Friday, November 13, 2009

Ballot Box Tampering

An allegation has been made that at least one Ballot Box was tampered with during the WSM Election Process, the tampering apparently committed by someone from WSM's corporate office and/or senior management.

This allegation was made after I sent my e-mail to the WSM Elections Oversight Committee and to the WSM Board with suggestions for improving the WSM Election Process, to render it free from interference from the WSM corporate office - following post.

The allegation is serious enough that it could now give rise to questions about the validity of the WSM Election Process and the result. However, the Board of WSM is refusing to investigate the allegation properly.

As soon as the allegation came to light, it was reported to the WSM Elections Oversight Committee and also to the Board of WSM. Clause XIII.2 of the WSM Elections Manual clearly states that a disputed result must be investigated by the Board.

To date, no steps have been taken to undertake an investigation of the allegation in a manner which protects the person making the allegation, disciplines the perpetrator(s) and clears all those who might otherwise be associated with the irregular activities of one or a few.

Even sadder than the allegation itself and the refusal of the Board to investigate is the fact that this incident is set against a backdrop of irregularities and miscues over the past three Board Elections.

Indeed, the WSM Elections Task Force was set up after the Board Election of 2007 to draft the Elections Manual which was supposed to avoid any such misbehavior in the future.

What is even more disturbing is the suggestion that this incident may not be isolated. There is already considerable evidence that the 2009 Election in particular was dominated by the influence of the corporate office in other ways.

When the annual Election of a Worker Director to the Board of WSM is the only avenue left to WSM's workers to find expression in their worker co-op, because all the other pathways have been shut down by the corporate office, it is essential to meaningful worker input that the Election is kept free from any and all interference by the corporate office and senior management.

All of us at Weaver Street Market Co-operative are proud of the fact that we don't just sell groceries; we also sell a product called 'co-operation.' And we try our hardest to ensure that the quality of our co-operative product is as high as the quality of our grocery product.

Every single WSM store newsletter sets out on the first page those co-operative values to which we are all supposed to adhere if we are to have the highest quality co-operative product.

Those values include honesty, openness, and fair and democratic elections. If we do nothing when our democratic process and those values are subverted, then we fail in our duty to provide the highest quality co-operative product.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Free and Fair Worker Director Elections?

[What follows is an e-mail sent by me to the WSM Elections Oversight Committee and the Board of WSM for follow-up review of the elections process for Board Directors in 2009. I make suggestions as to how to overcome the continuing perception among workers in WSM that the elections for Worker Director are dominated by the corporate office.]

"Dear Mickey, Election Committee, et al,

First, and once again, congratulations to Curt [Brinkmeyer] and Rickie [White] for their success. Commiserations to you, Robert [Short]. Be consoled in this view: we belong to an even more exclusive club than the Board - those who have stood for the noble cause more than once, and lost!

You will note that I have not and will not be making any formal challenge to the results. I say that so that the views that follow will not be confused with looking at the past. I'm looking to the future, particularly with respect to the Worker-Owner Elections, to continue the mandate begun with the WSM Elections Task Force [of 2008, which was established at my instigation], namely to find ways to run the Elections in a fashion which appears totally fair to owners, so that they are encouraged to participate.

In that light, it is disappointing to note that, even though the number of Worker-Owners increased over a year ago, the number of Worker-Owner voters decreased. I do not think that incidental. And I have some suggestions.

Those suggestions may be seen as controversial, which is my point in making them after the deadline for challenging of the count by candidates.

Since the Election has been over, more than a handful of workers have approached me, especially from Carrboro, wondering why so few Worker-Owners voted, and expressing surprise.

And here, Curt, forgive me, but it is pertinent to the genuine perception by many workers of the Worker-Owner election process, many have also expressed amazement at the vote received by you.

The answer can be made less personal by reviewing winning figures in the past three Worker-Owner Elections:

Lori (2007) - 31
Jacob (2008) - 40
Curt (2009) - 34

Whenever I introduce names, there are some who think I am merely engaging in sour grapes, and avoid looking beyond that at the truth of what is felt by many among our workforce - and which prevents more of them voting, as they have also told me - and that is that there is no point in voting in a process that has been taken over by WSM's corporate office.

I'm not going to get involved in a polemic on that subject. I'm simply going to make a list of suggestions to help make future elections seem more independent, fair and accessible.

1) It is common practice in many large corporations not to allow staff from the corporate office to run for the Board. The view is taken that the primary role of the Board is to monitor the corporate office, and there is perceived to be a conflict of interest.

The point could be raised, then how do workers in the corporate office achieve representation on the Board? My answer would be through their Department Head, the General Manager.

