Monday, December 27, 2010

Geoff's Weavernomics Lesson #4 - New Year's Eve Closing Time

No more sermons as LSWSW. He's gone. But a lecture nonetheless! Why do we at WSM open restricted hours on New Year's DAY (no doubt to help us recover from revelry), when we close at normal time on the evening of the revelry itself? Yup. Letter to the General Manager of WSM, Ruffin Slater (that wicked party animal, he) ...

"Dear Ruffin,

I hope you had a good Christmas. I'm writing to ask you and the store managers to consider closing the Weaver Street stores at, say, 8.00pm on New Year's Eve this year.

It has always struck me as strange (been here five years now) that we have restricted hours on New Year's Day (I'm assuming in part to allow revelers to recover); yet we have normal closing time on the evening when the revelry is to occur - revelry which, of its nature (New Year's) pretty much ends at midnight.

I would suggest there are two special considerations this year:

1) We've had a couple of tough years at WSM. Much has been asked of us workers. And even more will be asked in this coming New Year.

2) Carrboro and Southern Village now close at 10.00pm. For some of us that means not getting out of those stores until close to 11.00pm. Taking into account dashing home and hurling on a new coat of deodorant, that has us reaching our chosen New Year's destinations just about the time Ryan Seacrest gives Jessica Simpson a New Year's kiss in Times Square. In other words, just in time to turn around and go home again.

Even though Hillsborough closes at 9.00pm, a lot of our fellow workers there live some way ways - Carrboro, Mebane. So, they need extra time to make that round trip home to freshen up.

So. What about it? It's not going to kill the finances. And it would be a nice gesture with which to begin the year. Maybe? Happy New Year to you.

All the best,


The General Manager of WSM, Ruffin Slater, has responded to my request:

"Hi Geoff,

Thanks for your suggestion.

We started publishing the holiday hours in our publications a few weeks ago, so it’s too late to make any changes to the New Year’s hours.


Hmm. I guess we're not allowed to change our minds. Like we did when we changed the closing times of the stores in Hillsborough and Southern Village? Or like we've done all this past week, as we've changed opening and closing times, in response to the weather?

Double hmm. But, at least I got communication! And I replied:

"Ah well. Maybe next year?


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Geoff's Weavernomics Lesson #3 -- Paid Holidays ...

So. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. And I got to thinking. It's all fine and dandy giving us Thanksgiving off. But not when we don't get paid. It just becomes a lost pay day for ordinary, hourly-paid Weaver Street Workers. Yup. You guessed it. Another letter to Ruffin Slater, WSM General Manager:
"Hey Ruffin,

You will remember that, during our meeting the other week, we discussed ways of enrolling workers in the 15% sales increase for 2011 by better explaining to us workers - to put it bluntly - what is in it for us, and, indeed, ensuring that there is something in it for us.

We specifically addressed the possibility that, as part of the series of "Market Messengers" helping to educate us workers in financial literacy, it might be useful to have one "Market Messenger" devoted to precisely that topic - i.e. what the 15% sales increase means for individual workers.

I thought, in that regard, it might be helpful if I passed onto you the fact that, during the recent Board Election, a number of workers raised with me questions as to why we do not receive what appear to be normal paid-day benefits that are available in traditional capitalist retail outlets.

In fact, one or two workers said they might be referring to exactly these sorts of benefits in the annual benefits survey, which we received a few weeks ago in our mailboxes.

The sort of benefits discussed were: paid sick days, time-and-a-half on public holidays when we work, and full payment of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are the two days each year that we workers are given off.

To be honest, I did say that I thought that, while I sympathized with the first two categories of paid holiday, it might be a while before we were able to discuss those sorts of benefits, seeing as we are only just pulling out of hard times.

But you know, I had and have a hard time explaining (even to myself) why Weaver Street Market Co-operative gives workers the day off, when it turns out not to be any kind of meaningful benefit, if we are not paid. All it becomes is a lost pay day.

I did a quick (and very rough) calculation based on 260 employees, and an average of $10.00 per hour, and it would cost us no more than $26,000 for each of the two holidays. $52,000 in total. Or, $1,000 a week, in return for we workers producing a profit in 2010 of $475,000, and an increase in sales in 2011 of $3.75 million. Doesn't seem too much to ask, does it?

So. I'd be grateful - with Thanksgiving and Christmas just around the corner - if you could let me know if you think WSM will this year be able to translate its oft-stated gratitude to us workers into a little extra cash? And if not, perhaps why not?

Happy Thanksgiving to you.

All the best,

Geoff's Weavernomics Lesson #2 -- Balance Sheets and Retained Earnings ...

Once again, I prefer my version of financial terms over those of the Weaver Street corporate office, which entertained us 'low-skilled' workers to another installment of financial literacy in the most recent issue of our Market Messenger.

So ...

'Retained Earnings' = the bloody pay raises we LSWSW's should have got out of the $475,000 profit we LSWSW's earned for The Weave in 2010, but which the corporate office kindly retained.

'Negative Retained Earnings' = future pay raises and patronage dividends which we LSWSW's will earn, but which the corporate office will retain to dump down the massive negative black holes called DEBT and FOOD HOUSE OPERATIONAL COSTS and MARKETING.

Now, am I retaining a certain negativity here, earned out of my loss in the recent Board Election? No. I am a firm believer in the principle that you run the best argument you can. If you lose, you drop it, and move on.

The central tenet of my 2010 election campaign was that we needed to address the tremendous imbalance in the financial state of WSM, not by asking workers to work 15% harder in 2011, but by finding other ways to reduce the huge debt, the operational costs of the Food House (I really would like to know about that flour hopper) and the burgeoning cottage industry that has become our Marketing and Merchandising effort (all these signs, all the time, really?).

That argument did not find favor with the body of the worker-owner electorate, as it is currently constituted. So, I move on. Indeed, when I was discussing with Ruffin Slater (WSM General Manager) a week ago those figures that appear in this week's Market Messenger, I specifically avoided re-running my election themes.

Those figures (including the ones he did not include in the current Market Messenger) showed that we would only be in a position to offer larger pay raises and a patronage dividend in 2011 if we make the full 15% sales increase. If we make only a 10% sales increase, then WSM will make an overall loss for 2011. Bye bye meaningful pay raises. Bye bye patronage dividend.

I could have argued with Ruffin (again) that we could avoid such a fragile scenario if we spent the year thoroughly reviewing Food House costs and Marketing expenditure, and exploring other means of dramatically reducing or re-capitalizing our debt.

But I didn't run those arguments. Because they had not found favor in the Board Election. Instead, I focused on sharing with Ruffin ideas about how better to explain the figures to us workers, and how to find more respectful ways of enrolling us in achieving the sales increase of 15%.

I also took the opportunity of encouraging him to reduce worker-ownership to $200, and to look upon a Workers' Committee with a favorable eye.

I wouldn't call any of that retained negativity.

So, why this Note? Because I feel we LSWSW's deserve to know the whole financial picture (isn't that authentic financial literacy, after all?), and because I feel we all need to know what is at stake (a 10% sales increase in 2011 won't cut it), so that we are not caught unawares at the end of 2011 if we don't make that 15% sales increase.

Again, that hardly makes this Note negative in any way.

Now, it's not going to be easy to make that 15% sales increase. The majority of economic forecasters are still talking about a new economic downturn in 2011. The thinking is that, if Thanksgiving and Christmas sales are lackluster, then businesses may retrench in 2011 (for which read lay off workers), demand in the economy will go down, and high-end retail industries (er ... WSM qualifies) will get hurt come Spring 2011.

I hope the forecasters are wrong.

In addition, notwithstanding the co-op wide 9% sales increase reported by Ruffin for the first financial quarter of 2010-2011 (July-September 2010), the weekly co-op wide sales increase since the end of September has been settling downwards towards 7-8%. Check the weekly co-op wide sales figures posted in your unit.

Again, I'm not being negative. The exhortation with which I leave you is this: we chose in this last Board Election not to make our co-op more financially sustainable by reducing debt and unnecessary expenditure. Those of you who were voting worker-owners chose instead (for the rest of us) to make up the financial gap by putting all our efforts into the 15% sales increase.

So, it behooves us all. if we want to see more staff, more pay and a non-retained patronage dividend (!) in 2011, to bust ass and make that 15% sales increase.

So endeth Geoff's Weavernomics Lesson #2 ...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Equality In Worker Input - Why A Weaver Street Workers' Committee ...

This letter to the WSM Board about the desirability of a Workers' Committee is a tad wonkish. I get like that.

But, it's a cold and rainy day, and the letter follows on neatly from the one yesterday about reducing the cost of worker-ownership in the Weaver Street Market Co-op:

"Dear Board,

This is really the second part of my thoughts about worker-ownership in WSM going forward - although I wasn't intending to produce a series!

The way worker-ownership has evolved, we essentially have two classes of worker in WSM at the moment: worker-owners, who have something of a voice (but not enough, in my opinion) through their vote in Board elections; and ordinary workers, who have little of any kind of voice, save for the occasional feedback exercise.

