A profile of a worker co-operative – how it functions in its community and how its workers thrive.
By Kiva Bottero
The Carrot Common courtyard is an inviting patch of public space between tightly packed storefronts on Danforth Avenue in the east end of Toronto, Canada. I stroll through the courtyard entrance, past a community information board listing ads for yoga classes, a high-tech juicer, and a Filipina nanny looking for work. Opposite is an organic-juice bar packed with patrons engaged in conversation. Sitting on a bench in the middle of the courtyard, a father introduces his twin baby boys, who are lying in a stroller beside him, to an elderly woman. Tethered to a post nearby, a fuzzy tan-colored dog waits for its owner. Its eyes are fixed intently on the front doors of The Big Carrot Natural Food Market, the flagship store of the Carrot Common.
The Big Carrot is a worker co-operative, an alternative business model in which workers, known as “member-owners,” own and democratically control the company. Driven by both economic and social concerns rather than the bottom line, worker co-ops are guided by a set of principles that embrace democracy, education, co-operation, social responsibility, and community.
Established in 1983, The Big Carrot is an innovative and successful worker co-operative. Its sixty-five member-owners share seventy per cent of the co-op’s profits and have a direct say in its governance through committees and biweekly members meetings. By taking responsibility for their actions, member-owners have created an equitable, compassionate, and generous workplace, according to Big Carrot staff members. The co-op attracts staff by dangling this carrot as part of their mission statement: “To offer satisfying, gainful employment in a fair and productive workplace, thus furthering the goal of healthy living for ourselves and others.” It’s a lofty goal, but one that their many satisfied, engaged workers would say they achieve.
At the customer service desk, I meet Doug DiPasquale, the Certified Holistic Nutritionist on duty, for an hour-long, one-on-one information tour, which the store offers as a free service to customers. I ask him for advice on eating gluten-free products, and he leads me aisle by aisle through the store, pointing out the most popular products as well as those that customers have complained about (most of the complaints pertain to gluten-free breads, which are often crumbly or too dense). I take in the mood of the store as we walk. “The Carrot” has a professional yet homey feel. Hardwood floors and earth tone walls convey a sense of calmness and simplicity, while soft lighting invites customers to stick around for a while. The shoppers appear to be in no rush, carefully scrutinizing product labels.
We stop at the cereals to look at a number of “gluten-free” labeled boxes. “There is a huge misconception that the only grains that have gluten are wheat, rye, and barley,” says DiPasquale. He explains that all grains contain gluten, though in varying amounts and, in some cases, of a more digestible type (which explains why some people can’t eat grains at all). He then surprises me by pointing out a pasta product that’s made of chickpeas. Despite eating gluten-free for a few years and doing research on the topic, I discover there are still a few things I hadn’t known. It’s this kind of information exchange that DiPasquale enjoys about the job, he says – but it’s not the only thing.
After the tour, we sit down at the nutritionist’s desk and he tells me about his experience working at the Big Carrot. “I love it here,” he says of his nine months on the job as a part-time non- member. He feels that the Big Carrot is a supportive environment, one where the workers’ interests are really kept in mind. He attributes much of the co-op’s pro-worker attitude to its not being structured as a top-down hierarchy. Member-owners work directly with the customers and the products.
DiPasquale likes the fact that he’s working on the floor alongside these decision makers. “I feel like if I’m talking to my (member-owner) co-worker and we feel the same way about something, then that will translate to what’s being said at the members meetings,” he says, confident that despite being a non-member his views will be heard.
Patrick Conner is one of those decision makers. I meet the member-owner at the customer service desk. He’s wearing a “Non-GMO” button on his blue-hooded sweater; as chair of the co-op’s Non-GMO campaign, he’s proud to promote the cause. He leads me up a flight of stairs and into the seminar room, the democratic forum for the co-operative. Here the sixty-five member-owners meet every second Wednesday at four p.m. The earth tone walls cast a calming glow, helpful during the sometimes intense debates that happen as the co-op decides about issues ranging from new capital purchases to the use of space in the store.
The agenda for these meetings include committee updates, reports, financial statements, and new business. The meetings, which generally last one-and-a-half to two hours, are also a useful forum for stamping out any store floor rumors. Deliberation is conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order.
Every co-op member gets one vote regardless of seniority. But despite the equal footing, there’s a surprising amount of apathy. About a third of the members really care, Conner tells me, a third don’t, and the rest fall somewhere in between. As with any democracy, a minority of the population does most of the work, some are disengaged, and the rest leave the work up to others and are happy to go along with their choices. Attendance at meetings is mandatory – no more than four can be missed each year – but member-owners receive a sixteen dollar per hour food credit on their in-store purchasing account as compensation.
These meetings are not for the impatient. “When deciding what color to paint the bathroom we thought it would take fifteen minutes, but it took three months,” recalls Conner, with a hint of exasperation. But he then points out that the opposite also happens: “A new forklift purchase was an example of membership moving very fast indeed.” The co-op tries to strike a balance between practicality and inclusivity. “Most votes are fifty per cent plus one,” he says, “but we strive for consensus.”
Two decisions the co-op made were to create a scholarship program that pays up to eighty per cent of staff members’ education expenses (to a $1,000 annual maximum) and to give staff a twenty per cent discount on most store items (uncommon for supermarkets, given their low margins, though this store often gets complaints that its products are overpriced). Compared to other food markets, the Big Carrot’s vacation allowance is better than most, starting at two weeks per year and rising to five weeks after nine years of employment.
Since one-third of the entire staff gets to vote, the members could work some real perks into their package. Why not choose to start off with five weeks’ vacation a year, as is common in Europe? But, like many co- operatives they choose to walk a middle path. To maintain sustain- ability, they opt for policies that continue to provide profit but don’t greedily chase after it. They look for a nice balance between profit and perks. Since the staff creates its own policies, members have no “mean boss” to complain about. Empowered with a vote, they need only look to themselves for change.
