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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Highlighting the Importance of Student-Run Cooperatives

Highlighting the Importance of Student-Run Cooperatives

by Meghan McDonough, (University of Massachusetts, Amherst student)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an original report written for GEO.)

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, approximately 145 full-time undergraduate students work as co-managers at seven different student-run cooperatives across campus. Ranging from a copy shop, a bike repair shop, and numerous food venues, these student-run businesses service all different areas of campus. Each co-manager in every cooperative has an equal say in business decisions, is involved in numerous committees (purchasing, marketing, catering, books, payroll, etc) and gains valuable, hands-on experience running a business.

Several student-run food venues such as Earthfoods, Greeno Sub Shop, and Sweets & More accept the Your Campus Meal Plan (YCMP) swipes, valued at $9.50 each. People’s Market, another student-run business located in the Student Union, however, is not permitted by the University to accept the YCMP meal plan because they do not technically sell “meals”, but rather food items as a market would. For several semesters, People’s has been advocating for a change to this policy so that they can begin accepting this meal exchange.

Recently at UMass, a University-owned Starbucks stand has opened in the Integrated Sciences Building, a populous and buzzing area of the University. Catering to students and faculty alike, this new coffee and pastry hotspot has stirred up controversy around campus. This venue sells Starbucks products, yet is permitted to accept the YCMP meal plan swipes whereas similar food venues such as People’s Market cannot. While meal exchange is just one of the apprehensions that this venue is raising, many other student advocacy groups such as the Student Workers Invested in Fair Treatment (SWIFT) and the Student Labor Action Program (SLAP) are voicing their concerns regarding the allowance of corporations on campus, as Starbucks is the first at UMass.

The Center for Student Businesses (CSB) is the University’s administrative department for these student-run businesses and is working to raise awareness about the benefits that each cooperative brings to the University in the hopes that more will be established on campus. Co-managers are voicing a “pro-collective” and “pro-community” mentality, not an anti-Starbucks one. They insist that the skills needed to be an effective student co-manager as well as the amount of information and abilities learned throughout a co-manager’s experience are both valuable and unique. Everything from purchasing, pricing, marketing, catering, books, payroll, cashout, community outreach and in-store responsibilities all require diligence and reliability.

The University employs 145 co-managers for this opportunity, which is a small number when compared to the 20,500 undergraduate students currently enrolled at UMass. Current co-managers would like to see this opportunity open up for more students.

Rumors have been swirling that there is intent to open even more areas on campus to sell Starbucks products, including in the Southwest residential area as well as the new honors dormitories scheduled to open in September, 2013. Though confirmation of this has been denied, if UMass continues to open University-owned Starbucks throughout the campus, co-managers argue that it would be beneficial to consider the advantages of having students more involved in the operation as the student-run cooperatives on campus already operate. Co-managers are assets to the community as well as the University. The skills acquired by working at a collective are rare in today’s workforce, where it is common for a college intern’s most important duty to be fetching coffees for the office.

The Center for Student Businesses itself is an asset to UMass as it gives students the opportunity to run a business and make all operating decisions as a collective. Should more students be given this opportunity, UMass will have an even stronger, unique community for students to gain valuable experiences.

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