I have been working on an idea (shared with a number of the folks who have been talking with me during this past Board election) about a Workers' Committee, to overcome this separation and to give workers a voice that reflects their status in the worker-consumer co-op hybrid that is WSM.

In our discussions yesterday, Ruffin mentioned that, early on in WSM's history, a proposal had been made simply to make ALL workers into worker-owners after 6 months, and then to start deducting the fee from their paycheck.

The worker-owners at the time voted it down. And even Ruffin expressed concerns at doing something mandatory in this way.

It got me thinking about my own idea last year just to give the vote in Board elections to all workers. But you know, I'm now against that idea. Here's my thinking.

When I first joined the co-op, I knew I wanted to become a worker-owner. Mostly for the dividend. Now, as soon as I became a worker-owner, I found myself much more interested in the co-op's performance. Of course I did. Better performance = more dividend.

The other part of that equation was that it would only lead to more dividend if the 'right' decisions were taken by admin and the Board. So, I started taking an interest in their decisions, also.

And that is essentially worker-ownership.

It occurs to me that, if worker-ownership or its benefits (the vote) become a passive 'gift,' then it dilutes that active interest.

It likely leads to a group of worker-owners who are less interested in performance and decision-making, and maybe use their vote for extraneous reasons instead.

Let's have a quick look at the recent worker-owner elections. I can - and have - argued that there is a bias towards a management/corporate bloc vote. I have also wondered aloud why we have managers and workers voting in the same election.

But, let's leave all that on one side. I have advocated in those regards, and that advocacy has not found favor among the existing worker-owner electorate. Where I come from, when you lose an argument, you move on.

So, let's look at the results in a different way. Not so much as manager -v- worker, as worker-owners more interested in financial return -v- workers (maybe) more interested in social return.

I'm not completely convinced that is all that wrong. I don't think it demands the system be turned upside down. And that we replace it with a new system (be it Ruffin's worker-ownership-for-all, or my vote-for-all), that could have the effect of artificially creating a new 'bloc' of workers, who have no 'investment' in worrying about financial performance, but are concerned only with social health.

I would find that replacement system no more satisfactory than the existing system artificially dominated as it is by the management/corporate bloc vote.

That said, however, I do think we need to start addressing the concerns of the minority of worker-owners who consistently vote against that management/corporate bloc.

'Consistently'? One thing is clear, there is a distinct pattern to the voting in the past four Board elections. There is an establishment/management/corporate vote (call it what you will - I'm not being tendentious) that totals between 30 and 35 votes; and the non-establishment/worker/protest vote (again, call it what you will) that gets about 17 to 20 votes.That = consistent.

The reason I stress that it is consistent is that I think it behooves the Board and admin to find a way to hear the voices that make up that consistent vote - whose concerns are clearly not the same as the majority management/corporate bloc vote.

Even in conventional capitalist corporations, there are legal obligations for majority shareholders to take note of the concerns of minority shareholders.

At the moment, there is little by way of communication vehicle to allow the voices in the minority vote to be heard - let alone the voices of all the non worker-owners who say they can not afford the $500.

Hence, a Worker's Committee.

As I envisage it, the Committee would not be separate or outside of the existing system or current worker-ownership model, but would feed into and buttress it.

To begin with, I would see this Committee made up of self-appointed worker-owners, offering themselves from all of the units. In time, the process could be one of election by each unit of one or more representatives - who would have to be worker-owners.

Those having the vote on the Committee would have to be worker-owners, although all workers could attend, discuss and take part in any activities organized by the Committee. This would allow non worker-owners to have a voice, but a limited one. Plus, they would see the benefits of a collective worker-owner voice, and might be more persuaded (along with a reduction in the worker-ownership cost) to become worker-owners.

In talking with other workers and worker-owners, they see the Committee as a useful talking shop (not unlike the Discussion Group that Jacob helped to form a time ago); a vehicle for lobbying admin and the Board; a way of promoting worker-ownership, while still giving voice to those who don't or can't become worker-owners; and for some, simply a means of having fun and encouraging better understanding and communication between the now-separated units.

My concern is and will be that the Committee continues to function as part of the existing governance system, and that it does not set itself up as something separate to that. Hence the emphasis on voting rights being restricted to worker-owners.

While I envisage this Committee being organized by workers for themselves (and for the overall benefit of the co-op - since an informed, involved, included and energized workforce can only work to the co-op's advantage), it may be that, in time, it could receive some form of Board sanction.

There are many co-operatives where the Board has a sub-committee known as an Owner's Committee, the purpose off which is to allow owners to have wide-ranging discussions, which can then feed back into main Board business.

And if that sanction should occur, there is no reason why a similar Committee could not be encouraged for consumer-owners.

These are early days. But I am hoping that admin and the Board will welcome any such Committee, and give it - and the newly-energized worker members - every possible support.

All the best,

I have written more about this Workers' Committee. Please get in touch if you are interested in being involved -]

Affordable Weaver Street Worker-Ownership?

I had a really constructive meeting with WSM General Manager, Ruffin Slater, this morning. Among other things, we talked about the cost of worker-ownership in WSM, which is $500, compared to only $100 for consumer-owners.

I have now written and presented a proposal to the WSM Board for reducing the cost of worker-ownership, to allow more workers in our co-op to be involved in co-op discussions, and so that more workers may be able to vote in Board elections in future:

"Dear Board,

I have an idea that addresses two important questions: (a) How do we increase capital; and (b) How do we encourage equity between consumer-owners and worker-owners in the investment they make in their co-op?

My suggested answer (subject, of course, to consultation with consumer-owners, worker-owners AND workers) is to increase the baseline of consumer-ownership fees to $200, and to reduce the cost of worker-ownership also to $200.

Bingo. Equity and capital.

I had a very constructive meeting with Ruffin this morning, and this was one of the issues that I raised. I talked about worker-ownership. Ruffin addressed consumer-ownership.

At the moment, we are asking much of all of our workers, without being able to offer them too much in return. At least, not immediately.

One of the matters most addressed to me in the recent Board Election was that workers (especially new workers) find $500 for worker-ownership just too high. It does no good to talk about it being spread over a year. It's a turn-off.

Now, we want workers to be invested in all the projects underway in our co-op. Greater emotional investment = increased interest in implementing projects.

And they want to be involved. I have difficulty in finding workers who joined our co-op just because it's a job. They join because they believe in co-operation, and they want it to succeed.

Over and over, they have told me that they are up for any challenge, if they understand the reasons for the challenge, and if they feel they are a part of the team making decisions about the challenges. And they get that means being a worker-owner. But they can't afford $500.

There is a Board Policy that says the Board should encourage ownership. There is another that says that there should be equity between the two forms of ownership: consumer-ownership and worker-ownership.

The solution is simple: make the cost of both forms of ownership the same.

Do we give the same return to all worker-owners: those who paid $500, and those who pay the new level of fee? Yes. Because in both instances, the cost of ownership is returned when a worker-owner leaves WSM or divests.

Should we consult? Of course. And the consultation should be of all workers, not just worker-owners. Let's be real. I have heard more than one worker-owner say to me: we don't want more worker-owners; it will dilute the worker-owner dividend. Naughty, guys. Naughty.

But what of the consumer-owner fee? It has been the same for ... how long?

If there is one thing I have learned in standing in four Board elections, it is that co-operators respond to a challenge. Surprises the heck out of me. I respond to a holiday in the Bahamas. But both consumers and workers respond to being challenged - so long as they know why.

More often than not, I have heard fellow workers say to me, what I really want to do is be able to offer my customers the sort of service of which I can be proud. Just give me the tools, and I'll be happy. Not, give me a pay raise; but give me the tools to serve my customers.

Same thing with consumers. They know we have been through tough times. They know we don't want to go back there. They just want to know how they can help. So, tell them. Ask them to agree to increase baseline consumer-ownership to $200.

AND. Then go one further. Ask those who are already owners to make a one-off payment to bring their original investment in line with the new ownership. Just to help out.

So. That's my idea. A baseline ownership cost that is equitable, that encourages worker-ownership and that raises some much-needed capital.

Think about it during your retreat in January.

All the best,

Restoring Sanity in the Weaver Street Market Co-operative

On the subject of restive electorates and votes of no confidence, it is interesting to note that, in the past three annual Elections for a Weaver Street Consumer-Owner Director, the incumbent (or former incumbent) has been defeated by a challenger.

What would the national press say if the US suffered three one-term Presidencies in a row?

At the same time, the past four annual elections for a Weaver Street Worker-Owner Director have seen the protest vote against the Corporate Candidate increase in percentage terms each and every year.

In any other electoral environment, such a rejection of prevailing governance philosophy and operational execution would have objective observers screaming for change -- and those in power scrambling to oblige.

But not in Weaver Street, where nothing changes.

Which is why I am now trying to do my bit by attempting to widen the base of advocacy among workers by encouraging the formation of a Workers' Committee, and by seeking a reduction in the cost of Worker-Ownership from $500 to $100.

