Co-op workers demand a wage increase and a union

The workers of the Takoma Park Silver Spring (TPSS) Co-op presented demands to the Board of Directors on July 21, requesting higher wages, a $15 hourly minimum wage, and unionization of the Co-op.

The workers began organizing after it was announced that there would be managerial turnover, with Interim General Manager Martha Whitman stepping in on July 19.

“It brought about this question of, ‘Okay, what should we do before they bring in somebody else who’s going to keep things the same or make things more corporatized,’” Co-op employee Tiffany S. said of the period without a general manager. “When the old general manager left, it was like a veil had been lifted off of the hearts of so many people, and we started asking, ‘Well, what should we change?’”

Thirty-seven-year Takoma Park resident and former Co-op employee Candace Wolf believes it may also be a product of cumulative current events.

“If you think about the last ten years in this country, a lot of things have happened that have generated outrage,” Wolf reflected. “The climate of being sick and tired of attacks on the environment, the attacks on working people, the attacks on healthcare, have maybe pushed people to a tipping point.”

The workers, if unionized, would be represented by the DC Industrial Workers of the World (DC IWW), a member-run union for all workers.

“A fully democratically organized workplace is necessary to help strengthen the bonds between the Co-op, its workers, its members, and the community at-large,” the DC IWW wrote in its statement of support for the TPSS workers.

Wolf agreed that unionizing would be an important step toward instilling democracy in the workplace.

“It seems that democracy … stops when you go to work. You step in that door when you go to work, and suddenly you’re under the tyranny of the bosses,” Wolf said. “I think that’s really at the heart of what it means to organize a union. That you’ve to some extent broken that tyranny which is totally undemocratic.”

Tiffany S. views unionizing as an “empowering venue to collective bargaining” and a necessary protection.

“Folks have tried this before a few years ago at the Co-op, and those people got retaliated against,” she said. “It’s really important that if we are going to come together and organize, that we protect each other and that we protect the folks who themselves have kids, who have bills and can’t afford to get retaliated against.”

$15 Minimum Wage

These demands come as a bill has been reintroduced in Montgomery County to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour after County Executive Isiah Leggett vetoed it earlier this year.

“I would love to see Takoma Park be a leader in that,” nearly 30-year co-op member Susanne Lowen said. “$15 is barely a living wage in this area,” she later added.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker in the state of Maryland would have to receive a $28.27 hourly housing wage for a two-bedroom apartment in 2017, while the number rises to $33.58 when looking at Montgomery County alone.

“A raise of $3.50 [per hour] and $15 starting wage is needed immediately,” the DC IWW stated. “The wage increase is long overdue and would bring an immense amount of relief to workers at the TPSS Co-op.”

Tiffany S. agreed that increased wages are necessary for all workers, revealing that raises are scarce and many workers, including herself, must find additional jobs to supplement their salary from the co-op.

“I’m hoping that I can pay my bills for August. It’s an actual fear of mine,” she admitted. “I’d love for the cooperative to materially provide. It’s important to show not just that we care about the environment but that we are part of the environment.”

“We’re not even asking for the survival amount; we’re asking for half of that,” she added. “It raises the question, ‘Well, if me as a worker, I don’t deserve even half the amount necessary to survive, then what do I deserve?’”

Due to the perceived immediate need, workers have asked the Board to reach a decision regarding increased wages by July 28 and any changes in wage to be effective July 30.

“Strategically, it’s important to have a sound date,” Tiffany S. said, explaining the reason for the limited decision-making time. “The power dynamic is such that they have things at their disposal that workers just don’t, and giving them specific turnaround equalizes that power.”

The DC IWW believes the request of wage changes to be effective by July 30 is financially feasible.

“The financial capacity of the Co-op is not in question. The Co-op appears to be very healthy in that regard,” the union stated.

Industrial Workers of the World, unite!

In regards to unionization, workers will be able to vote on whether they would like to be represented by a union at an election held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in August.

Whitman has issued a statement to the workers respecting their right to choose.

“TPSS values its very dedicated and skilled workforce and works to make sure employees are respected and fairly compensated for their work,” the statement reads. “If a majority of eligible employees vote for representation by a union in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board, and if the union is certified as the bargaining representative, we will recognize the union and collectively bargain in good faith over the terms and conditions of employment.”

However, according to Whitman, the Board won’t be able to speak to the demands regarding wages by the requested date, although the Board and Manager have not released an official statement.

