Wheatsville Co-op employees gain traction on fair wage petition amid co-op election

Lauren Florence

The consumer- and employee-owned Wheatsville Food Co-op is facing employee demand for higher wages in the midst of the co-op’s elections for board members.

The annual Wheatsville election will be open until Nov. 2, and both incumbent candidates have expressed their support for implementing a living wage for Wheatsville employees.

As of Thursday’s city council meeting, the council raised its standard of living wage ­— or the minimum wage a city employee can be paid — from $11.39 in May to $13.03 per hour, which Wheatsville employees are using as a wage standard in Austin, according to former employee Michael Conti.

In May, the Wheatsville Staff Solidarity Collective published an anonymous open letter raising concerns about employee wages. A petition demanding that all Wheatsville staff be paid a living wage was published alongside the letter and has received signatures from more than 1,000 people.

Wheatsville pays employees starting at $9 an hour, according to the petition.

“It is not unreasonable to ask that a cooperative dedicated to ‘non-exploitation’ should attempt to provide a living wage for its employees,” the petition read.

According to the statement, the Wage Task Force’s goals are to define a living wage for employees and address fairness in lowering wages when dealing with new employees versus tenured employees. The Wage Task Force said it has not yet come up with a timeline for completion.

“It is a difficult task that we have set out to accomplish, but all of us together are working to achieve a compensation rate that is not only satisfactory but will make Wheatsville a wage leader in our community,” members of the Wheatsville Wage Task Force said in a statement.

Conti, who worked as a Wheatsville employee from 2007 to 2013, published an open letter on Sept. 8, because he said he felt responsible as a former employee and current owner at Wheatsville Food Co-op. Conti said the co-op’s ultimate purpose is to create a self-empowering community that promotes social, environmental and economic justice.

“When the first open letter was published in May, it spoke loud and clear about what I’d been concerned about for many years,” Conti said. “I was excited to see someone on staff be vocal, but I think the fact that it was anonymous speaks to a level of frustration there.”

Conti said if Wheatsville was organized differently, then it may be able to pay its employees a living wage. It’s up to the co-op’s nearly 17,000 owners, as consumers and employees, to demand changes in wages, Conti said.

“There’s a disconnect in using a traditional, hierarchical business model, because with this model, you do have to pay the people in higher positions higher salaries, which can lead to real inefficiencies,” Conti said.

Dan Gillotte, chief executive grocer of Wheatsville Food Co-op, said in response to the collective’s letter that, to create short-term relief, the co-op would raise entry-level wages from $9 to $9.50 per hour, and that the Wage Task Force would also be formed to recommend future changes.

“As an independent business in Austin, we are constantly juggling the costs of doing business in an increasingly competitive environment, with the rising cost of living in a city that is seeing an unprecedented rise in population,” Gilotte said in a statement.