But this should not be my challenge alone. If you are a worker or consumer interested in responsive governance and operations in your Weaver Street co-op, then get involved. Find a way.

Forget Washington for just a moment. Let's find a way to 'Restore Sanity' in our own co-op ...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Weaver Street Worker-Owner Director Election Results 2010

The count is over, and democracy has spoken. My congratulations to Steve Bos. My gratitude to the WSM Elections Committee for a fabulous job well done. And my sincerest thanks to all of you who voted for me. Do not give up hope!

I got two more votes than last year. By my calculation, I will be on the Board shortly before I reach retirement age. Yay for Depends and Viagra!

Steve Bos : 35

Geoff Gilson : 19

But seriously. The vote for me ... correction, the vote cast by those protesting the direction of our co-op (this is not about me) has increased as a percentage of the overall vote every year for the past four years:

2007 - 32%

2008 - 33%

2009 - 33%

2010 - 35%

It may not seem like much of an increase. But bear this in mind. Over the past couple of years, the number of ordinary shopfloor worker-owners has decreased as hard times have forced them to cash in their ownership. Put like that, the protest percentage should have been shrinking each year.

Those who belittle the impact of this protest vote are the same people who consistently say that the only protester is me. That much is clearly now nonsense.

The turnout of worker-owner voters this year was 60%. In any other election (think Congressional), 35% of a turnout of 60% would be considered a major statement of protest. [Especially as it does not take into account the 160 (out of 260) workers who are not worker-owners, because they can't afford the $500 needed to buy a vote ... I'm sorry, I meant to buy worker-ownership.]

Yet, in our co-op, which workers half-own, a protest vote of this magnitude has no voice whatsoever. It is effectively disenfranchised. That MUST change.

If those who voted for Steve feel they have a mandate for a voice on the Board, then those who voted in protest have earned a mandate for some sort of voice in our co-op.

Maybe my suggestion of a Workers' Committee could be one way of allowing ALL the workers in our co-op to have a voice ...


Without taking anything away from Steve, it occurs to me that some of you who do not know Weaver Street, or are new to it, may not understand the vagaries of the Worker-Owner Elections system, and may, therefore, not understand why I feel able to regard 35% as a magnificent protest statement that should not be ignored.

We have 260 workers, including management and Corporate Office staff. You have to be a Worker-Owner to vote for the Worker Directors on our Board (we have two, out of total of seven Directors). It costs $500 to become a Worker-Owner (it costs $100 to become a Consumer-Owner; huge point of contention; allegations the $500 is a fix to stop shopfloor workers getting to vote - I have advocated for a reduction to a much more reasonable $100).

All workers vote in the same Election. That means management and shopfloor workers vote in the same Election. Another huge point of contention. There are those who say we should have separate representation.

We have about 100 Worker-Owners. There is pretty much a 50:50 split between those who become Worker-Owners just for the annual dividend (and generally do not vote), and those who join both for the dividend and to vote. So, the turnout in Worker-Owner Director Elections is usually about 50-60%.

Thing is, not least because of the $500 price tag, there is an inbuilt management/Corporate Office bias in the voting. Of the 50 or so Worker-Owners who vote, some 30-35 of them are managers or Corporate Office staff, and they generally vote for the status quo.

Of course, they vote for the status quo - they created it.

Now again, not taking anything away from Steve, he is one of the most popular people in Weaver Street. He should have sucked up the totality of that management/Corporate Office bloc vote, and then got another 20 personal votes on top.

The truth is the management/Corporate Office bloc vote most likely shrunk to about 25-30. And then Steve got maybe 5 to 8 personal votes on top of that.

This is not a personal reflection on Steve. But is a massive indictment by our co-op's workers on the direction of our co-op.

Set that against the fact that the protest vote - thinned by the $500 price tag, and further thinned by hardship this past year - actually increased, and it is a further indictment of the direction in which management and the Corporate Office are taking our co-op.

I know it's numbers. I know it means shopfloor workers still do not have representation on their Board (I do not regard a manager and a Corporate Office staff member as shopfloor representation). But it does explain why I say this vote represents a valid protest. And why I say that protest deserves a voice.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Weaver Street Workers' Committee

Win or lose the Election for WSM Worker-Owner Board Director November 2, what have I learned in this Election, and what’s next?

More workers have opened up to me in the past few months than has been true in any previous Election.

I have learned that there are too many unhappy workers in our co-op. That the reasons for their unhappiness are multiple and different.

That I do not know everything. And that those who make the major decisions in our co-op at the moment know even less.

That those who make the important decisions on their own truly do not realize that they should not be making those decisions on their own.

And that the 260 employees who still work for Weaver Street, those who have not jumped ship, are still here because we still believe in our co-op, and we still believe we can make the co-op promise work.

There is a huge fund of goodwill and energy and ideas among our workers, just waiting to serve our co-op and its stakeholders, if only someone would recognize that, and find a way to release it – with dignity and respect.

So. I have an idea. A Weaver Street Co-op Workers’ Committee.

Such a Committee would enable all workers immediately to see that they have visible input.

It would create a permanent body for channeling all of the different worker concerns and suggestions to Admin and the Board, without the channel having to be informal, while guaranteeing a lack of retaliation.

It would create a vehicle for improved multi-directional communication between workers and their different units, and with the Corporate Office and its Board. By which I mean, there would be more information flow between the units, and more information flowing from workers TO the Corporate Office and its Board - and not just FROM the latter.

It would allow workers to discuss among themselves how they want to see their co-op develop.

And it would provide workers with a platform for intitiating projects of their own, arising from those discussions. There is absolutely no reason why activity in our co-op should be initiated only by the Corporate Office or its Board. It is our co-op, too!

We have all of the processes, machinery and personnel needed to establish the Committee. Once a year, each unit could hold an election to choose a unit representative to the Co-op Workers' Committee.

I would suggest the representative be a worker-owner (immediately creating a renewed interest in worker-ownership). But it could be any level of worker-owner (from entry-level clerk to long-time manager). AND all workers in the unit would get to vote.

The Workers' Committee could be overseen by the two Worker-Owner Directors, with the Owner Services Co-ordinator acting as staff support.

There would be no budget per se. But the OSC could interact with the General Manager to obtain funds for specific and worthy projects. I know it sounds silly, but a starting suggestion has been an inter-unit Dodgeball Competition. Go figure!

The Workers' Committee would have guaranteed access to any information it required, and could ask managers and Admin personnel to attend to give explanations.

The Workers' Committee would set its own agenda. And it would have the right to submit findings, thoughts, support and criticism to Admin and the Board, and expect responses. This might require adjustment to the Employee Handbook or Board Policy.

The suggestion in my Election Address for a worker-run Market Messenger might be seen by some as a step too far. But what about guaranteeing the Workers' Committee at least one page of every Market Messenger to include what it sees fit - without interference? Fun stuff. Serious stuff. Letters. Etc.

Yes, there might be open criticism. But that is far better than simmering resentment.

The best part of the idea for a Workers' Committee is that, even if the WSM Corporate Office or its Board decide they do not want to give such a Workers' Committee official sanction, it would still be open to workers to organize the Committee on their own. There is no reason why we should be stopped. Again, it is our co-op, too!

A group of interested workers could set up a preliminary Committee tomorrow. And then hold their own elections for representatives, unit by unit.

AND this Committee could be formed irrespective of the outcome of the 2010 Election for a WSM Worker-Owner Board Director.

Whatever the result of that Election, the workers in Weaver Street Market Co-operative deserve a proper voice in their co-op.

That is a right that should not be dependent on peoples' personal view of me, and whether or not they voted for me. It is a right inherent in the fact that workers own half of this co-op. And that right continues to exist whatever the outcome of the Election.

If you'd be interested in helping to get this Workers' Committee going, drop me a line on Facebook or at my e-mail address: Better still, why not go right ahead and form this Committee without any prodding from me at all ... ??

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Too Much Anger, Not Enough Conversation In Weaver Street Market ... ??

It will probably not surprise any of you to hear that the corporate office at Weaver Street Market Co-operative is angry with me. This was made clear to me at a couple of election meetings this past weekend and today. I wrote a letter in response to one of the corporate office staff members, and I share it below (names excluded):

"I just wanted to write, primarily to thank you for talking with me today. It is never easy to have to confront someone, even in the nicest of ways! I want you to know that I appreciate that, and that I understood what you were saying.

I don't want to take up too much more of your time. And I am not trying to convert you! But you deserve to know where I am coming from. We have known each other for about four years now. I do not like your being angry with me. And you should know that it takes quite a lot for me to get angry.

I do understand that you are angry with me. The thing is, there are a lot of my fellow workers - my friends - who are angry in the outlets.

When I say something like this, some people say it's just me; there is no-one else. All I can say is this. You read the article on my blog about the Southern Village Store Meeting. And the things I said, and the questions that I asked.

