of their products are locally produced or grown. They carry items that members want to buy. The market is a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) which is a co-op of co-ops, actually. All of its members are independent food co-ops in the US. You might be familiar with the "co-op stronger together" logo if you shop at a NCGA member food co-op. That's from the NCGA's consumer-facing website: strongertogether.coop

(Someone else told us that NCGA mostly serves larger food co-ops, whereas most of the smaller ones in New England are members of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association. We are beginning to learn why there are so many organizations that serve co-ops: co-ops have different needs depending on their size, age, type and service.) 

We asked if River Valley Market has any worker-owners. It does not. We later learned that some food co-ops have workers that are unionized or working towards unionization, and that these efforts have not been entirely smooth. You might wonder, why would an employee at a member-owned food co-op want to join a union? Isn't a food co-op an idyllic place to work as it is? It sounds like employees at food co-ops run into the same kinds of issues that employees at any other grocery store come up against, and many are forming unions to help address these issues.

It turns out that the employees at River Valley Market unionized in 2012, and that management voluntarily recognized the union, as reported in a Valley Advocate article found here. So hopefully that is helping everyone benefit from the member-owned food co-op, member-owners and employees alike.

In a future post, I'd like to discuss member/consumer co-op vs. worker-owned co-op, but let's get back to our River Valley Market tour.

We noted with interest that they sell both Equal Exchange and Dean's Beans coffee. Equal Exchange is a worker-owned co-op and a leader in the fair trade movement, located in West Bridgewater, MA, and Dean's Beans is a local roaster located in Orange, MA. (Check out Chuck's video about fair trade on EE's blog here.)

Another item River Valley Market carries is Katalyst Kombucha - on tap! (I will write about our visit to Artisan Beverage Cooperative, the people who make Katalyst Kombucha, in a later post.) You pay by weight. Fresh and brilliant!

River Valley Market has a kitchen called Quarry Cafe, which makes breakfast items, including many "made without wheat" baked goods, sandwiches and hot dishes, all from scratch. They also have a catering menu.

If you live in the Northampton area, you are fortunate to have this established, beautiful food co-op in your community.