What do you think of REI? Co-op or Faux-op?

Recently REI began advertising the word Co-op on its clothing and in its ad campaigns much more than in previous years. It appears to be driving home the point that it's a Co-op, but how it can legitimately label itself as so is certainly a point worth exploring. As far as I can tell, the extent of their co-op reach is the membership they sell granting the customer/member a lifetime of 10% dividends on full priced items, along with some other minor discounts on outdoor classes and company organized adventure travel. There is no voting in the actual workplace, but they're fond of reminding their employees that manager doors are always open. They pay their workers (the ones who are chiefly responsible for selling their merchandise) a little over 12 dollars an hour (the same rate as Dominos Pizza), yet their CEO hauls in multiple millions as his base salary (2+ mil. along with bonuses). The previous CEO, Sally Jewel, got her start in the oil industry, and then moved into banking. After being REI's CEO for a number of years she landed a job as the secretary of the interior under the Obama administration. In 2016 REI then partnered with the National Parks service while Jewel was Secretary. The current CEO (as well as previous ones) have stated that REI is first and foremost a retail company. It now sells master cards, and asks their employees to promote them to the customers/members. I recently took a job with this company, as I was curious how it worked on the inside, and its been a total let down from a democracy in the workplace standpoint. It's not much different than working for a normal retail company as far as I can tell (other than being given a discount on gear that you may or may not be able to afford) , and the membership seems roughly the same as the standard member card you get from most retail outlets. Personally, I have a CVS card that gives me a discount off their shelf price immediately, and an AMC card that lets me see movies for five dollars less on Tuesdays. Neither are co-ops, and I didn't have to pay for either of those cards. Granted, I can't cast a vote once a year to elect a member of the board of those companies, which I can do with REI. The jury is still out on how meaningful this activity actually is. The long and short of it is I feel that REI is simply masquerading as a co-op. Maybe once upon a time it had that in its DNA, but I just don't see how anyone could truthfully classify it in this fashion now. Moreover, I find that broadcasting itself as a cooperative when it clearly is not, only ends up harming the idea of a democratically structured company/economy, and plants a false idea in the minds of its employees, and members/customers. If you have time, I'd certainly appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Warm regards

Official response from submitted

There are quite a few companies across the world that are or call themselves cooperatives. It is an interesting acknowledgement that the notion of a cooperative enterprise has a long historical appeal that can be useful to enterprises now as well. And to be fair here, there really are various, multiple meanings for the word "cooperative." Or, to say the same thing in other words, there are different types of cooperative enterprise. To address your specific comments on REI, there is a kind of cooperative called a "consumer cooperative." In that kind, it is the consumers who cooperate as buyers of the enterprise in question often getting, as a result of the cooperative organization of consumption, discounts on purchases, a vote on various aspects of the enterprise's policies, and also sometimes ownership rights or shares. Another kind of coop is an "ownership cooperative" in which rather than having ownership achieved say through shares sold to individuals via stock markets, ownership is instead vested in consumers of the enterprise's products or its employees or still other groupings of people. What I want to stress here is that consumer coops and/or ownership coops (or coops that combine both of these kinds into a composite) are not the same things as "worker coops" or "producer coops." It is only in the latter that the organization of the workplace, of the work itself, is made cooperative: it is only in them that the enterprise becomes democratic in terms of the basic enterprise decisions (what, how and where to produce and what to do with the profits) being made in a one person, one vote electoral manner. Consumer and owner coops may choose to also organize their respective workplaces in a democratic manner and thereby become also worker coops, but most have so far not done that. Some have. REWI seems, from your description, to be one of the many who take cooperation only so far and believe that they must or should NOT democratic the workplace, the work process itself. In any case, the project of our group - Democracy at Work - is precisely focused on worker coops as the priority socially now. By that I mean a transition from the undemocratic, top-down, hierarchical organization of work typical of capitalist enterprises to the alternative system based on worker coops as the basis of enterprise organization.


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  • responded with submitted 2017-01-07 11:03:41 -0500
  • published this page in Ask Prof. Wolff 2017-01-06 11:24:51 -0500

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