“As a matter of federal labor law, we cannot address the employees’ request for a wage increase until after the NLRB election is concluded. To do otherwise would taint the election process,” she said.

Tiffany S. believes the IWW would be a good fit for the local co-op due to its belief in democratic control in both the union and the workplace, which differs from unions operating as corporations according to Tiffany S.

“We don’t want corporatizing, and we also want to ensure that if our workers are collectively organizing, that their union represents the workers themselves who are collectively organizing rather than organizing for the workers,” she said.

Wolf is also excited about the possibility of the DC IWW representing the workers, mostly due to their all-inclusive philosophy, exemplified by their motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

“That gives workers a lot of power and a voice,” Wolf said. “Right now workers are very split up, and it’s really important to unify workers. Whether you’re a journalist or working at a cash register, we do the work, and the more we’re united the better.”

Shortly after the workers presented their demands to the Board, a petition to show support for the workers began circulating, which has gained 206 supporters for the workers to gain a living wage and ability to organize.

How progressive is Takoma?

Supporting the workers would be indicative of Takoma Park’s reputation in progressivism, according to Wolf.

“Takoma Park prides itself of having progressive values and human rights values,” Wolf observed. “Immigrants and refugees, they’re all workers, and they need jobs, so workers’ rights should be the fundamental pillar of human rights. It’s really important that the residents of Takoma Park and the shoppers of the Co-op stand behind the workers organizing.”

Tiffany S. believes community members as well as members of the co-op can take active roles to support workers.

“Members of the Co-op can help by helping us with bylaws and helping us in elections, voting on things that are in favor of the workers,” she said. “The community can show support by helping to continue to push Fight for 15 in Montgomery County or for Takoma in particular if it wants to be unique.”

Wolf has been spreading the word about the campaign, mainly through handing out fliers outside of the Co-op every day.

“The worst enemy is just if everything’s under the radar, if everything’s silent and no one knows what’s going on. You have to have a presence and fire up people’s imagination and ideals,” she said.

Lowen advised members to sign the circulating petition and become more active in the environment of the co-op to show their support.

“I would encourage other member-owners to have conversations with the people who work at the co-op and to learn more about what their experience is in the store,” she said. “We as member-owners have a responsibility to understand how the store works, be involved in the governance of the store, and to be in communication with our elected representatives on the Board of Directors.”

In addition to members becoming more active in the co-op community, Tiffany S. believes the co-op can do more to encourage the democratic participation of the, according to Tiffany S., 6000 active members.

“I’m not in the business of blaming individuals for not voting, so my question is, what should the coop be doing to help them. Then, after that, it’s out of the Co-op’s control,” she said. “They have two member meetings a year: one every six months. There’s board meetings every month and folks are allowed to go to those meetings, but are they encouraged to? No.”

The Co-op’s grassroots

The TPSS Co-op was first founded in the early 1980s, which Wolf described as a “more grassroots community-oriented store,” where shoppers had to work a certain amount of hours to earn the benefits of a co-op membership.

“I remember when my kids were growing up, we used to go there, and we would stock all the vegetables and bagels and that qualified us to get benefits,” Wolf reminisced. “When you do that you feel like the Co-op is yours. You’re much more a part of it.”

Once the Co-op began looking to expand, Wolf believes the store transitioned toward a more traditional natural foods business.

“They really changed their nature at that point from becoming a really community connected store … to a more conventional capitalist business for profit,” she said.

Tiffany S. has also noticed this trend and believes it has taken a toll on the workers outlook toward the store.

“They’re just in the work and they go home. There’s no sense of ownership over this. There’s no sense of this is mine,” she said.

Tiffany S. hopes the Co-op reverts to a more traditional co-op structure.

“I’d like to see workers taking the role of democratic management in a traditional cooperative sense where we come together and say we’re going to do this, this, and this rather than having an individual that we pay to tell us what to do,” she said. “That would be my dream for the Co-op; to go to a state where we don’t need to be bossed by folks when we can do it ourselves.”

Wolf’s beliefs that the store was heading toward a traditional business led her to early thoughts about unionizing while she was working at the store.

“Even at that time, I felt it was important that workers be unionized there, that they have a say in their work, because once it transitioned into a more conventional capitalist business, I felt that the workers needed to have some defense. But at that time it didn’t get off the ground,” she said.

Wolf stated that the key difference between the past and the present is the individuals that are involved.

