Behind the scenes at La Montañita
The statements on this website are opinions of various people at La Montañita Co-op and are not offered as statements of fact by Take Back the Co-op, but are presented to demonstrate the depth of dissatisfaction and concern held by workers, member-owners, and board members.
Below are views from inside the Co-op by the people who work there. This is a small sampling of the more than 30 workers we have spoken with in the past five months.
Current workers have asked that their names be removed because they fear retaliation for speaking honestly about what is happening at our Co-op. Considering that our Co-op was recently found to have violated Federal Law by retaliating against workers on four separate charges, their concerns seem warranted.
As member-owners, it's imperative that we know what's happening in our business. If nothing else, please read some of the comments that have been highlighted in bold.
Worker 1: "Many of my coworkers (myself included) have a decade or more of experience in the natural foods industry. We have knowledge and ideas about ways to help the Co-op continue to succeed, ways that would stay in line with our values and improve the integrity of the organization. Rather than engage with us, the Board and new leadership has chosen to enact policies that not only are counter to the Co-op's mission, but that actively seem to hurt the business of the stores.
At best the new leadership is particularly bad at both communication and positive guidance, and at worst they are simply bad at business. They have been condescending, patronizing, disorganized, and demanding without offering any rationale or explanation, and have blamed the failures of their own programs on the workers.
If the Co-op's goal is simply to increase revenue, while losing profits, anyone could have done that before. The fact is, if our profits have dropped significantly, even just in one department, that is poor business. All departments should be able to be successful.
Departments and stores that were doing fine, have been disturbed, damaged, and demeaned until they are now failing, and morale has been degraded to points of alternating anger, apathy, and disgust."
- La Montañita Worker with 15+ Years of Experience
Worker 2: "Dear Member-Owners of La Montañita Co-op,
I believe food cooperatives should be a vehicle for positive social change, beginning with the immediate community and then broadening to improving the living conditions of people worldwide. That is why I choose to be an employee and member-owner of La Montañita Co-op.
Under the current leadership—upper management and the Board of Directors—power, greed, and fear have taken hold, breeding corruption, bullying, and oppressive behaviors. Where we employees were once respected for our experience, knowledge, and work ethic, we are now demeaned and belittled. I feel we are being set up to fail, giving them the right to fire us at their whim.
We have seen people shuffled into jobs they were not hired for. We have seen employees prodded and nagged until “deciding” to retire. We have seen department hours cut, which means less money for employees who are already low paid.
We have a number of employees on EBT to try to make ends meet, yet we have no idea how much the GM, Operations Manager, and HR director make.
What I see happening is not sustainable. As one of many examples, we have an extreme amount of waste in the produce department. This is a result of too much product that we cannot sell before it goes bad. In my opinion, the tactics they are using do not belong in a cooperative atmosphere. We are destroying our relationships with vendors and distributors.
I see other highly suspicious, unethical behaviors that I cannot share. I believe La Montañita Co-op will close its doors with the current leaders in charge.
As member-owners, the only voice we have is in who we allow on the Board of Directors. They are responsible for hiring and overseeing the General Manager who has control of store operations. We do not have time to wait for the election in November, which only has the potential to replace a few of the seats. We must act NOW to take back the board and save our Co-op.
As a concerned employee and fellow member-owner, I thank you for your support."
- La Montañita Worker with 5+ Years of Experience
Worker 3: "When I first came to the Co-op there was a sense of community, family, trust, and transparency. Once the new GM showed up, that was replaced with mistrust and divisiveness. He seems to love conflict and pitting people against each other. He is extremely autocratic and counter to the values of our Co-op.
When the “Clean Fifteen” was first introduced, we noticed that they were trying to slip it by our customers. They weren’t labeling it properly and they encouraged us to not tell people what it was. This attempt to deceive our members and shoppers has been a theme ever since. The GM is a master of doubletalk and manipulation.
Since the GM has taken over there has been no transparency. We’re even starting to see what might be fabrication of financial data. Some of the numbers aren’t even possible. Many of us are concerned that the GM is having the data changed to make him look better. If inaccurate financial information is being officially reported I’m concerned our Co-op could be guilty of fraud.
One of our stores unionized and I’ve heard about a lot of retaliation against those workers since. Why would a Co-op be so anti-labor? I just don’t get it. It seems like our Co-op has become almost the opposite of what it was before.
