Illustration by Lily Moline

A co-op divided struggles to stand

When you first step foot into Citizens Co-op, your eyes are drawn to the typographic mural that spans across the entirety of the store’s wall. These words may seem like mere decor, but they were painted with purpose. As you read over the sprawl of quotes, all embodying the Co-op’s founding principles, one stands out in particular.

“Society is founded in equity and is constructed on congruence.”

This equity and congruence is what created Citizens Co-op in 2011. The community-based grocery store in downtown Gainesville, which offers organic and locally grown foods, sets itself apart from the conventional store with its business ethos. The co-op model emphasizes employee solidarity; it is owned by its workers and paid members, everyone holding equal stake

More recently though, the equality of these stakes has been challenged.

After the dismissal of two senior employees at Citizens Co-op, and what fellow employees felt as a lack of worker-representation and constantly changing store policies, the remaining seven workers moved to unionize on March 11.

In an effort to secure their rights in the workplace, Kelsey Naylor, a former Citizens Co-op employee, explained how the process of unionizing went down.

“I think five of us were able to do what I think is called a ‘march on the boss,’ where we went in to management and gave a brief testimonial as to why this is happening,” she said. “That we had unionized, and we asked for them to voluntarily recognize that union.”

Naylor explained that management simply could’ve recognized the union, and it would be effective immediately. That did not go as planned.

“We received zero verbal or written response from management,” she said.

Naylor said she felt the union would be nothing but good for the business.

“It’s for the future workers,” she said. “We’d love for there to be a structure for future workers and for them to have a voice to be legally safe.”

Besides the unexpected firing of the initial two senior employees, a lack of financial transparency and constantly changing business policies that threatened worker representation were also causes for unionization, according to Naylor.

Naylor explained that the worker-owner representative holds a seat at board meetings but was asked to step out of the most recent meeting when the topic of wages and revenue came about.

“We were told at a meeting by the board that our worker-owner representative was a privilege, a gift,” Naylor said. “It can be taken away.”

Shortly after, the representative was one of the two senior employees fired and replaced with someone appointed by the board.

“I think at this point right now, the board (of directors) has more powers than everyone realizes,” she said. “They’re the ones who can solely change the by-laws, whereas a lot of other co-ops’ by-laws can only be changed by membership vote.”

Rob Brinkman, secretary of the board of directors, said the board has to take into account the interests of all 1,800 Co-op members before considering unionization.

“We have to ensure the security of the three-tier membership structure,” he said. “We don’t know how union memberships will work into worker-owner memberships that are already in place.”

Brinkman said the legality and uncertainty of a union is why the board of directors is cautious of future unionization.

Picketing outside the store didn’t come into the picture until five of the seven members of the proposed union received emails that notified them of immediate dismissal from Citizens Co-op on March 24, Naylor said.

The firings were based on accusations of theft and misuse of the email database system of the approximate 1,800 co-op members by the five employees to send emails about the union.

Brett Ader, one of the five employees dismissed, said he felt the firings were unfair and not in line with what a cooperative business represents.

“I’ll speak for myself and say that I personally want to see the Co-op live up to its potential,” Ader said. “I really want members being involved and not just coming in and buying things but being aware of what’s going on.”

Ader, who did the special ordering for local restaurants at the store, said management fired a lot of the experienced workers who helped make the store profitable.

The picketing has become a daily event where former employees and community members alike voice their desire for a union with signs and music. Naylor hopes the picketing makes the board consider reinstatement of her and the four other worker’s positions at Citizens Co-op.

“We hope to get our jobs back,” Naylor said.

Lisa McNett, the current general manager of Citizens Co-op, said the past few weeks have been difficult for her and the business.

“It’s been really gut-wrenching,” McNett said about the negative response. “I can definitely tell you it’s been one of the most stressful and difficult work scenarios I’ve been through.”

McNett was hired to oversee the store employees and to help with increasing profits for the Co-op, which had been operating at a loss for a while.

McNett, who has received community backlash after dismissing the employees, said most people don’t have all the facts, that it isn’t black and white.

“We are all people,” she said. “To hear negative things about myself is really painful.”

McNett wants people to realize there were underlying problems even before she became manager. She also hopes the Co-op can be a financially stable and thriving market for the community.

“It’s about working together to support each other and help our community grow,” she said.

Even after meetings between union members and the board of directors that were mediated by a facilitator from the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, compromises still haven’t reached a cooling point for revising by-laws and reinstating the fired workers.

During a meeting on March 30, about 100 members voted to send a letter to the board of directors asking for the board members to resign.

“I feel like if the board is tired and doesn’t see a future for the store, then they should find somebody who’s more willing to take on that responsibility,” Naylor said.

Citizens Co-op was founded with the intention of melding food education, community support, local sustenance and, of course, cooperation. Another glance at the Co-op’s mural gives a gentle reminder of these founding visions and hopes.

“When we build, let us think we build forever.”