In the two weeks after that meeting, 15 workers came up to me and thanked me for what I had said and asked. Of those, two apologized for not speaking up in support. I (gently) asked them why they had not. They told me the same thing that other workers tell me, when they do not speak up or speak out about their unhappiness - they are scared about retaliation; about losing their jobs; about not getting a pay raise; about not getting a reference when they leave.

There was even one senior manager, who, in a private conversation with me, said the he felt it was wrong that no-one from admin had answered my question about why the need for the 15% sales increase. Yet, even he did not speak up, and say that at the meeting.

So. It is not just me. There are a lot of workers who are very unhappy. Why? They tell me it is because they feel there are too many decisions being made in the admin offices that have huge impact on them, and they feel those decisions are not properly explained, and that they are not included in the making of those decisions.

I have been trying (and so have others) these past few years to find the place in our co-op where we are able to be a part of the discussion leading to those decisions. I have had no luck finding that conversation.

It is one of the reasons I stand for the Board, so that I can have some sort of conversation. Like we did this morning. But it is not enough. We were promised more when we became worker-owners. We should be able to expect more in a co-op we half-own. And it is no longer good enough to say, well, nothing is perfect.

Things have not changed in the four years that I and others have been begging for communication and conversation to improve. So, I have taken to having a one-sided conversation on my blog. And yes, it is angry. When you and your friends are constantly tuned out, you start to get angry.

And to be honest, when things do not change over the years, when people become more and more unhappy, and no-one seems to be paying any attention, after a while, yes, people begin to think it is deliberate. They begin to think that, yes, maybe there is a deliberate reason why they are not having things properly explained; why they are not included in the decision-making.

I don't mean to go on. But I hope you understand that I do not write my blog for sport. Just to get a rise. I write it because there is no other way to communicate. And because I do not like to see my friends hurting - not in a co-op.

I do not like to see you hurt either. I would like to suggest that, perhaps, the answer is not to get angry at me or my blog, but it is, maybe, to ask those who have the power to make changes - the folks sitting in the same offices as you - to ask them what they are doing to allow you and I and others to have the conversations that would allow us to discuss these matters, explain things to each other, and then make the decisions, rather than having those decisions being made by just a small handful of people in our supposedly democratic co-op. Maybe? That is all I have ever been about. It is all I am about now.

All the best,

Why The Need For A Weaver Street "Workers Task Force" ...

**PROUD TO BE A WEAVER STREET HACK...HACK...HACK...** Notwithstanding the continuing lurgy/tick disease/end of the world internals, and as promised, I wrote to the Board of WSM this morning about it forming a WSM "Workers Task Force." The e-mail is a little wonkish, I know. But WSM governance is a bit wonkish at the moment. I'm hoping to make it less so - for those that follow:

"Dear Board,

You will shortly be reviewing compliance by the General Manager (not in his personal capacity, but as the iconic representation of the entire corporate office and operations of Weaver Street, and therefore, every individual performer within the same) with Board Policy 2.3 - Treatment of Staff.

I have written to you on several occasions during the year setting out in some detail how, on more than one occasion, the General Manager and the corporate office and operations have been in non-compliance with 2.3. I would find it extraordinary, therefore, if you were simply to decide to the contrary.

I have two further matters to raise in this e-mail in that regard, but also a suggestion so that, going forward, the Board, and the owners it represents, may be able to give guidance to the General Manager to allow him to begin to rectify the non-compliance:

1) In the course of the past month, employees have been informed that they will be expected to achieve a co-op wide increase in sales of 15% in 2011.

There was no consultation with the general workforce before this announcement. This places the General Manager in non-compliance with Clause (4) - the General Manager may not permit a decision-making standard that does not allow for [employees to have the] opportunity to participate in decisions and shape the guidelines for decisions.

At the Southern Village Unit Meeting, I asked for an explanation as to why Weaver Street needed to raise an extra $3.75 million. The answer I was given covered only the extra $300,000 that would be needed to pay out a dividend in 2011. In other words, as an employee and as a worker-owner, I am left to conclude that there is no need for this extra money. That renders the decision in breach of the general provision that the General Manager will not allow workplace conditions that are unnecessarily intrusive.

Clearly, demanding without consultation that every employee work 15% harder is an intrusion (especially when no sort of incentive is being offered). And without proffered rationale, it is unnecessary.

The General Manager is, therefore, in non-compliance with 2.3, arising out of the decision to increase sales by 15%, and arising out of the manner in which the decision was made.

2) I just went through an episode which calls into question the effectiveness of Clauses (1) [protection against wrongful conditions], (3) [discrimination against staff member for expressing an ethical dissent], and (5)(b)(ii) [Board Policy not adequately protecting human rights].

I could wax lyrical about my loss of rights under the First Amendment, or launch appeals, or make further direct approach to the Board on the specific matter. But frankly, I was blessed with sufficient of a brain and 'political' stamina that I have never needed the support of other people or pieces of paper to fight my advocacy battles.

What bothers me though is that, through no fault of their own, there are many who do. And there are many workers in our co-op who now need you to step up for them and protect them. Not least because the episode which I have just experienced, along with the many other humiliations and embarrassments that my co-workers have witnessed being heaped on me because of my co-op advocacy work, make them even less likely to speak up and speak out for themselves.

Moreover, I am not looking with this e-mail to prolong the episode in question. What happened is over. We all move on. I do what I always try to do. Draw positive lessons from negative situations.

The primary lesson I draw from the episode in question is that, one way or another, in the past few years, we seem to have lost sight of what is the role of worker-ownership. What is its purpose.

Isn't it supposed to include an opportunity to have direct input into Board policy-making, as I was promised in writing by Ruffin Slater, when I became a worker-owner? Doesn't it include a responsibility to monitor the Board, which, in turn, monitors the General Manager/corporate office/operations? Doesn't that include monitoring the effect of the activities of the General Manager/corporate office/operations on co-op policy/Mission Statement/Board Policy, etc? How is that supposed to look? More to the point, where is any of this defined in writing?

Which brings me to my suggestion. That, at the conclusion of its discussion on 2.3, the Board recommend the formation of a Board Committee, to be called something like "The Workers Task Force," with the following remit:

A) Define the role, rights and responsibilities of worker-owners. Determine what pathways should be set up to allow them the input to Board policy-making, which has consistently been promised to them by Weaver Street. Review the worker-owner Board Director Election Process, to ensure (as the Weaver Street Elections Task Force demanded) that the Process be fully free, fair and independent of inappropriate interference by the corporate office, senior management and the Board of Directors itself.

B) Review worker conditions throughout Weaver Street Market and Panzanella to determine if they are in compliance with the Mission Statement, which requires that the work experience be fulfilling, and with Board Policy 2.3 ("Treatment of Staff"), which requires that the work experience be not unnecessarily intrusive, unduly undignified or disrespectful, and that all workers be allowed to participate in decision-making that affects their workplace. Such review to include watertight mechanisms to allow workers to give evidence anonymously, and with no fear of retaliation.

C) Thoroughly review the decision by the corporate office to increase sales in 2011 by 15%, including taking the fullest representations from the corporate office, so as to determine if the decision is necessary; why; and if it represents an unnecessary intrusion on the workforce.

I thank you for your time.

All the best,
Geoff Gilson
Worker-Owner 9997"

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Be Or Not To Be A Weaver Street Worker-Owner ...

I became a Weaver Street Worker-Owner five years ago because I wanted to be a part of the conversation about how our co-op is governed.

I didn't become a Worker-Owner so that I could rant at Ruffin Slater, our co-op General Manager.

I didn't become a Worker-Owner so that I could spend my time being rude about our Board of Directors.

And I sure as heck did not become a Worker-Owner so that I could face possible termination for my co-op advocacy work.

I became a Worker-Owner because the documentation enticing me to separate with $500 (the price of Worker-Ownership) included two articles in which Ruffin waxed lyrical about how ours was a special co-op, where Worker-Owners had a special pathway of communication and input into the policy-making process of our Board of Directors.


I recognized that a co-op moving from being an intimate corner shoppe to a five unit mini-empire, including its own food-processing facilities, in the space of a decade, was going to have a lot of problems keeping intact its intimate co-operative feel.

That we might all too easily lose sight of some of our basic co-operative values and principles. Like, owners are the source of all authority in our co-op (not a centralized corporate office). And, the sole ambition of our co-op is to provide for the common needs of our stakeholders (how do you know what are those needs if you become too remote from the stakeholders?).

I thought (and still think) I had some good ideas to help resolve these issues. So, I waited for the pathway into the Board's policy-making to open up. Never happened. Still hasn't. I'm cutting a long story rather short here. But you can fill in the pieces by browsing through this blog sometime.

Anyway, I decided the only way I was going to be able to engage in the conversation was by joining the Board itself. So, I stood for the Board for the first time in 2007. I hope you notice that my themes then were pretty much the same as they are now. I'm the one who has been consistent. It is the corporate office which has changed.