I was encouraged to raise this point when others learned of the two nominations this time. I declined, on the basis that a successful challenge would leave only one candidate.

But I think that this is an issue which should be addressed by someone. A measure of disgruntlement, even disbelief, has been expressed to me at such a candidature this past election.

2) There is a strong sense in the co-op that there is a paucity of full information provided to workers - especially a breadth of information, beyond merely that which comes of out of the corporate office.

At the same time, there is a feeling that there is next to no opportunity to discuss that information in a meaningful context. Almost all of the avenues which used to be open to workers to discuss co-op matters have been shut down: open forums; Worker-Owner Program; full meetings of co-op workers; etc.

An informed workforce is an engaged workforce, whether that engagement is in work itself or in the wider affairs of the co-op, including voting.

Time and again in this past election, workers have said to me, I simply didn't know that. And I will be blunt. They didn't know it because it was not in the interests of the corporate office for them to know it.

The corporate office has a difficult job to do. But we cannot be a properly informed and engaged workforce if it is the sole font of information in our co-op.

It may not be the job of the Elections Committee, but I would like someone in this co-op to think seriously this coming year about improving communication to and from our workforce.

If it costs money, I have a budget neutral suggestion: cancel the Mystery Shopper Program and devote the funds saved to that communication.

If you want to get more focus and departmental contribution from your workers, try getting them engaged with communication, discussion and involvement, rather than forcing it out of them with outside folks, with no co-operative sensibility, spying on them.

As a first step, why not hand the whole Market Messenger over to an editorial committee of workers from all the units, under the editorship of, say, Elizabeth Friend, who is a reporter for WCHL, and writes for the store newspaper, and make it a bona fide workplace newspaper, to which the corporate office would have access, but over which it would not have exclusive control?

3) Following on from (2), in February of this year, I made formal request to the Board and to the General Manager for the usual Full Meeting of Co-op Workers to be held during the Elections, and to allow candidates to address the meeting and answer questions.

If we are serious about improving the engagement of our workers, and if we are realistic about that process, it is a nonsense to think that candidate tables, held during breaks, are going to do it. We must bring the elections to the workers, not ask the workers to give up their own time to hunt for the elections.

The Board finally handed my request to the General Manager, who wrote to me and told me he would be responding to me. He never did. In fact, none of the regularly scheduled store meetings or Full Meetings was held during the election process.

More than one worker has stated to me that they felt that the corporate office were simply taking the opportunity of avoiding allowing a non-corporate candidate speak to the workforce, to offer a point of view that was different to that of the corporate office.

I don't think that anyone in this co-op is that puerile. But it doesn't help that that is the sort of attitude floating around, causing such disillusionment among our workers, and disaffection with the voting process.

I would like to suggest that the Elections Committee recommend that the normal Full Meeting of Co-op Workers, which has always been held in August, next year be held after the close of nominations, and that candidates be allowed to address that meeting, and to answer questions, as a part of the formal elections process.

4) I know how hard it is to get Worker-Owners to volunteer. I say the reasoning is circular. So little opportunity is now afforded to workers fully and meaningfully to be engaged in the decisions that affect them that they no longer think there is any point in volunteering for anything.

That said, hopefully by opening up communications, discussion and the elections process itself, we will encourage a greater willingness to engage.

In the meantime, the Elections Task Force identified a concern that the Worker-Owner elections process be seen to be fully independent of the corporate office.

That independence was to be overseen and guaranteed by the ongoing Elections Committee. I know absolutely that every individual member of the EC has worked diligently on this process. But the fact remains that the overall composition of the EC was not seen as conducive to guaranteeing the independence of the W/O elections process. We need to work on that.

There should be only one Board Liaison. Their job is to ensure that the work of the EC does not conflict with Board Policy. No more.

This year we had the current Board Chair and last year's Board Chair both serving on the EC. Again, I'm going to be blunt about perception among workers.

The current Board Chair was not elected. Yet he was seen to be helping oversee the elections process. Last year's Board Chair was my opponent in 2008. Yet he was seen to be overseeing an election in which I was again a candidate.

Finally, we must do better at finding a Worker-Owner representative who is truly independent of the corporate office. In this past election, the W/O representative on the EC was the co-op's Human Resources Manager.

5) As I understood it, a primary remit of the EC was to ensure that there was never any perception of conflict between the independence of the W/O elections process and the corporate office.

Yet, with respect, time and again during this past process, there was a blurring of division between the EC and the corporate office.

I'd ask a question of the EC to be told that they did not know, the answer resided with someone from the corporate office.

If the explanation is that someone from the corporate office was also a member of the EC, then we should try to avoid that in future. Otherwise, we have the very conflict the EC was partially set up to avoid.

