by Joel Sronce
Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash
In mid-May, Joel Sronce sat down at Buna Café with three workers from Mariposa, a food co-op in West Philly. In March of 2022, Mariposa workers on the floor-staff — non-managerial staff and non-administrative staff — successfully won a union contract and are now union-affiliated with UFCW Local 1776-KS. Upon ratification, the workers immediately won a higher starting hourly wage that increased from $13 to $15; their first 401(k); benefits protections; an annual cost-of-living adjustment, including their first one since 2017; and the best grievance process that their union rep had ever seen.
Will Inglis (he/him) has lived in Philly for 15 years and has worked at Mariposa for almost three years. He was on the organizing committee for the union, as well as on the bargaining committee when writing the contract.
Mika Romano (they/them) was raised in the Philly area and has lived in the city for about 10 years. They’ve been at Mariposa a little under a year, and got involved in the bargaining committee early in 2022.
Victoria Lambert (she/her), who could only stay for the very beginning of the interview, has lived in West Philly since 1996. She joined the co-op 17 years ago as a member-owner and just started working at the co-op last year.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
JS: First off, can y’all talk about the struggle that led to the movement to unionize?
WI: So, at the beginning of the pandemic, we organized at the co-op to get hazard pay, because we weren’t getting any. People in the community were actually also demanding that we get hazard pay. I sent out an email to all of my co-workers and said that we need to organize to make sure that they provide it for us. I was written up for something else very shortly afterward, but really it was in retaliation for demanding hazard pay.
Later on, when somebody came down with COVID, management didn’t follow the plan that they had communicated to us. We were told that if somebody on a shift got COVID, the whole shift would go home for two weeks, but they sent that one person home and nobody else. We decided right then and there that we had to organize.
MR: You know, when I started working there, I started seeing the signs of needing to unionize. But the more I got to know management there, and especially with waves of COVID and seeing how they behaved, I just got very galvanized. And Will, even your email about not getting paid did that, too.
WI: We started the bargaining process in May of ‘21, so it took us about five months to get to the table. They voluntarily recognized us, but they didn’t have a choice in the matter. Mariposa is very image-conscious; they have a social-justice mission statement. They’re afraid of any sort of public action against them. We got to the table and started negotiating with them, and they hired this scumbag lawyer. So that’s where member money is going towards: An anti-union lawyer.
MR: It’s a co-op, but it doesn’t act like a co-op in its transparency to the workers or its community or even its member-owners.
VL: And even before the union, there was the discomfort, and the lack of presence in the community. In the last six or seven years, it has been more acknowledged and shopped at by the community, but that is a limited community of newer people coming to this area. The people who have been here, and who built these houses and all of this stuff around here, do not, unfortunately, shop at the co-op regularly, which has always been a problem for me. Mothers cannot survive by shopping at the co-op, and we are in a food desert. There is nowhere to get stuff as a single mom. From Mariposa, there’s this talk of “concern” and “great care” for the community, but only in words. This is my challenge. I take it personally. And I’m angry at the discomfort workers have to feel when we’re there; we should not come and have to feel angst. It’s ridiculous. We should not have to feel angst.
JS: Speaking of the workers and the community: A lot of people talk about co-ops as a way forward toward collective ownership. What has this experience informed you about the ability or inability for the co-op method to actually realize power being in the hands of workers and the community?
WI: There are these ideals there of workplace democracy, but it’s on paper only. It’s supposed to be a democratic organization, but it’s not. It’s run like a mini Whole Foods; it’s run very much top-down. There are two people there — well, really one — and their word is all that matters. It’s the General Manager, who now calls himself the Co-operative Executive Officer. The CEO. And there’s a board that governs it, but the board surrenders all of their authority to run the place to this one person, who almost runs the place like a baseball general manager.
The organization is so top-heavy with administrative staff, who all make more than we do. They have a full-time communications person; they have a full-time member-services coordinator; and obviously they have a full-time bookkeeper. They’re a business that makes good money, and they are raising prices to make up for any losses as well. They’re cutting hours in ways that are punitive toward us, and also harmful for the business.
MR: I just think the priorities are completely out of whack. A lot of people there, including myself, feel that one of our priorities should be making prices accessible to the existing community. Using the profits of this place to do that, as well as, you know, treating the workers right, too, obviously. Something that will work within and get feedback from the existing community. That’s a sentiment that everybody who I’ve talked to about this there agrees with. Management will say, “We’re trying to meet these thresholds.” Why? What for? You know, like, who are we serving? And I think that if it were a democratic workplace, that would be an actual question.
It’s gas-lighting on a grand scale, because they act like we’re all on the same team that’s like “working towards justice together” or something. At least other businesses admit like, “We just want to make money,” but Mariposa is like, “We’re all working towards justice together here.” Meanwhile you’ll be at one of these table sessions, and they’ll tell you that you’re not worth X amount of money an hour. In a gentrifying neighborhood. We’re a store with a lot of queer employees, myself included, and a lot of Black employees.
WI: They have signs about how “This is a hate-free place” all around the store, with a list of people you’re not allowed to hate on there. But classism is not included. Nothing about hating on poor people. Or treating staff there like they’re the help.