Well. I lost that Election. But the more worrying aspect was that there were serious irregularities with the Worker-Owner Election Process itself. I don't mind folks not agreeing with me, or my fellow candidates. But I do mind when we are not only 'competing' with each other, but also with the inappropriate meddling of the corporate office and/or senior management, who have taken a dislike to one or other of the candidates.

So, my suggestion of an Elections Task Force was agreed to by the Board. And I had what was the closest thing to a sensible conversation in our co-op, about our co-op. We drafted new rules for the Elections going forward. But more than that, we identified for the Board other areas where Task Forces would be useful in helping to introduce new ideas and schemes to keep our co-op an authentic co-op.

Well, it all came crashing down. We were supposed to be re-convened, to continue with our work. But that never happened. I fancy that we stepped on too many toes with our insistence on re-instituting as policy the quite normal co-operative notion that the corporate office and operations of a co-op are the servants, not the masters, of the co-op. And that, as co-operative values insist, it is the owners who are the masters of the co-op, and, therefore, masters of the corporate office and operations.

Well, after that, it just got worse. Any and all remaining opportunities for Worker-Owners to have input to the Board were shut down. The right accorded ALL workers, in the Employee Policy Handbook, that they shall be allowed to participate in the making of decisions that affect their workplace, has pretty much been set to one side. Workers were not consulted over the decision to increase sales in 2011 by 15%. And even when workers are consulted, their feedback is now ignored. There was overwhelming opposition to the proposal to extend opening hours. Happened anyway.

So, I have found myself increasingly fighting merely a rearguard action simply to find what little space I can to set up my own lines of communication and discussion for workers - my blog; Facebook. While trying to ask tough questions of the corporate office and the Board about those decisions they make which keep impacting workers so heavily and so badly. All the while, standing for the Board each year. And, each year, finding the Election Process subject to more...technical glitches...

Which brings me to this last week. When it was made quite clear to me that: the corporate office knows there are now no pathways for Worker-Owners to have input into Board policy-making; the corporate office takes a dim view of alternative pathways that are set up by folks like me; the corporate office will monitor such pathways very closely; the corporate office recognizes that there is no longer a clear definition of the role and rights of Worker-Owners; and, as a consequence, the corporate office will feel free to bring Employee Disciplinary Proceedings against any such alternative communication pathways, if there is something they do not like, since there are no special privileges clearly defined for Worker-Owners to advocate publicly.

Dorothy, we are a long way from Rochdale...

Which brings me back to the beginning of this Note. I did not become a Worker-Owner to whine and rant and complain and scream and carry on. I became a Worker-Owner to offer positive and useful suggestions as to how we can become a stronger business and a better co-op.

Quite aside from anything else, I'm not going to be able to achieve anything on behalf of the co-op, its workers, its stakeholders and customers if I am terminated for screaming at the wrong people. Sometimes, you have to recognize the immovable force, and come at it a different way.

So, when I am feeling a little better (you have no idea how much this has taken out of me; but I wanted to get it said), I will be writing to the WSM Board of Directors and suggesting that they set up a Board Committee of Owners (a "Workers Task Force"?), with both Consumer- and Worker-Owners as members, with the following remit:

1) Define the role, rights and responsibilities of Worker-Owners. Determine what pathways should be set up to allow them the input to Board policy-making, which has consistently been promised to them by Ruffin. And review the Worker-Owner Elections Process, to ensure (as the Elections Task Force demanded) that the Process be fully free, fair and independent of inappropriate interference by the corporate office, senior management and the Board itself.

2) Review worker conditions throughout the co-op to determine if they are in compliance with the Mission Statement, which requires that the work experience be fulfilling, and with Board Policy 2.3 ("Treatment of Staff"), which requires that the work experience be not unnecessarily intrusive, undignified or disrespectful, and that all workers be allowed to participate in decision-making that affects their workplace. Such review to include watertight mechanisms to allow workers to give evidence anonymously, and with no fear of retaliation.

3) Thoroughly review the decision to increase sales in 2011 by 15%, including taking the fullest representations from the corporate office, so as to determine if the decision is necessary; why; and if it represents an unnecessary intrusion on the workforce.

I am not naturally negative. Anyone who works or socializes with me knows that (well, except for my outre and totally inappropriate sense of humor!). I remain the eternal optimist. I wouldn't be running for the Board for the fourth time if I wasn't one of those.

But isn't it fair to ask: who is actually being negative - the ones who create the negative conditions, or the one who points out how negative they are (and then offers positive alternatives)?

In any event, when all the teeth-gnashing is over (and there was a lot of that this past week), I re-gird the old loins, and find a new way to promote co-operative values in our co-op. I believe a Workers Task Force will go some way in that regard - at least as far as workers and Worker-Owners are concerned. And I hope that whoever wins the Worker-Owner Director Election this November, the victor will support the Task Force's formation. I know I will ...

[And what with my still undiagnosed lurgy, this Note has pretty much wiped me out. So, it's back to bed now ...]

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Proud To Be A 'Low-Skilled' Weaver Street Worker ...

Today, I had my 'non-disciplinary' disciplinary meeting about my alleged 'emotional harassment' of the WSM corporate office...I mean, a WSM corporate office staffer.

I'm guessing this is a first for a Worker-Owner Candidate for the WSM Board of Directors, whose campaign platform calls, not co-incidentally, for tough questions to be asked of the WSM corporate office. Who said, 'politically motivated' ... ??

Quick background check: A short while ago (while I was at the beach in fact), a member of the Weaver Street Market corporate office made a statement to the local press, which, although not specifically about WSM workers, made references to manual workers in grocery stores that some of us manual workers found quite offensive. Hence, 'Low-Skilled' Weaver Street Worker (LSWSW).

I linked to it on my Facebook Page, and wrote to the WSM Board of Directors, wondering if the statement was official Weaver Street policy. The doo-doo hit the fan, and smack bang in the middle of my campaign for election to that same Board, the WSM corporate office entertained a formal charge by said corporate office staffer of emotional harassment against me. I kid you not.

Had a preliminary meeting with the Human Resources Department. Said it was none of their business. It wasn't a workplace issue. The staffer made comments in public, not in the workplace. I was within my rights to answer in public. And besides, this was a governance/policy issue, not an operations/employee issue. Otherwise, how could worker-owners advocate?

Well. The Human Resources Department 'investigated.' Called me in for another meeting. I told them not unless it was quite clear the meeting was non-disciplinary, since I did not recognize their jurisdiction. They lied. Said ok. And then made it a disciplinary meeting.

We had what in England we call a 'frank and open exchange.' And the upshot is: (1) Worker-Owners do not have any special privileges to engage in public discussion about co-op policy; and (2) If you set up your own communications vehicle (blog, Facebook, banner in the sky) to advocate about co-op policy, it will be monitored, and you may be disciplined for content, if the WSM corporate office don't like what you say.


We went round the houses about the specific allegation of 'emotional harassment.' I got confused. I've got lurgy. Give me a break.

I was told I was criticising someone's workplace performance. I wasn't. I was responding to comments made in a newspaper.

Mind you, if the comments were made as a consequence of workplace performance (i.e. were co-op policy), wasn't I right to be concerned? If not, then why were employee disciplinary proceedings being brought against me?

Ahhhh, came the reply. Because of the WAY you expressed concern. Huh? I expressed concern as a Worker-Owner on my Facebook Page, and in a letter to the policy-making body in our co-op, the Board of Directors.

Ahhhh, we continued. You should only have complained to a supervisor. Why? If someone complained about my blog to my Department Manager, he would say, none of his business.

Plus, simply reporting to a supervisor would have left the original offensive comments unanswered in public.

Besides which, you still seem to be missing the essential point: Worker-Owners have a responsibility to monitor all the affairs of the co-op, including the corporate office, comment on and discuss them, and then report concerns to the Board of Directors.

This activity does not fall within the jurisdiction of the employee disciplinary process. Complaints are to be addressed to the only body having authority over Owners, namely the Board.

Nope. Not having any of it. I was warned never to do it again. What exactly? No more humiliating. Who? Well, what it came down to was, no more embarrassing the corporate office.

I explained that I speak up and speak out, on my behalf and others, using my own forms of communication, because: (A) Worker-Owners are admonished to be interested in every aspect of their co-op; and (B) Every WSM-provided opportunity for Worker-Owner communication and conversation has been shut down in the past few years.

To no avail.

So. Either I shut up. Or I continue with my campaign to ask tough questions and create space for all workers to be heard in our co-op. Whatever the consequences.

And believe you me, there will be consequences. Beginning, I am sure, with this post. Ho hum ...

[I wrote this in the heat of the moment. I thought about taking it down later. But it represents a very real and very justifiable anger at the WSM corporate office abusing the employee disciplinary process for political purposes.

And whatever may be seen as negative content is more than offset by the very positive approach of my subsequent post a few items higher up.

Besides which, I can't help but ask: who is actually being negative -- the ones who create the negative conditions; the ones who pretend they aren't negative; or the one who points out the negativity, and then sets out positive alternatives?

Sigh. Why oh why is the WSM corporate office so scared of simple democratic dialogue?]