Many of us have tried talking to the Board and they have not responded. They seem to be content to let the GM do whatever he wants.
You need to know that our Co-op is not being responsibly managed or overseen by the Board you elected. They have stepped out of their responsibility and we have a rogue GM doing tremendous damage. We are losing valuable workers who have decades of experience and dedication to our mission and we may be losing money and committing financial fraud.
We need you to stand up and expose what they have done. I recommend a full financial investigation. I’m afraid of what we are going to find, but we have to stand up for what is right. We can’t let these people corrupt our Co-op."
- La Montañita worker with 10+ Years of Experience
Worker 4: "It was refreshing for me to come from a large corporation to a smaller business, where I felt part of something bigger and didn’t feel like I was just an employee. I felt a sense of connection and ownership to a wonderful, unique community, which made me want to contribute to its values of Integrity, Community, Dedication, and Respect. I joined my colleagues in providing the highest quality food choices and service to our members. In turn, we were provided with a superb, safe working environment, where we could thrive and utilize our talents and expertise.
Since the new GM, Dennis Hanley, took over in December 2015, the changes at La Montañita have been in conflict with what the Co-op has always stood for.
Under the guidance of our new GM and the decisions of the Board, this culture is deteriorating at an alarming pace. Their decisions are affecting the culture of the Co-op and hurting the hardworking staff members who give their best every day.
Dennis’s decisions to cut hours and positions are almost crippling us, creating a stressful working environment, and holding us back from our previous (and potential) success. Meanwhile, him and the rest of his upper management staff (friends and former colleagues of his) are being paid high wages without having to worry. The labor cuts are hurting our wellbeing, the experiences of member-owners, and the profit and financial health of our Co-op. Meanwhile, Dennis and his upper managers personally profit at our expense.
Our GM is good at telling people what they want to hear and even better at sidestepping questions. I've never seen him give a straightforward answer to a question. He is evasive and rambles on without being specific. His insincerity makes it difficult to take anything he says at face value. When he comes in to talk to us, he just talks at us. He treats us like we are the problem, which is ironic because many of these issues didn't exist before he took over.
Under Dennis’s leadership, profit margins have become terrible. So much waste is being generated it’s mind-boggling. Hundreds of dollars of produce are being thrown out on a daily/weekly basis. We toss what we can't sell, which affects our bottom line: the actual money the Co-op makes.
The Board has been of little help because they've put their full trust in Dennis and his decisions, without question. I feel it is gross negligence on their part to ignore the issues that are being created by Dennis. The Board listens solely to him without factoring in our perspective or concerns.
At one of the meetings I attended, the President of the Board, Arianna stated that they "Didn't know Shit from Shinola about business," and while it was quite amusing to them, it was a stunning revelation to me. That’s a scary thing to hear from a group of people who were elected to ensure the financial success of our Co-op.
We are losing highly qualified, wonderful, experienced people, some whom have been with the Co-op for many years. There are cases where staff is being forced out, while others have just had enough! It would be interesting to know just how many people are no longer with the Co-op since Dennis started.
There are still many of us left who believe we can restore the integrity, community, and values the Co-op has always been known for, and that we can return the Co-op to a successful, thriving business. It is going to take a lot of changes, starting with the way the Board is run and the people who are on it. I think it needs to be updated with people who have some business sense. Change isn't easy, but it is necessary when things are no longer functioning at an optimum level, and right now the faith and trust in our current Board members is non-existent.
Many of us are doing our best to come in and do our jobs despite the circumstances, because we actually care about what is happening within the Co-op and with our staff members. It is difficult to keep a positive attitude all the time and the stress level is at an all time high, which is something I'd never witnessed before Dennis arrived. It is truly hurtful and sad to see. My hope is that things can be resolved and the Co-op can again be the wonderful place it used to be to shop and work for. I send out my blessings to everyone from shoppers to staff members, and I hope I will still be around to see the Co-op evolve.
- La Montañita Worker with 15+ Years of Experience
Worker 5: "As long as I have worked at the Co-op, I have observed the Co-op paying to fly certain staff and board members to CDS and NCG [National Co+op Grocers] events all over the country. Most of these trips, in my opinion, are not necessary business expenses but are part of indoctrinating people into a corporate mindset.
