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Willy Street Co-op

Jose Gomez shops for cucumbers at Willy Street Co-op's North Side location in Madison's Sherman Neighborhood. The co-op's attempt to move toward a living wage for entry-level employees is telling.

What do we want? A livable wage.

When do we want it? Maybe three years from now, if sales rise and employees become more efficient.

That’s the less-than-emphatic rallying cry at Madison’s quintessential progressive food cooperative. The Willy Street Co-op, with two locations in Madison and one in Middleton, last week announced a plan to eventually offer all of its employees, including new hires, a livable wage.

Co-op managers say they hope to inspire other businesses to follow the natural food store’s example of paying high enough wages so workers can cover rent, food, health care, a cellphone, taxes, transportation and other living expenses.

But getting to $13.62 per hour, the co-op’s calculation of a livable wage in Madison, won’t be easy — to say nothing of the $15 minimum wage that progressive hero and socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont demanded during his spirited yet failed bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination last year.

The co-op increased its entry-level wage in January from $10.69 to $11.50 per hour. That leaves more than $2 per hour to go by 2020.

“Our goal over three years will be to develop the kinds of efficiencies that manage growth and financial variables without resorting to increases in labor hours,” said Paige Wickline, the co-op’s finance director, in a press release. “If we do better than expected we could achieve paying a livable wage sooner than three years, and if we do worse than expected it could take longer than three years to get a livable wage.”

In other words, running a business has its ups and downs, which can complicate best intentions.

Immediately moving to a $13.62 wage and adjusting higher pay levels accordingly would cost over $2 million annually, which Willy Street’s general manager Anya Firszt said the co-op can’t afford. The money for better wages won’t come from higher prices on groceries, co-op communication director Brendon Smith insisted in a Cap Times column this week.

The goal of raising wages for beginning employees is admirable. Madison in particular can be an expensive place to live. And Wisconsin’s $7.25 minimum wage is overdue for an increase, with Republicans who control the statehouse showing little interest in the issue.

Yet if a benevolent natural food store chain — one that doesn’t prioritize profits — can’t pull off a living wage in the heart of a thriving city, how is a private business — one that needs strong profits to survive — going to do it?

The Willy Street Co-op’s three-year attempt to get to $13.62 is telling. We wish this Madison institution well, and hope its considerable challenge in trying to offer better pay provides progressive politicians — from Sanders on down — with a needed reality check.