The Wedge Co-op hopes for new beginning

Curtis Neff (left) and Bernie Hesse helped organize workers at the Wedge's warehouse
photo by City Pages

A great joy spread through the Wedge Co-op after the iconic grocery store fired its general manager, Lindy Bannister, last month.

"Everyone is celebrating," texted one current employee of the store. Another Wedge worker told us there was a party, complete with piñata, to mark the occasion.

Nobody was expecting Bannister, who led the co-op for more than seven successful years and serves on high-profile boards such as the National Cooperative Business Association, to lose her job.

"The co-op community is close-knit, so word spread fast," says Tom Vogel, marketing manager at Seward Co-op. "I think most people were surprised."

Judging by the bottom line, Bannister was a terrific general manager: Under her leadership, the Wedge was breaking sales records left and right. In the past year, the co-op's daily customer count was up dramatically, according to financial manager Elka Malkis in a recent report. "The store hasn't gotten any bigger and yet we have seen 210 more customers each day, on average, compared to the same period last year."

The Wedge board hasn't explained why it dismissed a high-performing general manager, but for years Bannister had been the focal point of discontent among Wedge workers in an ongoing battle that had recently come to a head. The co-op's financial success belied a simmering feud between the workers and management that in many ways represents a struggle for the soul of the co-op that is still being played out — a struggle between the grassroots, tofu-and-granola image of the store and what many employees saw as an increasingly corporate mentality, including a top-down management style and an anti-union stance.

Earlier this year, when Wedge management hired from the outside to fill a management position in its warehouse, passing over its own employees, warehouse workers mounted a successful effort to unionize. One employee called the outside hire a "slap in the face" and said employees organized for the purpose of "getting a little bit more democracy back into the co-op."

The Wedge responded by hiring a law firm for union negotiations that had a reputation for being strongly anti-union. When City Pages reported on the hiring, co-op members complained to the Wedge's board, which abruptly dumped its legal representatives in favor of a more neutral law firm.

Still, the incident solidified the feelings of some current and former employees that the Wedge prioritizes profits over people.

"All the things that I like about my job have to do with the facade of this being a community co-op," a current employee says. "All the things I don't like about this job are the underpinnings about how it's really very corporate."

To underscore the point, this employee says there used to be a bulletin board outside Bannister's office where workers posted photos and newspaper clippings, an homage to the Wedge and its employees. That homey touch was taken down by Bannister and replaced with sales charts tracking the co-op's financial progress, according to our source.

The Wedge employees' latest organizing drive wasn't the first time Wedge workers turned to a union for support, either. Frustrated by what they felt were low wages and unfair termination policies, a group of store employees tried to unionize in late 2005.

Donna McKirdy, who left the Wedge in 2007 after 12 years at the co-op, was one of those employees. McKirdy is a true believer in the co-op's mission, and she is described in one evaluation by her boss, Elizabeth Archerd, as someone whose top priority is that she "never leave the co-op."

Even today, after quitting the store, McKirdy remains as willing to praise the Wedge for what she believes it does right as she is to criticize its perceived shortcomings.

"What they've done to protect organic standards is heroic," McKirdy says, before adding: "A living wage is not something the Wedge is a champion of."

Once management found out workers were talking with UFCW 1789, then-general manager Bannister sent out a letter discouraging the workers' efforts.

"Any of you who have been union members will know that there is no significant advantages and perhaps significant disadvantages to such membership," Bannister wrote in a message to all staff.

Bannister asked the workers to contrast the ability to deal directly with management "with paying someone to get between you and the Wedge."

(Bannister has not responded to repeated interview requests.)

Current Wedge President Sarah Wovcha understands talking with your wallet. Like most of the Wedge's members, she's a true believer in the co-op, having joined in the early 2000s due to her passion for environmental justice and sustainability issues.

Wovcha says she doesn't recall much about the failed organizing drive in 2005 and doesn't remember Bannister's letter. What she does know is that the Wedge's board of directors sat down after the warehouse unionized and decided that the issue was one for the board.

"To that end, we have determined that it's most consistent with our mission to remain neutral and respectful of the employees' rights to unionize if they so choose," Wovcha says.

Relations between management and workers seem to have turned a corner lately. Curtis Neff, the union's representative at the warehouse, says there has been a shift in tone since Bannister was replaced.

"They've been very friendly. We've worked with Doug Christensen [the Wedge's attorney and negotiator] in our retail negotiations before, and he's very thorough," Neff says. "There's never been any hard feelings at the table or any theatrics or anything like that. It's pretty straightforward."

On Wednesday, July 18, the Wedge will sit down with its warehouse workers and continue negotiating a contract.

They've already "reached agreement on a lot of good language items" for the workers' contract, says Jennifer Christensen, the union's lead negotiator. "We are heading into economic issues."

Also underway is an attempt to hire a replacement general manager for the store. The Wedge's board is now in the process of hiring a search firm.

In the meantime, the Wedge will be just fine without a permanent general manager, board members say.

"One of the things that enables us to not have a full-time interim GM right now is because the Wedge employees are so amazing," Wovcha says. "They're just amazingly competent, amazingly dedicated. The place runs like a well-oiled machine."

[UPDATE: Wedge board president Sarah Wovcha contacted City Pages after publication of this story with the following clarification: "I want to point out that neither I nor any board member has stated that Lindy Bannister was terminated." Wovcha has consistently declined to discuss the nature of Bannister's departure except to say that she is no longer an employee of the Wedge.]

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