In addition, it’s wasteful spending of Co-op member-owner money. I feel Co-op money could be better spent in a responsible way that would improve working conditions, benefit all employees, and provide a more positive experience for all who shop there.
I feel there is a national drive to standardize co-ops and get away from our unique offerings that make us feel like a special community store. Our current GM and upper management are fully on board with this trend to homogenize Co-ops. I am afraid that if La Montañita and the 150 or so Co-ops across the country who are a part of NCG all grow to look and feel similar and carry the exact same products, we will drift further from what we should be, which is a true neighborhood community market.
A good example of this is the "Field Day" products that we have recently been required to carry, and another example is the conventional produce in our produce departments. I think change is a very good thing in this industry, but we just have to be careful that we make positive changes. Making changes to become just like any other corporate chain of natural food stores is foolish for two reasons: 1) Because we will never be able to compete with them and 2) Because it will only benefit those at the top who care only about power and money.
I strongly believe that if the people who shop at the Co-op knew the truth about all the things that go on behind the scenes at La Montañita, not one person would walk through our doors tomorrow morning."
- La Montañita Worker with 5+ Years of Experience
Worker 6: "At our first meeting with the new GM, he said, “I want everybody to love me! Not 90% of you, I want 100% of you to love me!” I find it alarming that we have someone in this kind of leadership position who talks like that to staff. He also routinely refers to himself in the third person, saying things like, “You know, Dennis is a good guy.”
In my experience, he comes across as very egotistical; everything is about him. He even tells us stories about how he is persecuted to try to get our sympathy, however, most of the staff I have talked with find him creepy. That’s the word that comes up again and again: creepy.
The GM has created a climate of fear in the store for workers. If you disagree in any way with the new regime you are expendable.
After over ten years in the natural foods sector, I am outraged that our board would hire someone not only with no co-op experience, but also with so little concern for co-op values. Let's take back our Co-op from this undercover coup!"
- La Montañita Worker with 10+ Years of Experience
Worker 7: "I sought employment at La Montañita Co-op five years ago because I believed in co-op principles. After having been self-employed, it was the ideal place for me to work because it was flexible, friendly, and casual. I learned so much about nutrition and developed a deep understanding of why it is important to care about the quality of food, where it comes from, and the practices of the company or farmer who provide it. Working at the Co-op also enabled me to get to know the Co-op community, who rely and trust the Co-op to provide them with the best possible quality choices from sources with ethical business practices.
After the arrival of the new General Manager, the Co-op changed dramatically and the ethics went out the window. The member-owners were not consulted about the many changes that took place. In our cooperative model, a member is an owner. I was a member-owner of our Co-op well before I was an employee.
I resigned my position in the Produce Department of the Rio Grande store because of the dramatic change from co-op culture to corporate culture. But then, it occurred to me, I own this place! It's time, member-owners, to take our Co-op back!"
- Tanya Cole, former La Montañita worker and current member-owner
Worker 8: "Most of my coworkers are scared. There are a few of us who have spoken up for our Co-op’s values, but we see how others are treated when that happens and we’re afraid we’ll lose our jobs. We now work in a culture of fear. Saddest to me has been seeing long-time Co-op managers and staff betray their values and fellow workers because of the intimidation. And it’s getting worse by the month.
The way CDS consulting “trains” people is scary. Martha Whitman doesn’t understand our business, but she is now a paid CDS consultant and it seems like her primary job is to program people to agree with whatever CDS wants. They try to isolate people and make sure we don’t talk to each other, otherwise we’ll share information and prevent their propaganda and misinformation from working on us. They want to keep workers from talking to workers, workers from talking to members, and Santa Fe from talking to Albuquerque. Whenever we do talk we find out that we have been lied to. When we call the GM or the Board on it, they stumble on their words and change the subject. They love to misdirect people and get them thinking about something else. Beware: they are extremely skilled at manipulation.
We need to take back our Co-op. I want you to know that many of us who work in the stores love our mission and support it. And there are much better GM candidates out there who will uphold and defend our Co-op’s values. The GM and these CDS consultants don’t care about our mission or values at all, they want to make money for themselves, that’s it.
