Ocean Beach People’s Food directors take over from founders

Why was the Gang of Four fired?

A month after it began, the workers’ revolt is over. The two-week-old rebel government has been toppled. Its leader and his three top lieutenants have been exiled. Several other “subversive elements,” in the words of one loyalist, have left voluntarily. And the transformation of the Ocean Beach People’s Food Cooperative from a workers’ collective to a corporation run by a board of directors is now complete.

The workers who in the early Seventies had established the vegetarian food and natural products store on Voltaire Street first saw the gray cloud of capitalism approach their socialistic utopia two years ago. The store was losing money, and after several stormy meetings, the workers decided on a compromise between idealism and pragmatism. To reduce taxes, the collective became a California corporation. To raise operating capital, shares in the new corporation were sold to both workers and consumers in the form of twelve-dollar annual membership fees that entitled each shareholder to a ten-percent discount on purchases. And to preserve the spirit of the old collective, the articles of incorporation mandated that the newly elected board of directors – consisting of four consumers and four workers – “shall delegate the management of the cooperative to the worker members,” which meant that managerial decisions would be arrived at collectively, just as before.

For a while, this odd mix of capitalism and socialism worked well, and the Ocean Beach People’s Food Cooperative finished its first year as a corporation with a profit of $11,000. This year, however, the red ink began to flow again, and by October, says chief financial officer Bob Corlew, the store had already lost more than $7000.

So in the middle of last month, the board of directors abruptly seized control of the store from the workers who had founded it. They voted to appoint five managers, three of whom also sat on the board. (The only other worker-director is from Rebel Bakers, a sister store to People’s.) At the same time, directors voted to institute several policy changes, including no longer allowing workers to buy food on credit, prohibiting them from eating at the deli counter during their breaks, and warning them to “use good judgment in socializing” or risk termination

According to Corlew, one of the three directors on the new management team, the board’s actions were prompted by allegations that several workers were dealing drugs in the store and by growing concern that a lack of strong management was causing the cooperative to lose money. “Working conditions were too lax,” Corlew says. “Workers were spending too much time socializing, both with friends and with other workers, to properly do their jobs. And there were probably $200 or $300 in personal phone calls going out every month, not counting the time they spent on the phone while getting paid.”

To worker Monte Rosen, however, the board’s takeover was a blatant violation of the articles of incorporation. “The workers weren’t necessarily opposed to a managerial structure,” he says, “just to the way it was done. The board of directors acted without consulting the workers, and we felt we had been denied our voice.” A few days after the board decision, Rosen began circulating a “worker’s rights petition,” demanding that the workers be allowed to vote on the new “operational policies introduced to us.” Within a week, twenty-six of the cooperative’s thirty workers had signed the petition, and on October 24, a majority of the workers voted to repeal the board-approved policy changes and replace the management team with one of their own.

The workers’ victory, however, was short lived. On November 15, at their next monthly meeting, the board of directors nullified the worker vote and reinstated their previously appointed managers and policy changes. They also voted to fire Rosen and his three most vocal supporters – Charlotte Ljundquist, Kuni Ellithorpe, and a deli worker known only as “Faron.”

Director manager Bob Corlew insists the Gang of Four were fired primarily because they were “poor workers” who didn’t take their jobs seriously. “You should have seen it,” he says. “The week before they were fired, Charlotte and Kuni and Faron were laughing and joking.” Revenge, he claims, “has nothing to do with it” – except in the case of rebel leader Rosen. “He had an attitude problem, and he fought the board of directors,” Corlew says. “It’s one thing to express an opinion, but to organize, organize to make sure things happen… If he wants to organize a union, he should get paid by the union and not by the shop.”

The Gang of Four, however, aren’t giving up just yet. They intend to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that they were dismissed because of their efforts to organize workers – something Corlew admits, at least in the case of Monte Rosen – in direct violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which states, “All employees have the right to form, join, or assist labor organizations … for the purposes of collective bargaining or mutual aid or protection.”

And already, rebels Rosen, Ljundquist, Ellithorpe and Faron are getting plenty of support. Several other workers have since resigned in protest to the firings, and another, still employed, says he wants “to get out of here as soon as I can… I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see this place get slapped or shut down,” he says. “What the board of directors has done, first in taking over management and then in firing theses four people is a travesty. They ruined the whole philosophy of the store, why it was established, and what kept it going for fifteen years.”

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