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HP Co-op Vote Underway

Bolstered by the possibility of a new financing package, supporters of the Hyde Park Co-op have launched a new website, savethecoop.com, just days before ballots in a membership vote on the future of the financially-beleagured organization are due.

All along, Co-op supporters have been playing catch-up to a well-orchestrated campaign by the University of Chicago to shut down the organization, including what Co-op supporters call bluffs and threats by the university.

Ballots on the future of the 75-year-old cooperative society have been mailed to 19,000 members and must be received by December 12.

 “The university set it up to make it almost impossible to organize against them,” said Jay Mulberry, a retired principal who is the Co-op’s webmaster and creator of savethecoop.com.

“There’s no time,” said Amelia Tucker, president of the Chicago Joint Board of RWDSU, which represents Co-op employees.  “I think they planned it that way.”

Tucker has sought union financing to keep the Co-op afloat, “but two weeks is not enough time — especially when you are talking about $2 million.”

Everyone seemed surprised by the amount of support for saving the cooperative grocery at a town hall meeting November 18 (see our previous post).  Mulberry said he went to the meeting prepared to support the university’s offer of a $4 million “debt workout” plan, which would forgive rent owed by the Co-op for its 55th Street store (located in a shopping center owned by the university), pay off other debtors and bring in a new store.

He was won over by presentations by two Co-op board members for an alternative plan to seek financing to keep the organization going — ideally through Chapter 11 debtor-in-posession financing that would enable it to shed a longterm lease for a shuttered store at on 47th Street. (This is dubbed Proposal B on the membership ballot; the University’s, backed by board president James Poueymirou and a majority of board members, is Proposal A.)  Judging by the audience response, hundreds of others were also won over to the alternative plan.

One of the objections at the meeting was that the university wasn’t saying what store would replace the Co-op; at the organization’s board meeting on November 26, UC real estate director Jo Reizner said it would be Treasure Island or Dominick’s.  Many believe the former has the inside track.

It wasn’t until about November 27 that a website supporting Proposal A, hungry4change.org, was launched by a university consultant.  Subsequently Hungry4change produced thousands of anti-Co-op fliers which were handed out and mailed community-wide, with support from the Southeast Chicago Commission, the university’s community arm, and Alderman Toni Preckwinkle.

 [In the final week of balloting a telemarketing firm was reportedly calling Co-op members on behalf of Hungry4Change (12-12-07).]

Also on November 27, Hank Webber, the university’s vice president for community affairs, sent a university-wide e-mail saying the debt workout proposal would be withdrawn if members voted for the alternative.  This made a vote for B seem more risky, since failure to obtain financing could mean a drawn-out liquidation process and months without a grocery.

Savethecoop.com says this position is both “blackmail” and a bluff — the university wouldn’t shoot itself in the foot just out of spite.

It’s not a bluff, said Deborah Halpern, a p.r. consultant for the university who said she also represents the Co-op.  “The university did not want to force an option on [members] that they did not approve,” she said. “The university is trying to come to grips with what to do” if B passes, she added.

But the move cut both ways — adding motivation for members who are disenchanted by the Co-op’s recent performance to support A, but raising resentment among residents who think the university has too much power in the community.

 On November 28 the Hyde Park Herald contained a letter by Co-op board secretary James Withrow (posted in this pdf) saying the informational letter going out with the ballots (updated version here) and signed “The Board” had not been approved by the full board and was “illegitimate.”  Halpern disputes his account.

Support for the Co-op was slow to form amid the confusion.  It was clearly expressed in Hyde Park Herald editorials (although letters to the editor leaned slightly toward Prop A) and most emphatically in the Evergreen, the Coop’s member newspaper, which came out around December 1 and warned members of university “disinformation” and “Hungry4Lies.”   And at least 130 Co-op members have pledged over $35,000 in a capital drive announced at the town hall meeting [now totalling $65,000 (12-12-07)].

It percolated in a neighbor’s listserve run by Mulberry, which tossed questions around and commented on postings at the pro-university blog, Hyde Park Progress.  Finally Mulberry called a meeting at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club and was surprised when 50 Co-op supporters showed up.

Richard Orlikoff, introduced by Mulberry as “hero” for his late ’90s opposition to the Co-op’s disastrous expansion to a new shopping center on 47th Street (his anti-expansion slate swept one board election but was ignored by the incumbents), spoke in favor of a $2.5 million commercial loan proposal which Poueymirou had just told the Herald is still on the table.

Poueymirou showed up halfway through — and Mulberry told him he should resign as board president if he couldn’t support the Co-op.

Savethecoop.com went up the next day and features explications of “the lure of Proposal A” and “the promise of Proposal B” — as well as FAQs addressing questions ignored elsewhere:  how did the Co-op get in such a mess?  what about the University’s threat? what is Ald. Preckwinkle’s role in the atack on the Co-op?  (Preckwinkle was the main proponent of the 47th Street mall, where the Co-op was anchor tenant in a huge store that has stood vacant since 2006.)

“I’ve been one of the biggest critics of the board for a long time,” Mulberry said, cataloging a list of “horrible decisions.” “And now I’m turning around and saying let’s keep this thing going.”

Bringing in a chain grocery “leaves us with no voice,” he said.  “But if we win this battle we can’t let it slip back to the way it was; we have to take over the board and change things.”

Savethecoop.com calls the Co-op a “democratic center of community involvement” and says: “They want a Treasure Island to attract the gentry.  What we want is a Co-op that serves everybody and responds to everybody.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that after years of ineffective and unpopular general managers, two months ago the Co-op hired Bruce Brandfon, an industry veteran who many think has the capacity to implement extensive improvements, given the resources.  His straight-talking manner is a relief for members used to puffery and evasion from previous GMs — as are storewide price reductions he implemented.

“Nobody thought there was any real hope until the new GM came along,” Mulberry said.

Another little-discussed factor is the prospect of union picketlines at the opening of a new store.  Treasure Island recently won a bitter union decertification campaign at its North Side stores.  “They busted a union,” said RWDSU’s Tucker. “We’re not going to let Treasure Island come in and kick our members to the street.  And we will be asking the community to support our picketline.”

The university has promised Co-op employees would be given interviews in a new store, but Treasure Island might be averse to hiring very many long-time union members.

RWDSU Local 239 members have foregone wage increases for almost five years and given concessions on benefits in order to help the Co-op, Tucker said.  “Many have been working there 30 or 40 years,” she said.  “They’re too old to find new jobs and too young to retire.

“They don’t give a damn what’s going to happen to those people.”

Tucker said Poueymirou met with her at the end of November to give the required 60-day notice, telling her the store would close January 28.  She said she’s “very disappointed.”  For years the board has ignored her complaints about mismanagement, she said. “I’ve been asking questions for a long time and getting no answers.”

Observers give Proposal A the edge in the election — but no one knows.

The new president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, has told the U. of C. Maroon that he has disliked the Co-op since he was a graduate student in the 1970s, and admitted that “everything we’ve been doing” has been “to get them in an orderly exit.”

But he must also be considering how much credibility will be sacrificed by high-pressure tactics — and how many Hyde Parkers, including students and faculty, will be unable to cross a union picketline.

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Category: food, Hyde Park, labor, nonprofits

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One Response

  1. Brenda Murphy says:

    I so appreciated this well-presented, well-
    written piece by Curtis Black.

    Thank you.

    Brenda Murphy


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