I do think there are some board members who may be caught up in this and don’t know what is happening, but they’ve been so inundated with propaganda from CDS and the GM that they may not be able to see what is happening clearly any more.
We need a new board, a new GM, and to get rid of CDS."
- La Montañita worker with 10+ Years of Experience
Worker 9: "Since December 15th, 2015 [when Dennis Hanley was hired as GM], the culture of the Co-op has changed dramatically for the worse. Morale at most locations is extremely low, and employees feel like they're walking on eggshells and waiting for the next shoe to drop. Those of us who have worked numerous years at the Co-op have left or are considering leaving because it's no longer "our" Co-op. Customers are frustrated with changes to product because there's no transparency and the GM doesn't care what the employees' or customers' concerns are. Employees have been forced to move from their original positions to other positions within the Co-op with a "take it or leave it" attitude without consideration of personal and professional goals.
There have been changes in the Co-op that don't fit the cooperative culture and it all stems from a change in leadership at the highest level. The Board has made a mistake with the current GM, but it feels like the Board does not want to see the negative changes that have taken place within the Co-op, and it seems like the Board intends to keep the existing GM regardless of the consequences. The Members' voices must be heard and the Board should strongly consider investigating all activities by the current GM since his tenure with the Co-op began."
- La Montañita worker with 10+ Years of Experience
Worker 10: "Our Co-op was created to be focused on community outreach, quality, transparency, local farming, and fairness. That’s not what our Co-op is anymore. It’s no longer a place I can brag about working at. There is a facade at the Co-op, a blaring difference from what the member/customer sees and the truth of what is really going on.
Our new management looks only at sales graphs from last year to this year to save face and try to show improvements since they took over. They order in bulk and throw away tons of food every day just so the Central Distribution Center can order large amounts of product for a bit cheaper. They’ve turned a deaf ear to the people who are responsible for their salaries, the people who essentially pay the bills and keep the store alive and well: the members.
I've never seen the GM or AGM [Assistant General Manager] make any sort of purchase at my store, which makes me wonder if they even shop at the Co-op. They’ve taken a “Big Box” mentality and implemented it at our small, member owned health food store. They purchase tons of product (especially perishable items) that we cannot keep in back-stock long enough to maintain a healthy shelf life. They’ve slipped in conventional items to have a wider selection as per “request of customers,” but has that truly been requested? What's the real reason?
Our members/customers walk into our store because they rely on us to support a healthy lifestyle for them, their friends, and their families. When they purchase from us, they feel they are contributing to the best possible choice for their community, city, and state. Now with these “Big Box” changes and conventional items slipped in, we’ve become unreliable and unsafe for many of our customers.
I wish customers knew about our wages and the cuts in hours because of “budgeting,” when the numbers clearly show where the problems lie: upper management and a failed store on the West Side of Albuquerque. Customers also do not know who paid for the attorneys who fought against the union organizing, but they should. Everyone should know who footed that bill: the members.
Finally, I’d like to share about HR, a place where employees should feel confident, warmly accepted, and fairly treated for personal and professional questions. I never felt treated like a person when talking to the head of HR. In every other working experience in my life, I have never come across such an unwelcoming and frightening person to approach and speak with. There was always a sense of fear when preparing for a conversation with the head of HR. This is not what any employee should feel, especially when the head of HR should be a person who fights for the people, who strives to treat each individual with fairness and integrity.
The tensions are high behind the swinging doors of the Co-op, but the customers don't see it and some employees are too scared to say anything for fear of backlash from the head of HR, the GM, and the AGM. There is a sickness among employees from what the GM has inflicted upon our once trusted food source, and it is rapidly spreading throughout the community. Fortunately for upper management, most customers still haven't seen this unjust, wasteful, and money-hungry store they are currently shopping at because of the great employees who make the place function and provide an enjoyable shopping experience.
If we are a model for other Co-ops in the nation, then why are we going to “Big Box” store and Walmart mentalities? Why are we offering products that have been sprayed with poison and products where those who cultivate them are treated unfairly and become sick and die? Is this what FAIR FRESH LOCAL means?"
- La Montañita Worker with 5+ Years of Experience
Worker 11: "While working for La Montañita, I loved my coworkers, work environment, and encouraged others who didn't shop there to go in and buy from the bulk department and produce department, stating that no other selection exists quite like it, in any other shop selling food or necessities.