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Worker-Owner Director Election 2010

What follows is the information that I have submitted in support of my application to serve as a Worker-Owner Director of the Weaver Street Market/Panzanella Co-operative:

Current profession or occupation

Hot Bar cook in the Southern Village store. Active worker-owner with Weaver Street Market/Panzanella, concerned with ensuring that owners, customers and workers are the source of all authority in our co-op.

Previous profession or occupation

I was trained as a lawyer, and practiced in the UK and the US, concentrating on progressive social advocacy. For example, I spent several years in a historically disadvantaged region of Appalachia, assisting in establishing a community law practice for working people.

I developed a secondary career as a values-driven community business consultant and company director, again in both the UK and the US. I specialized in troubleshooting for businesses that were experiencing serious financial or organizational difficulties.

That meant mediating disputes, opening new channels of communication and creating values-based strategies that encouraged the Boards of those companies to understand that the most important assets of any enterprise are fulfilled workers and happy consumers.

In 1996, I decided to leave behind my conventional corporate career to focus instead on social entrepreneurship and my creative pursuits (writing, composing and occasional stand-up comedy) – which is what brought me to Weaver Street in 2005.

Current community involvement

Weaver Street Market Co-operative’s governance process – as a concerned worker and owner, seeking first-time election as a Board Director. Our return to genuine profitability (free of crippling long-term debt) and authentic co-operative values is a huge task, allowing little room for other community involvement.

At the moment, I monitor our co-op’s corporate office and its Board of Directors, and advocate in respect of the impact of their decision-making on worker conditions, in part through the medium of my blog:

Previous community involvement

I have taken an active role in my local community since the age of 16, gaining experience which I believe will help me, on your behalf, to negotiate the complexities of our governance process, and to create space for all of our voices to be heard more clearly.

I have been a City Councilor and Council Committee Chair, a Special Needs School Governor, and I served on the Development Committee of Carrboro/Chapel Hill’s WCOM radio co-operative – so, I know how to engage in consensus governance in a way that encourages all points of view to receive a fair hearing.

I was a progressive social campaigner at the national level in the UK and the US (with special emphasis on poverty and immigration rights), and a broadcaster on WCOM – so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with others to assist them in expressing their concerns in a way that makes a difference.

I was an actor and Board Chair with a community theatre in North Georgia, wrote the By-Laws for a US domestic violence non-profit, and served on Weaver Street’s Elections Task Force – so, complex policy-making and intricate group dynamics don’t overwhelm me; actually, I really love working to bring both together so that the end result always serves people, and not the other way round.

Why would you like to serve on the Board of Directors?

I love our co-op, and I want to give something back. But I think we have lost our way. I believe that the only way to return us to sustainable profitability, and to being an authentic co-op where every voice matters, is to get new blood onto our Board. If you elect me, I will work consensually with the Board to:

a) Erase Weaver Street’s remaining long-term debt of some $8 million. Not by asking workers to work harder – we’re already working as hard as we can. But by changing the gameplan that says that we need to maintain a crippling debt burden of $8 million.

Once the need for the debt is gone, we workers will no longer have to struggle to repay the debt nor to find the $1 million a year to pay the bank interest on that debt.

That money will be available instead to invest in more staff and better resources. So that we can improve work conditions, food production, customer service and sales.

And so that the co-op can fully restore to us workers our hours, our proper pay levels and our dividends – along with the fulfilling work experience promised to us in our co-op’s Mission Statement.

b) Strengthen the monitoring powers of the Board of Directors, so that it is better able to persuade the corporate office to be more responsive to owners, customers and workers.

c) Reform the communication and democratic structures within our co-op, so that we get more accurate information, and so that decision-making is truly collaborative, and not merely imposed from above.

Why not, for example, make our “Market Messenger” an independent, in-store newspaper run by an editorial team of workers drawn from all of the units?

We have become a co-op of many different and separated identities, each with its own distinctive strength. Wouldn’t a reinvigorated and worker-run “Market Messenger” be a great facility for promoting better understanding and a real sense of belonging, while at the same time honoring our individual uniqueness? At no extra cost to Weaver Street Market?

I want to assist in creating the space in our co-op that makes it easier for all the voices to be heard. That ensures that it is not only a small group of people who get to determine the direction of the co-op we all love. And that requires that the corporate office engage in a lot more asking and a little less demanding.

Briefly describe any experience you have had with worker or consumer co-operatives or with other small community-minded businesses

My LinkedIn ( and Facebook ( profiles demonstrate a history of successful engagement in the self-empowerment of various small community-minded businesses.

Right now, I am formulating a business plan to help a semi-retired chiropractor re-establish his practice in Hillsborough in a way that allows him to maximize his retirement benefits while creating a lasting holistic enterprise that will benefit our community.

One of my happiest ventures was assisting a co-operative radio station in the UK, owned and run by its workforce, to re-structure itself and win one of the UK’s premier FM broadcasting licenses.

I have always and passionately practiced the belief that the key to any successful and sustainable business is happy and fulfilled workers and consumers.

If our co-op would trust its workers, respect our talents and expertise, and empower us to make our own decisions, rather than stripping us of our dignity, treating us as numbers, and imposing faceless gameplans from above, then we would be truly inspired to achieve genuinely sustainable profit and productivity, along with excellent customer service.

Briefly describe any experiences you have had developing organizational policies or plans that reflect the values of that organization

As a lawyer, management consultant, social entrepreneur and elected official, I have had the good fortune to be able consensually to develop values-based organizational plans with all sorts of different enterprises, whether for-profit, non-profit or governmental.

I wrote an 80-page strategic oversight plan for the Board of Weaver Street back in 2007, called “Informal Intimacy.” It wasn’t adopted by the Board. But not to worry. We can still use it! –

Include anything else about yourself that you may like others to know

This election is not about me. It’s about you. I want to know what YOU think, and what YOU want. Please feel free to chat, or to contact me at: One last thing about me? I really do enjoy singing karaoke at the WSM/Panzanella Christmas Party!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Giving Voice To Workers (II)

Is it just me? I sat through a two-hour store meeting last night, and I still don't know why we are being asked to work 15% harder in our worker/consumer co-op next year.

15% increase in Weaver Street/Panzanella sales = $3.75million. We were told (in a roundabout way) by some corporate office staffers (half of whom I did not know - talk about 'them' and 'us') that we need $1 million extra next year to be able to start paying dividends again.

Of course (and I know you've worked this out all by yourself), if we didn't have to pay just under $1 million a year in interest on our long-term debt (of $8 million), then we wouldn't have to work harder to find that $1 million for the dividend, in the first place.

But, leaving that on one side, what's the need for the other $2.75 million, I asked? The Finance Manager looked blank and said: "Expenses? Maybe?" I swear on my mother's dentures. That is exactly what he said. [Can I have his job, please? I want a nice big salary, and an office with a carpet, too...]

Where was I? Oh yes...

MAYBE?!? The corporate office wants me to sweat 15% more blood next year, and the Finance Manager can't even tell me why? Fine, I responded. Every time you poke me in the back to work harder, I'm just going to poke you right back and say, only when you can tell me why. That's the point at which my Department Manager (Darth Hotbar) gave me the death stare.

However, that wasn't the point at which I lost my temper. That was when one of the Wal-M...I'm sorry...Weaver Street corporate officials said,"We have pay raises for you." I do believe I responded, somewhat icily, "No you don't. We made that money. Not you."

The rest of the meeting was one of the slickest and most frightening marketing presentations I've ever seen in a co-operative. It was all about how Weaver Street is going to make more and more and more money. I'm sorry. I meant, how we workers are going to make more and more and more money (for the corporate office, mind you; not for us). And not one meaningful scintilla about why. Nor whether any of the stakeholders (especially workers) had been consulted, or would be.

So much for the declaration at the front of our Employee Handbook which states that, in accordance with co-op policy, workers must be allowed to participate in making the decisions that affect their workplace.

In three of the ten minutes allowed for comment (that is what debate for workers in our worker/consumer co-op has boiled down to – ten minutes, once a year, to respond to a marketing plan already set in stone behind a combination lock in the corporate office; but I digress)...

...I gave my little spiel about the sole ambition of a co-operative being to provide for the common needs of its stakeholders (owners,customers and workers); and how I wasn't hearing any consumers clamoring for15% more product, or workers begging to work 15% harder; and how the 'why' should be agreed with stakeholders, before the corporate office begins working out the 'how'; and how, even then, the 'how' needs to be planned in collaboration with workers, not just imposed on them, because we are a co-operative, and co-operation is a verb; etc, etc.

But, when it was all over, and I had won a really nice gift card in the raffle (yes, I'm a cheesy, cheap date), I still did not and do not know why our co-operative needs to make another $3.75 million in 2011. Nor why we workers are being instructed to work 15% harder to achieve that ambition.Without any incentive, or improved resources and staff levels.

