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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Central Co-op: A Tale of Two Cities

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October 21, 2019
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cross-posted from The Workers' Paradise

Before I start with today’s Co-op Month post, please note that I am not a member of Central Co-op, nor have I shopped there. Also, a couple of the managers are alumni of the MMCCU program at St. Mary’s University.

That said, I think that Central Co-op is a very unique and interesting co-op that offers a lot of lessons to the co-op community.

This co-op just recently celebrated its 40th Anniversary in the Central district of Seattle! Given the economics of the city these days, that is no small feat especially since the grocery co-op market is dominated by PCC and its dozen or more locations. It has a rich history in the City and has been an innovator in the grocery co-op community.

Central Co-op Logo

What really makes Central Co-op stand out, however, is a decision a few years ago by the consumer membership to convert to a “solidarity” co-op model. This term is perhaps just a fancier way of saying “multi-stakeholder”. The consumer membership opened up a new class of membership for the store’s employees and about half of the board seats are held by staff members.

Many food co-ops limit how many employees can serve on the board and even then, the employees must access the board seat as a consumer member. I know of at least one consumer co-op that admonishes the employee directors to “think like a consumer, not an employee” and requires the employee/directors to recuse themselves on certain issues like pay (as if consumers don’t have an interest in pay levels).

Central acknowledge the full humanity of the worker-owners and “bravo!”

Central is also represented by a couple of unions: UFCW and the IWW. A unionized, multi-stakeholder cooperative in the grocery sector is indeed a unicorn for the United States, and it seems to work just fine: in Seattle.

While the Co-op was transitioning to a multi-stakeholder model, it was also merging with another co-op in Tacoma. This surprised me at the time. The Tacoma store is an entirely different community. The difference between Tacoma and Seattle is not just the 57 miles that separates them. Two very different cultures and communities. This seemed like a huge undertaking at the time when the co-op was still figuring out how to have two classes of membership. At the same time, the co-op was also trying to get a second location in Seattle.

This all could have worked out okay, and I only know what I read in the blogs and papers. However, during this period (July 2016), Central was negotiating the lease for the store in Tacoma. Neither the membership nor the workers in Tacoma were being informed of the progress. About seven months after the Tacoma Food Co-op members agreed to merge with Central Co-op, Central abruptly shut down operations in Tacoma. This left Tacoma without a storefront and if they wanted to use their membership at Central, it would require a 120 mile round-trip on I-5 (that is effectively 2.5 hours of driving in good traffic and up to 4 hours in heavy traffic).

I remember at the time thinking that this was a lot for any co-op to chew on: merger, second location, new class of membership. Then, to make matters worse, the CEO of Central took a job at the Sacramento Food Co-op. I’m sure that it wasn’t due to the strife, but it was definitely bad optics. I also heard that workers showed up for their shifts and were told to load the store into trucks and after that they were laid off. I don’t know if that is how it went down, but the sudden closing without notice to members or staff definitely created a lot of anger.

To its credit, Central did not give up on Tacoma. While it took almost 3 years, they did re-open a store on Pearl Street in Tacoma last summer.

My take on this is that the store got a little expansion and project crazy. I’m not raising this to put the co-op down. It is a lesson for all co-ops. Engaging the membership, letting them know what was happening in Tacoma could have actually helped get a lease signed and at worst, would have eased the blow of the closing. A long and bitter rivalry between Tacoma and Seattle exists that goes back to the founding of both cities, so some of the negative energy stems from that.

Today, however, Central Co-op is thriving as a unionized, Solidarity Co-op. It remains a model for the natural and whole foods grocery sector. As Bill Gates is quoted (in today’s NY Times Crossword) “Success is a poor teacher”, so Central’s experience offers great lessons: one of which is adversity is not necessarily bad if it leads to a stronger co-op.


John McNamara is a Cooperative Development Specialist with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. He was a member-owner of Union Cab of Madison for close to 26 years and is a founding member of the late, great Democracy at Work Network.


William F. Johnston

I am an original member of the Tacoma Co-op and now a stockholder as well. The new store is great and the hot food buffet is to die for! My wife and I make a point of Friday lunch at the co-op and pick up the grocery items we need. Tacoma is booming city and the most unique city in the State of Washington - politically and culturally - too many people are discovering it (my family has been here since the 1890's). Too long of a story on the first store to go into here but it was a process that never really got off on the right foot - a bunch of "Seattle type Liberals" from someplace else who preached down to the members.

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