Is the Durham Co-Op Market betraying its progressive roots? | Durham County | Indy Week
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Is the Durham Co-Op Market betraying its progressive roots? 

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When Durham's last co-op—affectionately known as the People's Intergalactic Food Conspiracy—crumbled in debt in 2009, the machinery was already in the works for a replacement, one that would theoretically build upon Weaver Street's success.

Naturally, then, the market's first board copied Weaver Street's bylaws and articles of incorporation, including its hybrid model of worker-owners and consumer-owners. Michael Bacon, a former co-op member who helped steer its organization, says that was intentional.

Co-ops across the country are typically shopper-owned or worker-owned, but Weaver Street may be unique in packaging the two together.

"It's part of why a lot of people were excited about the Durham Co-Op," says David Roswell, a customer-owner. "This was doing business in a different way. Without worker ownership, it feels a whole lot like Whole Foods."

Curt Brinkmeyer, chairman of Weaver Street's board of directors and a worker-owner himself, calls worker-owned shares "an essential and valuable part" of Weaver Street.

"I can't imagine Weaver Street Market existing without them," he says. Brinkmeyer declined to discuss whether the model has ever proven problematic, as Stasio alleges.

Beyond that, there's also the question of hypocrisy: A market that opened earlier this year touting its hiring of workers from Durham's underserved neighborhoods is now moving to ensure that those workers have no say in how the co-op is run.

"This is a fight to take away from workers. With Frank Stasio, a champion of labor, presiding over the decision, it seems pretty messed up," Roswell says, referring to Stasio's coverage of labor issues on WUNC.

But Stasio says it's more complicated than that. Based on the consultant's recommendations, he says, the co-op is adopting what is known as "policy governance," delegating management of daily operations to its general manager rather than an overly meddlesome board of directors. Issues will arise if the board micromanages such an organization—and having workers on the board will lead to more interference, he says.

Moreover, workers would face constant calls to recuse themselves over conflicts of interest when votes affect them, Stasio adds. And the store's general manager would also have to oversee employees who could, as part of the board, push to fire her.

"In the long run, I think this is the way to go," Stasio says. "In our hearts, we truly believe that."

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