I realized, closer and closer to my departure, that the beautiful cooperative values had been completely abandoned by the upper management, i.e., imposing the selling of the Environmental Working Group's so-called 'Clean Fifteen.' I am discovering more and more each day the ‘Clean Fifteen’ is actually just as dirty as any other commercial pesticide produce.
If we continue allowing these individuals to operate at any level within the cooperative organization, I am certain they will continue to cause moral, environmental and psychological damage on every level."
- Atlas Hardage, former La Montañita worker and current member-owner
Worker 12: "On September 19, 2016 we were introduced to the new store manager of Nob Hill. Like the other upper managers our GM has brought in, this new store manager came from Sprouts in Texas. He proudly mentioned his previous employers were Target and McDonald’s.
During our staff meeting on his first day, he shared his expectations with regards to customer service. "If a customer comes to our store looking for strawberries and we are out of strawberries, I will do whatever it takes to make sure they leave our store with strawberries. I will go buy strawberries at Walmart and sell them to our customer, so they leave here with strawberries."
We have a store manager who has no problem spending Co-op dollars at Walmart.
So why is he La Montañita’s newest store manager? Upper management said that they had no internal candidates or qualified local candidates for this position. It’s hard for me to believe that one of the top co-ops in the country can’t find a store manager with co-op experience.
He told us that when he is talking to us, we are to look directly at him and make eye contact as a form of respect. A lot of people are just saying “yes, sir.” His approach is antithetical to our Co-op.
This is the latest disheartening episode in the last nine months at the Nob Hill store. The crew is skeletal and stretched thin and there has been a hiring freeze. Being in a constant state of anxiety, fear, intimidation, and exhaustion is no way to work, or live. Many of us are looking for other jobs.
Witnessing what takes place internally weighs heavy on my heart. I chose to work at our Co-op because I believe in improving lives: through education, community involvement, and the products we represent.
This management team is not good at connecting, building trust, building relationships, or building community. They are good at creating separation, confusion, tension, disempowerment, and fear.
I think La Montañita is a wonderful establishment. I don't like seeing people treated poorly or intimidated and I want the employees that work the front lines to be okay. I keep hearing about individuals getting fired and it is deeply upsetting. These are good people. They are discarded as if they don't matter, or they are punished for speaking out."
- La Montañita Worker with 5+ Years Experience
Board Member 1: "As a former La Montañita Co-op Board of Directors (BoD) Member, I support without hesitation the need for real change to make our tragically bad BoD much more accountable to Co-op member-owners and the cooperative values that we all supposedly share.
Before I ran for my Board position, I attended several Board meetings where I was troubled to observe a virtual wall of silence by the Board whenever member-owners brought forward valid complaints or credible ideas for change. As a dedicated activist for food justice and community empowerment, I ran for the Board to understand why member-owners, who believed in cooperative values and sought to strengthen the Co-op's adherence to them, were so often ignored.
I was elected to the Board in November 2014 and served for about 6 months of my 1-year term until I moved to Colorado. My short time with the Board revealed systemic causes for the poor openness and poor responsiveness to member-owner feedback and concerns. The Board was apparently incapable or unwilling to do anything except deflect issues to the General Manager.
As a Board Member, I learned quickly that unaccountability is, indeed, the official Board policy. For many years, the Board has adopted the so-called "Policy Governance" model for organizational management and oversight. In Policy Governance, the Board only has control over setting the broad general goals (or "Ends") of the enterprise as a whole. The Board is responsible for hiring the General Manager, technically the Board's only employee, who decides on his own the daily management decisions (or "Means") employed to carry out the Ends. Annually, the GM submits a report to the Board detailing how the Means are successfully fulfilling the Ends. Yes, theoretically the Board can reject this self-assessment or demand specific changes to ensure better compliance. But in my time on the Board, I saw very little courage or discernment by the vast majority of Board members. They were unwilling to turn a critical eye on General Manager decisions, even when significant numbers or segments of Co-op member-owners were vocally upset.
In other words, the Board as a matter of policy, rubber stamps whatever the General Manager wants to do regardless of how it impacts member-owners, workers, farmers, animals, or other community stakeholders. I believe this is the root of the problem.
