Wheatsville staff starts a petition demanding a livable wage


Update 10:45AM 5/19: The GM has written a response to the petition. You can read it here 

This past weekend, I spotted a petition going around from the “Wheatsville Staff Solidarity Collective Austin” asking that the beloved Austin co-op grocery begin paying their employees a livable wage. Employees at Wheatsville currently start at $9/hour, and the petition asks that their pay increase to the City of Austin’s living wage recommendation of $11.38/hour. As a person who has worked in the customer service industries, including clothing retail, tech retail and restaurants, the pay disappointed me but did not surprise me. What did surprise me was this paragraph in the petition: “We, the Wheatsville Staff Solidarity Collective, speak on behalf of all the Wheatsville employees who are routinely overstretched and undersupported by shoddy managerial practices and a corporate mentality that prioritizes sales-to-labor ratios far above employee well-being. There is much work to be done in this area, and much of it needs to happen internally, but a living wage would offer a promising start.” Comments left from current and former Wheatsville staff echoed the “shoddy managerial practices.” Further comments explained that many employees had to take on one or two additional jobs outside of Wheatsville to support themselves.

The news shocked us. My boyfriend has been a member of the co-op for nearly twenty years, and I’m a weekly shopper and fan of the store. To me, Wheatsville is the quintessential Austin business; every time I shop in the jovial store I imagine I’ve stepped back into Austin circa 1976, during the days of the Armadillo, Willie and Molly. The curated selection of healthy, unique or locally-sourced food, mixed with the helpful and friendly staff, always makes for an enjoyable experience at the ‘Ville.

We, like many people, had no idea that there has been an underlying issue of poor management and employee disrespect at Wheatsville. This is very disconcerting, and I hope Wheatsville will rectify this situation. I commend the staff’s bravery for coming forward.

The truth of the matter is, everyone in the customer service industry should be paid “a livable wage” ($11.38/hour still doesn’t sound very livable). People who have not worked in the customer service industry often forget that the job can be physically and emotionally taxing. One of my most stressful jobs was working in a high-end restaurant. I’ve also been in the situation where my 40-hour-a-week job couldn’t pay the bills, so I had to work weekends to get by (this was in Austin five years ago). I was working 60-70 hours a week, and I was only making low 30K/year. This can be physically and emotionally debilitating to an employee. The cost of living in Austin is rising dramatically, and our local business owners need to step up and support their staff. I’d love to see many of Austin’s beloved stores such as BookPeople, Waterloo Records and Alamo Drafthouse, who all offer several job positions at less than $10/hour, increase their employees’ pay.

If you want Wheatsville to increase their employees’ pay, please sign this petition.

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  • Reply toni May 18, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Great piece. I don’t personally know the store as I don’t live in Austin, however, I feel that you have really touched on a topic here which affects the majority of the non-profit/co-op/working-for-the-greater-good world. I work at a non-profit and I am constantly shocked at how staff are treated (to the point that I am pretty sure I will quit in future). Funds are always low so we are constantly requested to work overtime, take on more work and reminded we are doing it for the greater good. In my organisations case we even write publications about social responsibility and treating employees fairly which always strikes me as ironic. Our management also treats us pretty badly to the point that sometimes I think I am back in school. I previously worked at a bank and I am really shocked how much better I and my co-workers were treated there (in the big bad financial world) than at a non-profit.
    Apologies for the rant 🙂

  • Reply Brad May 18, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks for helping circulate information about this issue. This petition and statement alone, however, are not sufficient to make me believe that I know what is going on. I think some of the information in the statement may be incorrect. What appears to be an absence of response by the Co-op Board or management is damning. I used to work at Wheatsville at the Lamar and Guadalupe stores and was a manager and Board member. At the time, even though it was a consumer-owned cooperative, there was a democratic management structure. Each team or department could fire their bosses and the staff as a whole could fire the general manager. Management decisions could be reviewed and overridden collectively by those who were managed. I also instituted a mandatory annual review of cost of living and mandatory consideration of cost of living increases. I wonder if that is still going on. The Wheatsville Breeze also used to be a source of real news about the store and the surrounding world, rather than mainly a marketing circular like it is now. The extreme rise in Austin’s cost of living is not the fault of Wheatsville. Many businesses have to cope with that and few have succeeded. But the information being provided by the solidarity statement about wages is extremely disturbing and calls into question the viability of the consumer co-op model in a hostile capitalist economy like we have in Austin. The jury is still out as to whether cooperatives in a capitalist society will be able to function significantly differently than other businesses or whether the culture and economics will cause them to behave like other businesses. The wondrously successful and radical Mondragon cooperative in Spain failed in the end to withstand the economic upheavels created by the European banks and corrupt Spanish governments. In any event, I hope someone gives this story a depth of coverage and analysis that it warrants.

    • Reply hipstercrite May 18, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Thank you for your helpful insight, Brad. This does feel like it came out of nowhere, so it would be nice to see the other side of the story!

    • Reply hipstercrite May 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Brad, I just emailed Dan the GM to see if he’d like to share his side of the story.

  • Reply Arcie May 18, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    In regards to Brad’s comment above, I can assure you that when I worked at the co-op from 2008-2012 that none of those managerial checks and balances you describe were in use. In fact, it is routine at Wheatsville to oust those who question management practices or otherwise “don’t drink the kool-aid”. Each department is handled differently depending on who’s running it, but in many departments, the high amount of turnover can be attributed to tone-deaf managers who seem to be immune to reprimand because they are cozy with the GM. When Wheatsville began renovating the original location, they also began implementing a management system that is very profit focused and strict about growing profit margins, with pay and bonuses tied to those metrics, which were unrealistic in many respects and became increasingly unrealistic with the expansion to the new store. On paper, Wheatsville claims to practice “open book” management, which encourages all staff members to have a stake in the co-op’s success, but what that particular style of management does is bog departments down in meetings and “huddles” where all staff are forced to sit in a meeting, not working, not helping customers, and hear about how many percentage points each sub-department has grown or failed to grow compared to the previous weeks. It’s all a bunch of time wasting BS, and it’s a very corporate system, designed by consultants who were no doubt paid a lot of money for their expertise. The pay issue is relevant, but the management issues are what I feel is the real problem. And don’t get me started on some of salacious back stabbing and sabotage that goes on. It’s really gross.

  • Reply Kauf Buch July 12, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    The General Manager should FIRE anyone who signed that petition and hire folks with a more realistic (and less Marxist) understanding of economics.

    THAT, or the GM should raise the hourly wage and fire just enough bitter staff to offset the extra cost.


  • Reply Drew July 14, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    ^ Says someone who has materially benefitted from all the achievements of organized labor, such as paid overtime, the abolition of child labor, occupational safety standards (and a dramatic decline in workplace injuries and deaths), guaranteed minimum wage, paid vacation and sick leave, pensions and collective bargaining rights. Good enough for you but not someone who works in a grocery store – they need a real-world education!

  • Reply Kirk July 25, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Find another job. Nobody is forcing you to work there. Work to better yourself get a trade learn something new. Quit expecting others to take care of you. Hell with them your better than that!

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