A Produce Worker’s View of the Crisis

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Grocery workers of America, all praises!  I am with you, shoulder to shoulder.

Now we are called emergency workers, workers on the frontline, and we are receiving finally a measure of respect.  But our work is vital all the time.  Our labor, part of the production and distribution of food, is essential for our species’ survival.  Humans can survive for a long time without hedge fund managers, pharmaceutical lobbyists and defense contractors — that is, for a longer and happier time.

Yet we work in one of the lowest paid industries in the nation, with among the worst benefits.  We also suffer one of the lowest standings in society.  I recall a coworker informing an older, educated patron about his college degree.  The patron looked aghast and asked, “What happened?”

We know what happened.  Our economy is inseparable from our society.  Most of us work for corporate grocery chains, and their goal is to sell food as cheaply as possible for as much profit as possible, without concern for worker wellbeing, for the dedicated supply of healthy food to the food insecure, nor for the increase of our ecological wealth.  But there is a way forward.

Every day at work I take out the compost, the cardboard and the trash, just like my coworkers do.  I mop the floors, stock produce, and drive the forklift.  But I am also an elected representative on our board of directors.  I am a worker-owner of a food cooperative.

Our worker-owners make a living wage.  Our pay ratio, top to bottom, is 4:1.  We have aligned with a local credit union, because we believe that access to the financial market is a fundamental right.  We give ourselves good health benefits, a retirement account, and an Employee Assistance Program.  We even offer our workers individual health coaching year to year.

We keep money in the local community.  We distribute our dividends equally.  Each worker-owner has one share in the co-op, non-transferable, and one vote.  We have developed, for example, a round-up program which has provided over $1,000,000 to local groups striving for food security.  One hundred percent of that money goes toward the purchase of healthy food; we absorb all the overhead.  In an attempt to build a resilient network, we help local farmers to upscale their production and we give loans to local producers.  Over the last five years, more than 90% of our sales growth has come in local and co-op to co-op trade.

As a co-op, we strive to be a vibrant, happy and inclusive gathering place, in the fullest sense of that term — a nexus for the social and economic health of our community.

We locate our stores — we have four stores and a food production facility, employing about 300 workers — directly in downtowns.  We aim to anchor and revitalize downtowns.

So we create physical spaces for our community to come together, including meeting rooms for local community groups.  At the store where I work, we have a large patio and patch of grass underneath great live oaks.  On any common weekend, you may see 100 – 200 people there, of all ages, sitting together, talking, laughing, listening to live music, picnicking and dancing on the lawn, all while kids run around and play.

Working together we form a healthy living cell, which can easily multiply and grow an economy of sharing and mutual aid, the society we all want for one another.

To my coworkers in the grocery industry, and to every worker in every industry, I tell you for a fact that you are ready to own and control your workplace.  You are essential.

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