And the truly worrying aspect is that the whole pack of cards – the ambition to increase sales by 15% – is dependent upon an intricately interlinking combination of improved food production, category management (whatever that is), new signage, slicker merchandising, Kim Kardashian and a partridge in a pear tree. I got dizzy just trying to keep up. [Psst, Kim, I hear you're free again – my e-mail address is in my Facebook Info]

Now, I applaud ambition – at the best of times. But you know, we workers are still suffering from the effects of the last of The Great Weaver Adventures. Why are we undertaking another? Upon which so much appears to depend (although, apparently not my paycheck – no-one suggested last evening an expansion of my wallet by 15%), and all of which could be doomed if any one of the many fragile pieces comes unstuck. We just don't have a terribly good track record with Great Adventures.

Four years ago, at a similar store meeting, I warned of the dangers inherent in The Great Expansion – too much being attempted, all at the same time, with no expert guidance, in the name of a vision which was not properly explained or shared. We all know where that ended up. And we seem to be going there again. The only thing the corporate office seems to have learned in the meantime is how to use prettier graphics to confuse us.

Why can't we just come up with a simple plan, like, get the debt down, live within our means, forget Great Adventures, invest in improving work conditions (of which there was not one word last evening) and just sell good food and excellent groceries to wonderful consumers who like to be served by happy workers? Hmmaybe?

Particularly when all this talk of a 15% sales increase is being tossed around at a time when the nation's economic forecasters are predicting that, next year, there will be a consumer-purchasing slowdown, if not an outright return to recession. Oops. I think someone just walked over my grave...Darth, go home...

Ooh. Ooh. I nearly forgot. We are now being told that the profit for 2010 will be $700,000. Quick recap. Two months ago, we were told we were only going to break even. A month ago, we were told that the profit would be $300,000. Now, a month later, $700,000??

Hang on. At this rate, if we did nothing, just sat tight,and waited for monthly updates, in a year's time, we could have paid off the debt, turned the Food House into a Caesar's Palace Casino, and all be driving brand new Lamborghini's! Now, there's a plan. No. I didn't say that last evening. I do know Darth Hotbar's boiling point.


We can't get new blood on the Board of Directors of the Weaver Street Market [Worker/Consumer] Co-operative soon enough...

And whoever that new blood may be, come November, I will be asking the new Directors immediately to set up two Board Committees of worker and consumer-owners, tasked with:

1) Reviewing the co-op's finances, top to bottom, especially expenditure in the corporate office, this new marketing plan and our long-term debt, with a view to making recommendations to place our co-op on a genuinely sustainable path, ensuring the new marketing plan is not a waste of time and money, and erasing the debt in a way that no longer impacts workers so harshly.

2) Reviewing worker conditions (taking evidence, where necessary, in the strictest confidence and anonymously), including the workplace, pay and benefits, and elections, with a view to making recommendations to ensure that those conditions are once again in compliance with co-op policy that states that the work experience will be fulfilling, non-exploitative, dignified, respectful and not unnecessarily intrusive.

And any recommendations that flow from those two committees will be fully discussed with stakeholders BEFORE being implemented.


Now, to be fair, after our store meeting, a mate sitting next to me did come up with a possible rationale for needing that extra $2.75 million.

He had noticed a slide, that was not shown during our presentation, all about plans for the Carrboro store, including its long-overdue refurbishment. He wondered if the money could be for that?

Well, let me be the first to say that, if the extra $2.75 million is to be used to upgrade Carrboro, where I have many friends, and which was left eviscerated by the move to the Food House and the new store in Hillsborough, then I'd be happy to work three times as hard next year.

But then, why not just say so? Why the big secret? Plus, I have a feeling that is not the answer, since the last I heard the Carrboro refurbishment was to be paid for with new consumer investment. Can any of my Carrboro friends elucidate? Were you guys (and gals) told anything at your meeting that sheds more light?

Bottom line: one more good reason for a lot better communication in our co-op; a deal sight more openness and transparency; and the return of the annual meeting of all the employees, in the same place, so that we all know what we're all being told.


We can't get new blood, blah, blah...

Giving Voice To Workers (I)

Oh bloody hell. Another newspaper article [], inspired by the corporate office of Weaver Street Market, which fails to thank us workers for the sacrifices we are making to turnaround our worker/consumer co-op, and which mangles the financial figures. Sigh. Yet another Letter to the Editor...

"Dear Editor,

There is no-one who wants to hear good news about Weaver Street Market Co-operative more than me. Provided it is genuine good news.

What was not clear from your recent article was whether or not the reported $300,000 profit for 2010 takes into account the $1 million in bank interest that needs to be paid (each year) on our continuing $8 million long-term debt.

What was not clear was that the corporate office of Weaver Street has no announced plan for tackling that long-term debt other than continuing to ask the co-op’s workers to work harder for less – just as they have done these past three years.

And what was missing from your article was any appreciation of the fact that it is the sacrifice of those same workers that has been the primary cause of any financial turnaround in The Weave.

Two years ago, the Annual Meeting of WSM's owners supported my call for a Financial Review Committee to devise options for dramatically reducing the debt, other than simply demanding year after year that the co-op's workers work harder for less. The Board ignored the expressed wishes of their owners and refused to form the Committee.

If we were to erase our long-term debt (and the annual interest payment of $1 million), we would be able instead to invest that $1 million in improved product and customer service, and we would no longer have to go on making impossible demands of our already overstressed workers.

Yours faithfully,
Geoff Gilson
Weaver Street Worker-Owner"

[I am always ready to discuss any and all ideas co-operators might have about sustainably improving the finances and co-operative values of Weaver Street Market Co-operative, so that we are an organization that truly succeeds and genuinely 'co-operates.' You can find some more of my thoughts in this regard scattered around this blog]

The Chapel Hill News very kindly published the longer version of my letter -- Followed by a generous response from longtime consumer and owner, Chris Franks --

The Carrboro Citizen also printed my letter -- Which actually drew a veiled response from Ruffin Slater -- Yay for the power of the workers' voices!


The Chapel Hill News interviewed Ruffin Slater, compared what he had to say with information to be found on this blog, and then produced a follow-up report.

I had the following to say on Facebook:

**PROUD TO BE A WEAVER STREET HALF-OWNER** Ruffin Slater, GM: " ... the only business in the area half-owned by its workers."

Which is why the WSM corporate office should stop acting like it's a privilege for WSM workers to be more involved in decision-making. It is our right. We half-own the co-op.

By the by, I'm not opposed to the 15% sales increase per se. But we workers have a right to know why we need to raise $2.75 million more than the $1 million needed to pay a dividend in 2011 (15% = $3.75 million).

Equally, I'm not necessarily critical of the decisions being taken to rescue the co-op we all love. But we workers have a right to participate in making those decisions. And we workers deserve much more tangible credit for the consequent financial turnaround.


The folks at the Orange County blog,, then got in on the act with a mind-blowing analysis of WSM's finances, based on figures contained in WSM's Annual Reports. And I had this comment, also on Facebook:

I had absolutely NOTHING to do with this analysis of the Chapel Hill News article about Weaver Street's loans this past Wednesday. But it makes for fascinating reading.

I especially love the table at the end, showing how WSM corporate office costs have risen 500% -- yes, 500% -- in the past five years. When worker salar...ies were frozen, and the worker-owner dividend disappeared.

Anyone still believe we don't need a Board Director prepared to ask tough questions of the corporate office and the other Board members ... ??

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sale of the Corner Building...**SIGH**

There is no-one who wants Weaver Street Market Co-operative to overcome its financial problems and succeed more than me. But we do our co-op and ourselves no favors by burying our heads in the sand, and then pretending that this represents “returning the co-op to a sustainable financial position.” []

It is not negative or pessimistic to warn of false dawns, and to propose alternative remedies as a realistic path to financial security []. Indeed, the truly ‘negative’ reaction is the one where we quietly accept the nonsense we are fed, thus allowing our treasured co-op to sink further into the mire.

Do we attack every newspaper report that relays to us the gathering horror in the Gulf of Mexico? Of course we don’t. We use it to inform our debate and the action we take to advocate for the best possible solution to the tragedy that engulfs our southern coast.

Almost every single worker with The Weave joined the co-op intending for it to be more than just a job. That was the whole point. So we are, all of us, already geared to going that extra mile to ensure that we succeed. We are a ready and willing target for the odd hardship, here and there, if it helps to save what for us is not just a paycheck – but a way of life.

But what truly pisses us off is when our corporate office and our Board present the latest stop-gap measure (this time the sale of the infamous Corner Building) as a brave new dawn. Only then to slam us with yet more intrusive and ill-thought-out productivity demands or senseless cost-savings – most of which serve only to make our workplace more difficult, more dangerous and less fulfilling.

We all now know what is the root problem with our straitened circumstances, and what needs to be done to bring real resolution to the situation. []

We over-expanded right at the beginning of the severest recession in a century. We over-borrowed, to the tune of $10 million (on an annual turnover of $25 million), and we are now saddled with scrambling to find $1 million a year in annual bank interest charges.

Every single demand that is made of us workers to increase sales, or cut staff, or do with less, or work harder comes down to that one primary imperative, forced upon us by a corporate office and Board of Directors who refuse to face reality – the overwhelming need to find $1 million a year to stop the banks taking over. []

Anyone who has to balance a check book or an online bank statement knows what needs to be done. It is not to keep on devising new short-cuts, new stop-gaps, and new half-measures.

We all know that the real long-term solution is to get rid of that annual $1 million bank interest charge. And that means getting rid of the $10 million in debt. And that requires completely re-structuring that debt and the expanded co-op, in a way that saves as many of the benefits of expansion as possible – but gets rid of the annual $1 million bank interest demand.

I called for just such a co-op wide review at the Annual Meeting in 2008. The attending owners backed that call. The Board ignored the suggestion at its following Board meeting.

Why are the Board, the corporate office and the General Manager so reluctant to face financial reality and reduce the enormous stress on the workers? Because they are viscerally unwilling to admit that expansion, in the form that it took, was a mistake. They refuse to change direction, regardless of the benefits, because it might show them to be less than perfect. That’s it. No more than that.

It has nothing to do with achieving some unseen goal, just around the corner. It has precious little to do with securing a bright financial future. And it has zero to do with saving our co-op. It is all about a small group of people saving their face.

And so we scramble. We sweat. We hurt. We curse. We cry. To find $1 million a year. To make a few on the Board and in the corporate office feel good about themselves.

What does this mean on the macro level?

In 2008, we made an operating loss of about $400,000 – which the corporate office and Board claimed, dishonestly, was a once-off payment for extra personnel in building the Food House. In fact, it was occasioned by the fact that the FH budget was allowed to run over drastically, the borrowing ran out, and management simply dipped into our dividend to make up the difference. And then lied about it.

But this was not enough. Already we were faced with the consequences of our huge borrowing, and, unknown to any of us until the Co-operative Grocer revealed it earlier this year, our General Manager secretly arranged with the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association to borrow $1.3 million to bail out our co-op, and avoid bankruptcy.

In 2009, in order to find the money to pay the $1 million in bank interest, we took away all of the consumer-owner discounts. This was another of the many false dawns much trumpeted by the corporate office.

Yet, clearly it did not work, since we are now told we had to go out later that same year (2009), and borrow yet more hundreds of thousands of dollars in short-term loans, just to pay off that year’s $1 million bank interest charge.

Which brings us to this year (2010). I know I’m not the only worker scratching his (or her) head and wondering why our General Manager used as his rationale for extending opening hours the argument that we needed this measure to help us to break even. Um. We thought this was the argument used when taking away the consumer-owner discounts last year? [Confused yet?]

Many of us warned at the time that such a short-sighted proposal might actually lose us more sales than gain us savings from not having to pay those discounts. Is this, in fact, what happened? Did taking away the discounts actually lose us money?

Well. We don’t know. We’ll never know. Because the General Manager and the corporate office refuse to meet us face-to-face to explain, and to allow us to question them. Instead, we are limited to receiving the occasional Reader’s Digest version of the financial rationale for the decisions being made.

So. Workers accept the additional burden placed on us by extending the opening hours. Regardless of the fact that it is obvious to all that the measure was hastily put together. There was virtually no marketing for customers. And no planning worth squat for workers.

And now we are told that the infamous Corner Building has been sold. And that the combination of these two wise and forward-looking maneuvers represents a well-considered plan helping “in returning the co-op to a sustainable financial position.”

“Our financial situation continues to improve,” says our General Manager in the press release to be found on our web-site and on the front page of the employee Market Messenger.

Sigh, and double sigh.

Let’s go through the truly offending paragraph, sentence by sentence:
Weaver Street decided it could better serve the community by focusing its resources on its core business of selling local and organic food. The co-op has returned to break-even after a difficult financial year in 2009. “Our financial situation continues to improve,” said Slater, “and selling the property is another step in returning the co-op to a sustainable financial position. It allows us to pay back money we had to borrow last year when things were rocky.”

The corporate office did not sell the Corner Building as part of a sensible, long-term strategic plan to re-focus anything.

It sold the Corner Building as a desperate measure, to pay off the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of short-term loans themselves taken out in desperation in 2009, to pay off the bank interest charge of $1 million due for 2009 on the totality of our long-term loans (still $10 million).

And let me just repeat that. Not one penny of the proceeds from the sale of the Corner Building is being used to pay off the long-term debt of $10 million, or even to help fund this year’s bank interest charge of $1 million.

It is just being used to pay off the loans taken out last year to pay off last year’s $1 million bank interest charge.

Yup. You got it. We are borrowing money to pay off the interest on our borrowing. We are getting absolutely nowhere. (“It allows us to pay back money we had to borrow last year when things were rocky.”)

We are busting gut every single day just to stay in place, just to save face. We are not improving anything. We are not moving forward at all. And certainly not towards any sort of financial sustainability that I recognize.

That sort of financial sustainability will only be achieved by living within our means. And that will only be achieved when we restructure our expanded co-op, and get rid of our long-term debt of $10 million.

And don’t think for one moment that I see the toxic consequences of that debt just in terms of macro-paperwork. I work on a Hot Bar, too. I know that every single time I work an extra hour at night, or double up doing someone else’s job, or work with an oven that’s still broke – I know that all of this is because we still have to find $1 million a year in bank interest, because our corporate office does not want to lose face.

We all of us want to do the very best we can at our jobs. The very best that we can for our co-op and for our customers. But we can’t when we are denied the proper tools. And it is counter-productive to say nothing when the only reason we do not have the proper tools is that we’re having to find $1 million a year in bank interest to save the face of our Board of Directors and our corporate office.

Case in point. Two days ago, the 5.00pm truck arrived with a huge pallet of soda drink – for one driver to unload. Over a metal flap that caused the heavy pallet to have to drop five inches before riding onto the unloading dock.

This load should have been spread safely over a couple of pallets. It should have required more than one person in the truck to unload. The link to the unloading dock should have been safer.

All of these suggestions are true. But none of them could apply. Because we need to save every penny we can, in order to pay that $1 million in bank interest.

I used to be a lawyer (in a previous incarnation!). I pointed out that we should not unload the pallet, since electing to engage in a maneuver that was obviously unsafe (and illegal) would deny the opportunity for any injured worker to claim personal injury.

The guys looked at me, blinked and sweat their way through the unloading anyway. Why? Because we have now created an atmosphere in our co-op where you do not question, you do not query and you sure as crap do not advocate. Trust me. I know all about the latter.

This is an appalling state of affairs in what still claims to be a workers’ co-operative. It is in breach of co-operative policy and values. And it is illegal.

It is not negative or pessimistic to point this out. It is why we are a co-operative. It is why we joined a co-operative. So that we could be part of a business paradigm that is not the traditional, capitalist sweatshop.

I, for one, will never render that ambition secondary to the illicit demands of a corporate office that has forgotten who we truly are. And I will certainly never put my health in jeopardy for a corporate office that sits in plush offices behind a combination lock.

Moving right along. What of this claim that the “co-op has returned to break-even after a difficult financial year in 2009”? Sigh, and triple sigh.

Do the corporate office and our General Manager really think that we have forgotten that this was precisely what we were told in 2008 and 2009, as well as now?

And what exactly does the phrase mean? Are we already breaking even? In which case, why do we need the extended hours? Is this to find the $1 million in annual bank interest? If so, why are we not honestly being told that?

If we are not yet breaking even, is this comment based upon the premise that the extended hours will allow us to break even? Is this another infamous corporate office prediction? Will we simply be facing more intrusive demands next year? Demands where we are not properly informed of the rationale and where we have no participation in the decision-making process?

Sigh, and quadruple sigh.

If you think I overstate the case, consider this. We have just introduced an extension of hours, in a totally ill-considered fashion. We have engaged in a panic sale of a prime piece of real estate, against the prevailing trend in property prices. And one of the two co-founders of our co-op just left for greener pastures, in circumstances which one corporate office staffer described as “bizarre.’

Does this strike you as a happy skip down the Yellow Brick Road towards the Emerald City of a “sustainable, financial” future? Or does it strike you as a series of alarm sirens, screaming out for a change in direction, and possibly personnel?

Enough. Enough of burying our heads in the sand. Enough dissembling. Enough of making decisions without our input – as is our right under co-operative policy. Enough of imposing ridiculous demands upon us, that do nothing to save the co-op, and serve only to save face. Enough of avoiding the truth. Of avoiding reality. And of avoiding us.

It is time we were told all of the facts. It is time we were properly involved in the decision-making process. It is time we were treated as partners, not ciphers. It is time to face financial reality, and get rid of our $10 million in debt. It is time for a full meeting of our co-op’s employees, so that we can question our corporate office. And it is time for a Board of Directors who do their job, and bloody monitor our corporate office, rather than merely patting them on the back, and eating the pizza they serve up – at our expense. []

I want my co-op to succeed. It will only succeed when its No. 1 value is honesty. And its No. 2 value is respecting those who insist on No. 1…