Students benefit from living, working in cooperatives

Nathan Halverson

Many students see their place on the business ladder as somewhere near the bottom rung.

Whether they’re trying to get lower prices, better service or recognition for their ideas at work, students find they often aren’t taken seriously by businesses.

For that reason and others University students have been turning to cooperatives for eight decades.

Co-ops provide students with cheaper prices, alternative goods and equitable work environments.

John Langley, a sociology major and working member of North Country Cooperative Grocery, said he values the store’s work environment.

“There are no bosses,” he said. “It makes it a lot more human-centered. It’s not a corporate environment by any means.”

The co-op’s mission is to be a “working example of participatory democracy in all facets of operation and governance.”

However, Langley said having an equal voice isn’t the only reason students – who employees say comprise over half their members – are joining.

“People are getting things as cheaply as possible,” he said. “There’s no money being funneled to investors in another city.”

North Country is part of a burgeoning cooperative business scene on the West Bank that includes Hard Times Cafe, the Grease Pit bike shop and Barebones Theatre.

Co-ops use members’ combined purchase power to get additional savings.

“I’d say we have some leverage,” said Ruth Enge, auditor of Fraternity Purchasing Association.

Formed in the 1930s, the co-op buys approximately $1 million in goods and services per year for residential student groups, she said.

Enge said the cooperative buying organization saves 25 percent to 30 percent on some goods and at least 6 percent on every purchase, which is the fee for using FPA.

Enge says it’s also about providing wanted services.

“It’s a matter of convenience,” she said. “The houses like the once-a-month billing.”

FPA consolidates its members’ bills into one charge that includes items such as milk to garbage and plumbing fees. The co-op also provides financial services such as a $4,000 credit line and tax filings.

One of the FPA’s members, the Student Co-op on University Avenue, is a cooperative living community.

The most expensive room in the house – a large one-person bedroom – costs $265 per month, said Jason Smith, physiology major and former Student Co-op president.

But Smith said it isn’t just about saving money.

“It goes way beyond the cheap housing. It offers power in the respect that you’re your own landlord and you can buy groceries collectively.”

For $35 per month, residents can choose to be part of the bulk buying. Smith said $300 per month covers his groceries, utilities, an Ethernet connection, cable and his room.

In the kitchen, bulk bins of spices and cooking ingredients line the wall. And residents use a recycling container as a “clothes exchange” – a place to drop off and pick up unwanted clothing so it doesn’t go to waste.

“It’s a unique living situation,” said Mara Stemm, co-op resident and German studies major.