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THE BULK STOPS HEREBUMMED-OUT CO-OPERS FEEL THEY'RE BEING MUSCLED OUT AS GENTLE STRENGTH GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS

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Zimbleman claims that if the arithmetic doesn't convince members to reexamine the co-op's structure, the threat of an audit by the Department of Labor and tax agencies usually does the trick. "Is the co-op paying payroll taxes on these discounts they're giving members?" she asks. "Are members claiming these discounts as income? It's a hard thing to argue against. This is essentially compensation for hours put in."

For some cooperatives, like Albuquerque's La Montanita Co-op, costly labor and tax audits are the "final kicker" in convincing members to do away with member-worker discounts. "It's a lot harder to take when someone external comes in," reports Zimbleman. However, she adds, "It makes the passionate meetings go a lot easier."

When it comes to co-op-directed passion, it's hard to ignore Jo Ellen Doney. Easily one of the most outspoken participants at last month's membership melee (she was the woman who cried "Liar!"), the depth of her confrontational ardor is all the more remarkable upon learning she's been involved with the cooperative for all of two months. A by-the-book member fond of quoting the co-op's "people before profits" principle, she's highly offended by any change that would prevent her from "sweeping the floor for my sandwich."

"This is all terribly, terribly distressing to me," says Doney, a clinical psychotherapist who recently moved to the Valley from San Francisco. "I have to consciously make an effort to put it out of my mind or I can't go to sleep. It just breaks my heart to see this beautiful organization changed from something that was good for the people who worked there to something that's good for corporate capitalism."

Able to quote chapter and verse on how proposed changes in the co-op's operation run contrary to the group's bylaws, Doney is unimpressed by the argument that the restructuring trend may be necessary for the survival of food co-ops.

"Child abuse is a trend, too," she counters. "Does that make it right or mean that we should do it?"

Right or wrong, dissension among the ranks is one trend that will probably never disappear from cooperatives.

"Instead of having one boss or ten bosses, you've got however many members there are," says Barb Dagger, Gentle Strength's general manager for the last two years. "And there ain't no way you can keep them all happy."

Pilloried during last month's meeting when a handful of insistent malcontents demanded that she reveal her "bloated salary" (less than $16 an hour) to the membership, Dagger didn't take the attack personally. "Our administrative assistant went over to our record-storage area and pulled the minutes of some old meetings," she says. "Same stuff, same people, different dates."

"The same dynamics that are present now were present ten, 15 or 20 years ago," echoes Mark Fischer. "They might have had little claws and little fangs then; now they've got bigger claws and bigger fangs."

Of course, it's important to remember the co-op wouldn't have gotten off the ground in the first place if hadn't been for some founding members' antiestablishment natures.

"You have to remember that the co-op was basically originated by activists, people who didn't believe in the way that businesses are normally run," says board member Beate Arndt. "A lot of what I was hearing at the meeting is, `We don't want to make a profit. This is not a business, this is a community.'"

But what some of the most vocal members fail to understand, says Arndt, is "that the environment where we do business affects us and we must act accordingly. They seem to think that we're separate and apart from our surrounding community."

Continues Arndt, "It seems that the membership that attends these meetings is more concerned with personal issues rather than the overall issues facing the co-op"--bigger problems she feels could well sink the store if they're not resolved within the year. "Yet, few of these people want to focus on that. They want to focus on nose rings and other things that are more tangible to them."

While conceding that attendees at the meeting were "understandably" upset about possibly losing their discounts, Arndt says that the 4,000-odd members who didn't show up was also a message. Given all the other stresses of everyday life, Arndt concludes, "Most members don't want to spend their Sunday afternoon talking about the place where they buy their groceries."

Nearly three weeks later, although tempers have cooled, the sides are still far apart. Contrary to wildly unfounded rumors circulating through some camps, the committee has not filed any "charges" against agitators at the meeting.

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Dewey Webb