We should also not have a situation where a W/O candidate finds themselves asking difficult questions of an EC member who happens to be the person ultimately responsible for hiring and firing them (the Human Resources Manager). I can handle it. But what does this say for a new W/O looking at standing for the Board for the first time?

Also, last year, an independent e-mail address was established for candidates to correspond with the EC independent of the corporate office. Yet, again, I found myself, more than once, as a W/O candidate, having to correspond on difficult matters with an e-mail address of the corporate office, and with someone who was one of my electorate. That is not avoiding conflict of interest.

6) Specifically, two years ago, there were suggestions that ballot boxes had been opened during the voting process by someone senior from the corporate office.

The Elections Manual has a clause which states that the keys to the ballot boxes should be in the control of the EC. I understand from last year's EC Chair that that rule was interpreted as meaning that the keys should at all times during the voting process be in the care of the EC Chair, who should not be a W/O.

I do not believe that to be the case in this past Election. I believe keys were, for a time at least, in the hands of someone from the corporate office. That should be avoided in the future.

7) I would like to suggest that the Market Messenger, when announcing the election results, includes information on the total number of W/O's per unit, and the total number of votes cast, by unit. Not for each candidate. Just the total.

And can we please stop calling the corporate office ‘the Food House’? It is disingenuous at best, and dissemblance at worst.

The Food House is that part of the complex where they make food. The corporate office is a separate unit which houses the administrative/corporate staff. Our telephone lists make the distinction. Let's please keep them separate.

8) Which brings me to the point that was raised almost at the beginning. How is it that three election winners in a row, who seem to have nothing in common, who are known to different parts of our workforce in totally different degrees, achieve almost the same voting result?

With no disrespect to the individuals concerned - and this is something widely known among our workforce, it is mentioned regularly to me, and it stops many W/O's voting - there is a bloc vote, made up of corporate office staff and senior managers, which always votes for the status quo.

We could have an interesting discussion about the seeming absurdity of a situation where managers and corporate staff vote in the same elections as workers - and indeed that discussion was begun in the Task Force, but was never allowed to conclude.

It follows as night follows day that workers perceive that corporate staff already 'voted' on the direction of the co-op, since they crafted that direction in the corporate office (hence the admonition against corporate staff standing for Boards of Directors).

It also follows that workers perceive that senior managers have voted on the co-op's direction in their many manager meetings.

Workers wonder why the Worker Director election is not a process that allows them to elect a representative who can truly represent their only opportunity to have meaningful input on the direction of their co-op. They wonder why they have to contend with a bloc vote of managers and corporate staff - and it disillusions them.

Now, I put forward the idea of all workers having the vote. That got shot down by the manager and corporate office bloc vote.

Ok. But Curt and I discussed another idea. What say we create an equality of ownership status between consumer and worker, and one that makes it more equitable for workers?

Why not say all owners pay a flat fee of $100 to become an owner? Consumer or worker.

No multi-members per household confusion. One ownership; one fee; one vote. If you have 16 people in a house; then it's 16 fees, 16 ownerships, 16 votes.

And $100 becomes much more reasonable for workers.

That's it. I appreciate there may be some who say I'm simply trying to re-run the election. That's a matter for you. I'm not. There's no more I can say on that.

But the fact remains that there are many who have spoken to me, just since this election, who have said they did not vote because what they saw was an elections process dominated by the corporate office, and a pre-determined outcome.

Corporate office candidate; corporate-dominated EC; corporate-dominated communication; corporate-denied opportunity to quiz candidates; and a corporate bloc vote determining the outcome.

Now I know that every single Board member and every single member of the EC is dedicated to ensuring the fairest elections process possible. And that's why I remain confident that you will all consider these suggestions in that same spirit, and that you will want to ensure that, next year, workers do not perceive their election in that light.

I wish you all the best,

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Your Vote Didn't Make A Difference

There are 98 Worker-Owners in Weaver Street Market Co-operative. Here are the approximate numbers for each unit, with the number of people who voted in the first bracket, and the percentage turnout by unit in the second bracket:

Southern Village Store - 10 (7) (70%)

Hillsborough Store - 12 (7) (58.33%)

Food House/Corporate Office - 45 (29) (64.40%)

Carrboro Store/Panzanella - 31 (13) (41.93%)

Curt Brinkmeyer won the Election, and my congratulations go to him. He will have a difficult year ahead of him, and he deserves all our support. The votes were:

Curt - 34

Geoff - 17

Last year, a total of 62 worker-Owners voted. This year, a total of 56 voted.

I will always be grateful for those who voted for me. Seventeen votes is still a substantial statement in a corporate-dominated elections system. We should all be proud of the expression we gave to those without their own voice.