A group called Take Back the Co-op wants to make big changes at La Montañita Co-op. The group says New Mexico’s largest food cooperative has become too corporate and isn’t listening to member-owners, and are collecting signatures for a petition.
Dennis Domrzalski covered the Take Back the Co-op campaign for the ABQ Free Press. He told KUNM the controversy at the co-op is part of a long history of changes at the business.
Domrzalski: The co-op has indeed changed over the years. When they first started in ’76 they didn’t sell meat. They do now, because they had to change. In other words, competition. Back in 1987 they realized that Wild Oats was coming to town, so they realized they had to change. It’s been an ongoing process.
It’s not the 1970’s anymore. [Co-ops today] are actually businesses, and if they want to stay in business for their members they have to change, and change today means offering a wider variety of goods at lower prices.
KUNM: And some of those lower-priced goods La Montañita is offering now are non-organic fruits and vegetables, which the Take Back the Co-op people are upset about. But that’s only one small piece of what the group says is wrong with La Montañita. So tell us about some of the other issues that the movement is trying to address.
Domrzalski: A lot of them are labor issues—they claim that they’re creating a hostile environment and things like that. But the biggest thing is, they’ve got this vast conspiracy theory that there’s a cabal of three entities out there—two of them are co-ops—that are allegedly scheming to take over every single food cooperative in the United States and apparently turn them all into things like Sprouts or Whole Foods. It’s very vague. They claim “corporatization,” and they really don’t say what that means.
KUNM: There have been a number of complaints filed by co-op employees to the National Labor Relations Board, which is one thing Take Back the Co-op people point to as evidence. But what about evidence for some of the other things they’re alleging, have you found any data or anything to back that up?
Domrzalski: Here’s the situation: they claim the big puppeteer behind this is this consulting cooperative out of Putney, Vermont, which is apparently a very small place, that is allegedly advising all cooperatives on their bylaws. They’re claiming that throughout the nation this one little cooperative of 40 consultants is advising coops to change their bylaws, de-democratize the situation and give the member-owners less of a voice.
I called those people and they said “look, we offer templates, we tell these people these are templates, we don’t have any control over what any board does anywhere.”
The second co-conspirator, they claim, is basically a cooperative of cooperatives out of Iowa City, Iowa. It basically helps cooperatives design their stores, and it recently signed a contract with a food distributor. Well, this cooperative of cooperatives was formed in 1999 by 150 food cooperatives. La Montañita was a founder—it’s an original owner, and it’s a member owner right now. So it’s kind of hard to think a cooperative of cooperatives is in the business of somehow seizing control.
KUNM: But part of the petitioners’ complaint is that they feel the consultant is taking away the ability of the member-owners to participate in the decision making.
Domrzalski: But nothing like that has happened here. I asked them, so what bylaws have been violated? They said none.
KUNM: Take Back the Coo-op is trying to get 1,600 signatures. What happens when they get those signatures?
Domrzalski: They can call a special meeting. Their intention is basically to impeach every board member, I think there’s nine of them, and also fire the general manager Dennis Hanley.
La Monañita Co-op will be holding meetings on the recent changes there, and to talk about Take Back the Co-op's concerns:
- Wednesday, October 5, 5:30 to 8:00pm at the Mennonite Church, 1300 Girard NE, Albuquerque, NM 87106.
- Thursday, October 6, 5:30 to 8:00pm at the Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87505
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico Project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.
Editor's Note: La Montañita Co-Op is a long-time underwriter of KUNM programming. Questions? Contact KUNM General Manager Richard Towne.