WHAT IS A COOPERATIVE?
Using Democracy in Our Workplace!
A co-op is generally considered a business or organization that operates democratically through its united voluntary workforce. While many people use the terms "collective" and "cooperative" interchangeably, there are some distinctions. A collective is an organization that operates exclusively or almost exclusively through direct democracy (i.e. flat-structure, no hierarchy). However, not all cooperatives operate in the same way. A cooperative is a term that encompasses democratic collectives, worker-owned, member-owned, and also consumer-owned businesses. Some cooperatives operate using representative democracy while others use a managerial system. Generally, the term cooperative is used to distinguish ownership, while the term collective is used best to describe how an organization operates. Cooperatives can serve economic goals as well as cultural and social aspirations while providing a balanced alternative to the typical pyramidal setting. For more information on Bay Area Cooperatives visit nobawc.org.
In many ways Rainbow runs as if it were a union between several smaller individual cooperatives: our departments. Membership in the department in which you work is essential for Membership in the store and most day-to-day decisions such as hiring, scheduling, buying are made at a department level. We have 14 departments, some represent sales categories such as Produce, Bulk, Cheese, Bakery and Refrigerated. Others are support departments such as Cashiers, Maintenance and the Office.
Legal and financial decisions are made by our Board of Directors, which is elected annually from the Membership. Anyone who is a Corporate Member is eligible to run for the Board of Directors. Unlike traditional corporations where the Board of Directors is a powerful body of individuals who may be out of touch with the bottom rungs of the hierarchy, our Board Members can be the same people who stock shelves, clean the floors and work the registers. Our seven-member Board handles requests for large financial expenditures, reviews the department income statements and deals with outside contracts and legal issues. The Board also has the power to create policies for the store, some of which must be ratified by the Membership at large.
Another elected body, the Storewide Steering Committee, coordinates and deals with matters that cannot be handled successfully by a single department. The seven-member body meets weekly to deal with departmental conflicts, questions about floor-policy, and other day-to-day issues.
The most important decision-making body of all is the Membership. Simply stated, anyone who is a member/owner can make decisions at our monthly Membership meetings. Certain types of policies that affect wages and benefits, major changes in store operations, and a few other issues must be voted on by the Membership. We have guidelines for the way proposals for policies must be drawn up and explained. But at a meeting that can have anywhere from 30 to 80 or more people, it's important for the meetings to run smoothly.
We expect anyone who works at Rainbow to become a member. However, it can be a rigorous process. We require that workers complete a set amount of hours as well as attend a number of financial, historical, safety and customer service orientations. Workers must also attend meetings of decision-making bodies and pass a test in order to complete their membership requirements. Once you've jumped through all these hoops, bought your first share (a mere $10!) you're a Member. You can now run for committees, vote at Membership Meetings and share in the financial surplus after taxes are paid. Despite the rigorous process, most workers become members during their first year.
The majority of work is done here in what some call self-managed work teams: groups of people who agree to work together on a project or ongoing responsibility. Some duties that are not taken care of by hired positions are taken care of by other elected committees. Annually, we elect new members to our PR, Donations, Grants, Ecology, Security and Effective Meetings Committees. These groups redefine their goals each year and request a budget from the Board. Throughout the year they take care of various responsibilities and meet with the Board from time to time to report on their progress.
Sometimes we have random responsibilities that are taken care of on a volunteer basis. Most of our work is done here with the attitude that you take on extra tasks outside of your job description, because you want to, not because there are supervisors to make you.
The essence of what is so rewarding about working at Rainbow is that each member has a voice in the way we operate. We may not always agree on how to solve a problem, but everyone has the chance to formulate policies, create committees, propose new ideas or effect change. We are a constantly changing organization and are always learning new ways to do things.