Alberta Co-op (Portland)

The Alberta Co-op in Portland’s Northeast community is a consumer (or community) owned grocery that uses a staff collective to manage the co-op.

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The mission of the co-op “is to serve as a community resource and gathering place, while providing fresh, high-quality, affordable food to the diverse members of North and Northeast Portland. We emphasize products from local, organic, and socially responsible sources, and work to build connections between our customers and their farmers.”

As the co-op’s history notes: The co-op started out as a buyers’ club in 1997 and eventually created the co-op with a brick-and-motor store in 2001. I’ve only been to the co-op a couple of times (while visiting Portland) and only really know this about this community because a friend worked there for a couple of years. To me, what is interesting is the different models of organizing consumer co-ops and the paradigm under which Alberta flourishes.

Alberta has an Ends Statement (for you Policy Governance nerds) that strikes me as unique within the consumer co-op world. A focus on s specific community (PDX’s North and North East sides), locality, and human dignity in the workplace. This seems a different paradigm from the massive store chain model of PCC in Seattle, Willy St. Co-op in Madison and other co-ops that seem more interested in brand development than in building community.

I get that the “economies of scale” argument pushes some co-ops toward multiple stores and in smaller communities it might even make sense (for instance, I would be surprised if the population of Olympia and the communities served by Alberta are close to the same). However, “economies of scale” only references to the financial aspects of the co-op and the trade off can be significant deterioration of the social aspects of cooperation.

Thomas Jefferson conceptualized keeping the core unit of democracy at no more than 5,000 individuals and then allowing those townships to link together to achieve economies of scale while keeping democracy local and vibrant.  I don’t know what a realistic cap would be, I’m confident that neither meaningful democracy nor member oversight exists when there are 40,000 members electing a nine member board and a GM makes all the key decisions.

I have always preferred the concept of neighborhood co-ops that work together to reduce costs rather than giant mega-coops focused on the bottom line with watered down social missions (which I also think have to go hand-in-hand). I also think that this makes it easier to operate through a staff collective and empower the workers as a fundamental stakeholder in the success of the co-op.

Alberta Co-op feels like a community, which should be how a co-op differentiates itself from the investor-owned competitors. A happy co-op month to the workers and community owners of one of the PNW best examples of cooperation!

 

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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