In the world of food, co-ops are a saving grace for thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have any access to quality items that are organic and local.
Billed as a shared community space, these food markets are beloved for their collaborative atmosphere and knowledgeable employees who are passionate about real, healthy food.
But as the demand for organic food has skyrocketed, some are worrying that the people who helped pave the way aren’t being fairly compensated, especially workers at the Wheatsville, Texas Co-op which serves the state capital of Austin.
On April 1 of this year Wal-Mart, the poster child for poor workers’ wages, made headlines when they announced a starting wage rate of $10/hour; now they average about $13 an hour.
But according to a group calling themselves the Wheatsville Staff Solidarity Collective, which has filed their grievances with management in this open letter to management, the co-op’s current wages weigh in at considerably less than the average Wal-Mart worker, even as revenues have been rising and a new location has been opened.
“We have tried discussing this with management through various methods, but none of them have had any positive effect for staff,” the collective wrote in the letter.
“We’re therefore left with no choice but to take the route of public shaming in the hope that wider scrutiny of Wheatsville’s employment practices might finally catalyze some change.”
Lower Than Minimum Wage
Not only are the workers’ wages lower than Wal-Mart workers at between $9 to $9.50 to start according to the letter, they also happen to be lower than what is mandated by the city of Austin.
In 2008, the minimum wage checked in at $11/hour, while a new 2014/2015 law raised it to $11.38.
Even as co-op workers have lagged behind in terms of salary, cost of living in the Austin area has been rising and revenue at the Wheatsville co-op has been growing, with plans of expansion in the works.
The co-op calls itself “a self-reliant, self-empowering community of people that will grow and promote a transformation of society toward cooperation, justice, and non-exploitation,” as promised in its mission statement.
But now, employees are wondering how they can be a part of growing the all-important co-op movement without making a fair wage, and members of the collective are more apprehensive about expansion than excited due to being overworked and underpaid.
Will Management Budge on Paying Higher Wages?
According to this article from the The Austin Chronicle, General Manager Dan Gillotte makes between $150,000 to $200,000 per year including bonuses, but Gillote told the newspaper that the actual number is “substantially less than what’s been bandied about.”
He said that Wheatsville takes its recommendations from the National Co-op Grocers group as far as wages and also offers health benefits to full-time employees.
But the collective points out that such coverage is mandated by the Affordable Care Act and should not be touted as a bonus, and the group is demanding an increase to the $11.38 wage mandated by Austin.
Gillotte argues that profit margins are already very slim according to the article.
But the collective is refusing to budge, secure in the idea that employees should also be able to join in the success of a business model that’s billed as a shared community revolving around a love for healthy and organic food.
According to the Austin Business Journal, the co-op began working to address the concerns before things went public, and Gillotte made a blog post
Whether or not that means an agreement will be reached remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if similar stories begin playing out at similar shared organic food stores and communities in the near future.
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