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Cycle of Rage: The Park Slope Food Coop May Embrace Worker Exploitation

Why is the famously liberal member-run supermarket about to get in bed with delivery companies?

The Park Slope Food Coop will partner with DoorDash and Uber Eats. Wait, wut?! Photo: Auden Oakes

Why is the famously liberal Park Slope Food Coop about to get in bed with companies that exploit workers?

Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the worker-owned Soviet-style kolkhoz (and have been before we started selling meat and alcohol, so note that, newbies), but I am ashamed that later this year, the Coop will implement an online ordering system — with food delivered via DoorDash or UberEats, two companies in an industry with a horrendous record of workplace safety and for disempowering their gig-working "independent contractors."

And I'm surprised: About three years ago, in the Before Times, the Coop wisely started planning an online ordering system for disabled members who could not physically make it to the gloriously barebones supermarket on Union Street. That seemed like a prudent and fair move.

Here's how the Linewaiters' Gazette, the Coop's infectiously readable house organ, played the original news.

At the time, however, the plan was for Coop members to pick out the products, box them up and then deliver the orders to their fellow homebound members.

Then the pandemic hit — and online shopping boomed. The trial home delivery project was shelved as the Coop went into triage mode. At one point in the early days of the pandemic, the market was losing $100,000 a month. This was not a time for frills.

Or was it? The other day, the Coop's house organ, the Linewaiters' Gazette, dropped a bombshell with a tabloid-ready, all caps headline: "ONLINE SHOPPING AND DELIVERY: PLANS ARE UNDERWAY." (I can't believe the Times hasn't followed up on this yet.)

A man uses a checkout machine to add up the cost of groceries.
Street cred: This is me, doing what I do best, ringing people up at the Park Slope Food Coop about 15 years ago. File photo: Amy Saidens

The story recapitulated the details of the ongoing program, but had this little tidbit: “After the member picking the order has completed ... a delivery service will come to the Coop, hopefully within the next five or 10 minutes, and pick up the groceries for delivery."

An outside delivery service? At a member-staffed, boisterously leftist Coop with tens of thousands of members, many in make-work jobs who could easily be re-deployed?

That "delivery service" line provoked outrage from members — well, at least the ones who talked to us outside the Coop the other day and allowed us to show them the Linewaiters' Gazette story when all they really wanted to do is go home with their kohlrabi.

"I'm not in favor of us getting in business with a third-party delivery service because the Coop is a unique place where the labor comes from the members. So to be engaged with another company would change that dynamic and potentially raise a bunch of other issues,” said Rich, a Coop member for 20 years.

Another member, who asked for anonymity because she is a therapist in the area (who isn't?), said she'd be OK with home delivery "if it was member labor, because it wouldn't feel exploitive."

To several other members, the issue is simply what kind of Coop does the Coop want to be?

"I joined this Coop to be part of a respectful community," said one member. "I’m not sure why we would partner with a company that doesn’t respect workers."

Plus, that member added, online shopping is anathema to the Coop, where members chat as they jostle in narrow aisles as they pick out Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee beans, vegan sausages and organic kombucha.

"I joined because I wanted a community that opposes economic stratification and instant gratification. Shopping at the Coop is not the most convenient thing, but it makes me part of a community that's about more more than ambition and money. If the Coop just became an online institution, that fabric would be frayed."

Here's a publicity still from my money-losing hit 2016 show, "Murder at the Food Coop." File photo: Marc Dinkin

The issue came up briefly at Tuesday night's general meeting, which is the democratic method by which Coop decisions are made. Member Stanley Greenberg spoke for many when he said, "I'm really concerned that we would be aligning ourselves with something like GrubHub or you know, all these anti-worker groups."

Clearly, it was time for me to get on the phone with a true legend, the Coop's longtime General Manager Joe Holtz (full disclosure: Holtz was a model for the main character in my money-losing hit show, "Murder at the Food Coop," at the Fringe Festival in 2016. Full show here.)

Holtz said the Coop will soon begin a trial with a company called Homesome, which digitizes the entire inventory (allowing people to not merely select "ricotta," but choose among the seven varieties at the Coop, including the sublime Narragansett Creamery brand). The online order form would then spit out a list of products that a Coop member would pull from the shelves and scan with a handheld device programmed with the current prices. The items would be boxed up and the order completed, triggering an alert to the delivery company.

Homesome currently contracts with UberEats and DoorDash, according to its website. Holtz said that it doesn't have to be that way, of course. "Someone could create a worker-owned, non-exploitive delivery service, which would be far better than having another bunch of workers being exploited," he said. "But we're not waiting until one exists before starting our pilot [later this year]."

"We want delivery workers to feel good about coming to the Coop," he told me. "We are a polite well-meaning Coop."

Holtz said the delivery system is part of a much-larger effort to plan for the next pandemic, when grocery stores that offered online shopping survived while many other businesses went under.

"We got $6 million in federal aid and spent it all," he said. "So we have to start talking about online to see if can make it work during a pandemic. We could sell a tremendous amount of food that way."

— with Auden Oakes

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