I was thinking the other day about progressive spaces I’ve worked in, volunteered in, been a part of over time, and how easily taken over they are by people who co-opt the language and can just fluently recite shit like that at you.
MR: If you’re not even at the point morally where you can back that up with dollars and cents, like, what the fuck are you doing?
WI: But [even with everything happening at] Mariposa, we have a means to seize control of it through the members because it is owned by the community, like people who live in this neighborhood. And while most of them are absentee owners and don’t give a shit about what goes on there, there’s an activist base that’s involved in it. Like this place was started as a buyers’ club in the 1970s because this place was a food desert. Families got together.
I want this [unionization] project to serve as an example for progressive spaces that are full of shit. That we could show people that just because you work for a co-op grocery nonprofit organization, you don’t have to take a lot of shit. And you don’t have to take it when people try to apply guilt to you, that, “Oh, you shouldn’t ask for more because you’re hurting the cause if you ask for more.”
MR: If there are going to be hierarchical structures and there’s money involved and profit involved, there really has to be a strong set of checks and balances. For this place, an example that we could provide is that it’s possible to keep places on their course of remaining places that do work for some kind of justice and treat people who work there with basic dignity, and give you the ability to survive and everything.
It’s a lot of work. But the reality is that it’s very, very much true that we are the powerful ones in the situation; workers really do have a lot of power. And knowing that power and knowing that your relationships that you have at work, and networks and everything: If those are built and if you can find common causes with people – like, you know, not being paid well enough is a great one! – you can really organize. I mean, it can absolutely be done. And I think we’re seeing that all around the country more, and I know Will probably feels this way too, but: Everyone, feel free to reach out to us and talk about it!
I’ve been in jobs before where I’ve felt very depressed and hopeless about change, and I think this is kind of the other side of that. Just realizing that possibility that you can win: It’s huge. It’s fucking huge.
JS: There have been some movements from workers today outside of the behemoth unions of the past. We’re seeing workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and elsewhere starting to organize under their own banners. A lot of it has been exciting and successful. In that context: Why did you decide to take the route of the UFCW?
WI: Just looking at some of the other actions that happened in the neighborhood at the same time, like at Milk & Honey Market: They’re gone now. The workers walked out because the owners refused to provide them with safety equipment or any hazard pay, and the owner just shut the place down. They formed what I believe they called an independent union, and all lost their jobs. Another place up the street that’s still around but closing — Dock Street Brewery — they fired their entire staff and made them beg for their jobs back when they reopened. So we decided we had to affiliate with a large union to protect ourselves. I called UFCW right around Christmas of 2020, and they got back to me right away, and we started organizing.
I think our representation through UFCW is an advantage because of the experience they have in handling things like getting people their jobs back. Just the team of lawyers they have alone is enough, and I want to continue with them indefinitely and just improve on our contract as we go. There are a lot more benefits that I want in our next contract that we don’t currently have, and I want to take away a lot of the restrictions that our contract currently has. I’m not happy having a no-strike clause; I think that management should have an obligation to keep us satisfied, and that we should be able to walk off the job. We gave that up in this contract to get it done and to keep people working and get people paid. That was a priority. People were starving basically: $13 an hour with runaway inflation; we had to get this done, and that was a way to get that quickly. But no, in the next contract, I want that out. I want no-strike clauses out of everyone’s contracts. I think that’s one of the mechanizations of the business union, of the CIO, from the ‘50s, that sort of thing. I want to serve as an example of ending that. That’s something we can talk about in our next contract. I think that we should be able to stop work if something happens that we don’t agree with.
MR: Big unions, big institutions and politicians aren’t necessarily coming to save us. But they are there, and we can interact with those structures in ways that can benefit us, too.
JS: Going forward, in a perfect world, what would be the best outcome?
WI: Oh, we intend to make Mariposa a workers’ paradise. We’re going to make it a place where you can make a good living. This first three-year contract is step one. We’re going to seize control of the place, the people who work there, through the board, and we’re going to run the place.
MR: And people [members] do feel ready to get up in arms to help us, which is great.
JS: Can I print that?
MR: Print it!
JS: Alright! Finally, we’re seeing a lot of intersections between the labor movement and different movements for human rights. Most recently, of course, for reproductive rights. How do you understand these as part of a similar struggle? How can they support each other?
WI: Educating people. Using unions as a means for education. Letting people know that all these attacks on everyone: It’s all connected. It’s all about controlling underclass people. Controlling working people. Like, we know rich people are always going to have access to abortion.
MR: Yeah, I would say it really is all connected. Women’s rights, trans rights, queer rights, labor rights, like, the Right tries to attack all of those. Traditional, Christian, white-supremacist theocracy, whatever, capitalism, like, that’s a unified force that’s coming for all of us, so we absolutely should be on the same side. Something that labor wins do is that they let people know that like, hey, we can actually win if we organize. That’s an exciting thing. Even a small win is an exciting thing. And so I think just that brain expansion, that brain power – like “We can win if we organize” – that applies to every movement.
Something about building common cause with people too is that it opens the door to empathize with someone’s struggle that might not be your own. Like a co-worker who has a struggle; maybe you don’t share their identity, and they’re being threatened: Common causes could expand your mind. And I think that is how solidarity operates. The more we realize we’re interconnected, the more we connect together.