This bewildering situation often caused me to wonder: Why do we even have a Board of Directors if it doesn’t take responsibility for the issues and values that our member-owners care about? The Board doesn't listen to member-owners because it's not accountable to them but to the abstract Ends. The General Manager doesn't listen to member-owners because they aren't the boss who hired and could fire him. Where is the actual democracy and cooperative participation? The only input we have is voting once per year for Board candidates mostly pre-approved by the current entrenched Board.
I believe we need to reevaluate the failures of the Policy Governance model and take more direct leadership over the fate of our Co-op. The Co-op is a community, not a corporation, and it should not be turned over a corporate-trained manager hell-bent on doing things that undermine, distort, or disregard our shared values. The current Board leadership has been there for decades, it's time for a change.
I am thrilled to see from my perch in Colorado the rise of a new generation of leaders who are working to reclaim the accountable, community-oriented La Montañita we love and lost. Ya Basta!"
- Jeff Ethan Au Green, former La Moñtanita Board of Directors Member
Board Member 2: "I joined our La Montañita Co-op Board in May, 2016. I quickly learned that our Board uses the Policy Governance model. I have studied the policies created by our Board; I have updated policies and written proposals that have been voted on by our Board; and I’ve observed how this Policy Governance model affects our Board, its decisions, and the Co-op as a whole. I began my time on the Board optimistic and excited to work within Policy Governance. However, I now have serious concerns.
Because of Policy Governance, the Board is forbidden from being involved in operations and almost everything is defined as “operations.” That means, the Board is banned from overseeing management. This puts the Board in a vulnerable position whereby the Board becomes completely dependent upon the GM for actions and answers about operations. The Board has almost zero authority to investigate and evaluate the validity or veracity of the information coming from the GM.
Furthermore, because of Policy Governance, the Board is banned from directly and effectively answering questions that the Membership raises during Board meetings. This leaves the Membership with many unanswered questions and countless unaddressed and unresolved issues. Thus, the Policy Governance model “blinds” the Board and “silences” the Membership.
In September, I began my own research into the concerns being raised at our Co-op. Due to the restrictions imposed by Policy Governance upon Board members, I met with fellow Member-Owners solely in my capacity as a Member- Owner. Those Member-Owners helped me understand far more about the daily operations at the Co-op and at each store. It broke my heart to hear about the fear that workers are experiencing, the disrupted relationships with women- owned businesses, the lack of real commitment for organic, local produce, and the lack of effort to “green” our stores. I have so much gratitude for the Member-Owners who came to me and helped me understand that we need to remove an intruding corporate culture.
I support Take Back the Co-op (TBTC). My reasoning for supporting TBTC revolves around Doing the Best Thing That Creates The Most Good:
1) Transparency and Democratic Member Control
The current form of Policy Governance is impractical. We cannot have a governance model that “blinds” the Board and “silences” the Membership.
We must replace Policy Governance with a transparent, democratic form of leadership. I also embrace the use of “term limits” so that far more member-owners can have the opportunity to serve on the Board in the future. We also need to allow member-owners to vote on major changes several times each year.
2) Worker Rights and Pay
We must protect our workers. Unions are a good thing. We need to ensure that we stop infringing upon the Constitutional Right to Organize. We need to ensure that workers are protected now and in perpetuity. We must also pay our workers more. Our workers and our value chain deserve fair wages.
3) Healthy, Organic, Local Pesticide-free Produce
We are what we consume. Organic food is a vital component for our Co-op. We must increase our organic, pesticide-free produce. We need to increase our local food. We must support our local farmers and our local farms.
4) Healthy, Green Stores
We must stop using high-VOC paints, coatings, adhesives, and sealants. It is counter-intuitive for the Co-op to buy organic food and then put it inside of a store that has polluted indoor air. We must “green” our stores.
These are all basic values for many co-ops. These are not unusual or new ideas. In fact, these are common values that have been in our community for decades. Somehow, along the way, as the La Montañita Co-op grew, people forgot our value system. Sometimes people need to be reminded of where they came from and how they got here. Right now, we must remind the Co-op of these basic values. TBTC supports these values and that’s why I support TBTC.
Now it is time to Do the Best Thing That Creates The Most Good."
- Gina Dennis, current La Montañita Board of Directors member