“In any situation that’s unjust, you just happen to have the right people at the right time that are able to take on that role of organizing and leadership. There are people now that are willing to take that leadership,” she said.

These leaders have spearheaded the campaign for the increased wages and union representation, and Lowen is hopeful about the future of these demands, stating she has faith in the workers and the Board of Directors.

“We have a good Board of Directors with the best interests of the Co-op at heart, and I believe they’ll take the demands into serious consideration,” she said. “These are members of the community who are volunteering their time and get very little out of it … They’re in those positions because they care deeply about the store.”

Tiffany S. urges the Board not to underestimate the support the workers have in the community, including members who were involved in establishing the Co-op, and she hopes that the Board accepts their demands.

“It would be an incredibly valuable thing to see that the Board is on our side. That the Board that we vote in has us all in mind when they operate. That it does consider how much value we bring and that they’re willing to compensate over that,” she said. That would be incredibly important to me as somebody who’s going to have to pick up another job, and it would be really just a great show of support that workers and the community would love.”

With the absence of previous management and the short time with Whitman as Interim General Manager, Tiffany S. observed that people seem more comfortable, lively and active in contrast to the feelings of disempowerment she usually felt among the staff. Whitman has also felt kindness from the staff.

“My observations have been favorable; the staff has warmly welcomed me and have greatly assisted me as I get oriented to the job,” Whitman said.

The heart of Takoma Park

Wolf has a strong vision about the future of Takoma Park and how the workers’ campaign fits into it.

“It’s a vision of more equality and more justice, and it starts at the workplace. I’d like to see people fired up about that, and I think a little struggle like this can be a spark, and if there’s enough sparks you start a fire,” Wolf said. “Solidarity should be a core value and collectively organizing at work and supporting that organizing is a beautiful manifestation of solidarity.”

The Co-op is important to maintaining the personality of Takoma Park to Tiffany S.

“People are emotionally and literally invested in it,” she said, recalling a story about a woman who put up money from her house to support the Co-op. “To see it function just as any other store means that the city is losing some of its character, and losing it permanently because that’s one of those changes you can’t undo. You go too far and it becomes harder and harder to go back.”

Lowen agrees that the neighborhood grocery is an integral part of the community.

“The Co-op is the heart of Takoma Park. It’s what makes this city walkable, a place people can live without owning cars,” she said, emphasizing the importance of walkability as a metric of the livability of a city. “It’s a community treasure, and we own it. It’s pretty special.”

Tiffany S. is dedicated to making sure the Co-op stays a part of the Takoma Park community in a meaningful way.

“The great thing about the Co-op is that it can change … We can prevent it from becoming just another corporate-ish store,” she said. “We’re in an era in this nation where we need to do. We need to take action. Do stuff. Fight for those rights. Get those things we want. Because nobody’s going to give them to you.”

Readers can find the demands and the option of signing the petition of support here.

7 Comments on "Co-op workers demand a wage increase and a union"

  1. Does the change in management have anything to do with the old management’s failure to make a deal with the Takoma Junction developers?

  2. The sanctimonious Co-op doesn’t even pay its worker a living wage? Ha, ha, ha!

  3. What a surprise and appropriate issue to be made public especially in Takoma Park. If Takoma Park cannot get grocery store workers paid $15/hour plus union benefits, where can it work?

    What does Shoppers, Giant and Safeway pay its unionized workers?

  4. Elias Vlanton | July 31, 2017 at 9:41 am | Reply

    In 1988 TPSS Co-op workers earned $8 a hour, which would be equivalent to $17 a hour TODAY. Where is the money going? A chunk of it to more highly paid managers. This is wrong for a community food store. In October there are Board elections; people should vote for members to raise the wages of those who work there.

  5. Judy Treible | August 6, 2017 at 6:44 pm | Reply

    Can you please report on the July firing of Co-op employees Abdi Guled, General Manager, and Marilyn Berger, Head of Administration and Expansion Project Manager? No reason was given in the Co-op newsletter that announced this change in management. Thank you.

  6. Neal Chalofsky | August 6, 2017 at 11:09 pm | Reply

    My wife Margie and I are founding members (#7). We started the coop as a workers collective so that the workers (and volunteers) managed the store by consensus. The purpose of a coop is to serve the community, including its workers, instead of management and the board. Margie and I were active for 25 years as the coop grew to become more hierarchically managed and less involved as an integral part of TP’s social system.. But we never thought we would see the day that its workers felt the need to unionize in order to be treated fairly.

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