Conner and I turn our attention to a whiteboard that’s alive with ideas. The co-op’s Green Roof Committee has been busy planning potential uses for a new roof. A brainstorming tree connects “extending the season for gardening” and “vertical walls for food,” with little sketches to add emphasis. Universities have been brought on board to test new technologies in green roofing, waste water management, and vermicomposting.
We walk out the door and onto the roof. Eleven skylights allow natural light to flood the store below; around them are a number of garden beds. “The goal was to have it as a place for staff to retreat,” Patrick says, indicating a wide open space adjacent to the door. “It’s important for staff to have a place of their own to escape to.”
The roof will also be available for community use. “Concern for community” is one of the “Seven Principles” that guide co-operatives worldwide. (See the end of this article for details.) To foster the sustainable development of its community, the Big Carrot rents out the seminar room to community groups according to a sliding pay scale. Once the green roof is completed, a section of it will be rented out to community groups as well.
The business donates a portion of its annual profits and plastic bag revenues to support local non-profits. It also supports grassroots organizations through the Carrot Cache, a fund that donates a portion of profits to local organic food and co-operative infrastructure initiatives. Donations come from the Big Carrot and other renters in the Carrot Common, a mall composed largely of alternative stores and natural health practitioners. Taking care of the larger community builds the Carrot’s character as a generous and compassionate workplace. Staff members feel a bond of trust knowing that if their employer takes care of the larger community, surely they’ll take care of their staff. With that sense of trust, a workplace is a much nicer place to spend the day.
Concern for community goes hand in hand with another co-operative principle: “Education, training and information.” In addition to funding organizations that share the same values, The Big Carrot strives to be an educational resource for its customers by providing informed service and public education on social and environmental issues.
As I look at stacks of produce labeled “Certified Organic” and “Local,” I’m met by Standards Coordinator Maureen Kirkpatrick who talks to me about one of the co-op’s biggest strengths, its strict attention to standards. Its commitment to making local, organic, non-GMO, and fair trade purchasing decisions requires regular auditing of products and much research. Kirkpatrick didn’t come to her position with any education specifically related to the job. She started at the customer service desk before getting into Standards. “I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn on the job,” she says, adding that it was a steep learning curve but she enjoyed the challenge.
The Big Carrot’s website claims: “The greatest strength of The Big Carrot is the accumulated knowledge and experience of its Members and Staff.” Co-op members feel education is vital to their ongoing success, and they believe in sharing that knowledge with customers to empower them to make informed purchasing decisions.
Inspired by the pep talk on gluten-free foods, I pick up a baguette that looks and feels surprisingly like its glutinous relative, then grab a few other items and head to the checkout counter. There I’m greeted with a wide smile by Corina, a white-haired senior who’s been at the Big Carrot for eight years. “I’m one of those old broads,” she jokes, before explaining why she likes working at the store. “What’s there not to like when you have beautiful people coming through? It’s a happy place.”
Other staff I talk to at the Carrot seem to similarly enjoy their jobs and their co-workers. They are engaged in their work; the high level of customer service reflects that. They have built job satisfaction for themselves not by drafting extravagant human resource policies but by taking the middle path to sustainability.
The Big Carrot takes a holistic view of itself. Staff, customers, community, farmers, products, buildings, the environment – these are all parts of the whole. By nurturing all of them, the Carrot makes sure that everyone and everything benefits. By allowing its members to take collective responsibility for the work they do, this co-operative business fosters not just engaged workers but engaged citizens.
I pack my groceries and stroll out the door. There’s a relaxed, laid-back rhythm in the Carrot Common courtyard as a few people mill about, conversing and hanging out. I don’t feel in any rush to leave. Shopping need not be a mundane routine when you’re surrounded by community…especially a community with these values.
Kiva Bottero edits The Mindful Word online journal of engaged living, where this article was first published. He writes on a variety of topics, including spirituality, green building, and green homes. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.
1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political, or religious discrimination. Comment: It is important to note here that the key service used in the worker co-op is employment and therefore the membership, while open and non-discriminatory, is usually limited to the people that work for the worker co-op.
2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control
Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote), and co-operatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner. Comment: In a worker co-op (a primary co-op) each member has one vote. The members elect a board of directors that has the authority and the responsibility for the management and supervision of the co-op. The directors are accountable to the members. For this democracy to be effective in the worker co-op, following the Co-operative Values is essential. It is also essential that the members take their responsibility to participate seriously.
3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. They usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative; benefitting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership. Comment: This principle expresses the fundamental economic difference between a worker co-op and a traditional business. In a worker co-op, capital is the servant of the co-operative. Returns on capital are always subordinate to the primary way of sharing the surplus (profits) between the members, which is based upon amount of work they have contributed to the co-operative.
4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence
Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy. Comment: This principle emphasizes that as an independent enterprise a worker co-op depends upon it members’ commitment and hard work for its success. It is no one else’s job. It also indicates how important it is that any agreement made to secure capital for the co-op’s operations should be on terms that ensure the members remain in control of the co-op.
5th Principle: Education, Training and Information
Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation. Comment: To run a worker co-op successfully, the members must have many skills. Few members come to a worker co-op with all these skills so, to succeed, the co-op must ensure that the members, directors, and managers get the training they need to fully contribute to the success of the co-op.
6th Principle: Co-operation Among Co-operatives
Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional, and international structures. Comment: In the same way the members of a worker co-op benefit from their mutual efforts, their co-op (and thus themselves) can benefit from co-operating with other co-operatives, often by forming service federations with similar co-ops.
7th Principle: Concern for Community
While focusing on member needs and wishes, co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities.