Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Who Stole My Co-operative Identity?

Oh dear. The corporate office of Weaver Street Market Co-operative, where I am a worker-owner activist, has once again decided that the source of all authority within our co-op is not our owners and workers, but...well...the corporate office. And so, I write another letter...
"Dear Board and General Manager [of WSM],

The latest (March 2010) edition of our [WSM] store newsletter purports to offer a definition of 'co-op' (next paragraph) that is not the standard ICA definition (

"A jointly-owned enterprise engaging in the production or distribution of goods or the supplying of services, operated by its members [owners] for their mutual benefit..."

As far as I am aware, we still subscribe to the ICA definition (next paragraph), as well as the ICA definition of co-operative values (which we publish on the front page of all of our store newsletters) and its various statements on co-op identity:

"An autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise."

If, as a democratic co-op, we wish to change that definition, then the proper place to do that is within the policy-making process of our co-op, as imperfect as that may be, and not behind closed doors in the corporate office/operations/marketing department.

I would be grateful if you would confirm that, in future, when we seek to define any aspect of our co-op's policy activity in official organs of our co-op, we will do so within the context of that which has been agreed by our policy-making process.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

1) This is not the first time that the corporate office or its marketing department have strayed from their strict responsibility for operational matters into areas of policy and strategy.

Last year, for example, a corporate office person described themselves in a magazine article as Director of Public Relations, and then sought to define the relationship between owners [members] and the co-op as 'we listen to 'em; if we like it, we do it; if not, we don't.' I can't find this approach to membership relations anywhere in our Ends nor in Board Policy. It was the corporate office making co-op policy on the hoof. For which it has no authority.

Again, when I served on the WSM Elections Task Force, we were presented with what purported to be official co-op policy on electioneering for Board Elections. Only to discover upon further questioning (mine) that the document was written by the marketing department, and had no official sanction whatsoever.

2) The definition offered at the beginning of the article in this month's (March) store newsletter could just as easily describe the structure of Wal-Mart. We are not a co-op because we are operated by members. Indeed, half of those who operate the store aren't members at all. We are a co-op because our members are the source of all authority within our company. Our members democratically control the decision-making within our co-op. At least, they are supposed to.

Our co-operative identity resides not in operations (who are the hired help - and I include myself) but in our membership and its democratic control of our enterprise. I do not believe it accidental that the definition in this month's store newsletter uses the word 'operated,' while excluding any mention of democratic control by members.

3) If this is merely a casual and personal definition offered without official sanction, then, with respect, it has no place in an official organ of our co-op. Will I be offered the same opportunity next month to offer my 'casual and personal definition'?

Perhaps, once again, the most disturbing feature for me is that I have to write this formal e-mail rather than being able to raise the point quietly in a co-op discussion group or owner meeting.

Why? Because the corporate office have closed down each and every avenue available to workers and owners to engage in meaningful discussion within our co-op and to feed into the policy-making apparatus.

This is sad, and I will continue to advocate for a revival of the sort of worker and owner involvement in our co-op which is promised to workers when they join this co-op, and which is then promised to them again when they become workers-owners.

All the best,