Friday, April 9, 2010

Where Is Our Vote On Extending Opening Hours?

The books at The Weave are still out of balance, due to the $1 million we are having to pay each and every year in interest on our $10 million dollar debt (occasioned by our ambitious expansion projects). []

Yet, instead of taking serious steps to reduce the debt, the General Manager (in picture) and his corporate office are still trying to fix the hole in the bucket by squeezing we workers ever harder.

The latest wheeze is to extend opening hours, in the hope that extra sales may fill the gap in the accounts. []

While I have no particular view about extending the opening hours per se (I can see both sides of the argument), I am very unhappy that the General Manager and his corporate office are placing yet more burden on over-stressed store employees, while leaving the debt untouched.

And to add insult to injury, we workers are not even being given the opportunity to vote on the proposal. The decision will be taken by the General Manager, on his own - after gathering 'feedback.'

You guessed it. Time for a letter to Ruffin...

"Dear Ruffin,

Thank you for your blue note in my mailbox explaining why you want to extend the opening hours of The Weave.

You seem to think that, simply because your blue note misses the two most essential points, we workers will have missed them too:


What you say about an extension of hours increasing sales may well be true. That's NOT the point. The point is whether such an extension, which will be a huge intrusion upon your already over-stressed store workers, is really NECESSARY.

We are all ready to do whatever is truly necessary to get rid of the imbalance in our accounts. We have already accepted reduced hours, non-payment of dividend; and forfeiture of our pay raises, to do what we can to help out.

We bust ass morning, noon and night, to increase productivity and reduce labor margins - to the point of risking our health.

BUT Ruffin, thanks to the article in this month's issue of "Co-operative Grocer," [] we now know that the imbalance in our accounts is not due to the recession, nor competition, nor an insufficiency of sales nor a lack of productivity on our part.

The imbalance in our accounts - the reason you keep demanding we work harder for less; the reason you are now asking us to accept yet further burden in the name of the co-op we all love - is because you need we workers to find an extra $1 million a year to pay the annual interest on our debt of $10 million.

And the real point is that your blue note does not say that. Nor does it make any reference to what you should actually be doing to correct the imbalance in our accounts. Which is to reduce that $1 million a year debt interest charge.

Having already demanded that your workers make all of the sacrifices that they have, don't you think the co-operative thing now would be for you to reduce that debt BEFORE demanding yet more sacrifices from us?

I tell you what. Why don't we meet you half way? What say we increase sales by 1% for every 1% you decrease the impact on our sales of the 5% Silent Debt Tax represented by that $1 million a year debt interest charge?

Yes, 5% Silent Debt Tax, We have turnover of about $25 million. An annual debt interest charge of $1 million puts a 4-5% Silent Debt Tax on every single sale that we make. Rather than making us artificially increase sales, why don't you decrease the 5% Silent Debt Tax on sales? Then, we'll talk about extending opening hours. What do you say?

Frankly, Ruffin, if you thought it important enough to get rid of the 5% consumer discounts on our sales, in order to improve our financial situation, why is it not just as important to take steps to get rid of that 5% Silent Debt Tax? Rather than making more and more impossible demands of your workers. I mean, how much wider can we smile?


With a decision that is going to disrupt the lives and workplace of so many store employees (not corporate office folks, I hasten to add), it is not enough that you merely invite our feedback.

It is WE who should be making this decision, not just YOU on your own. I'm all for One Man, One Vote. But that means we all get a vote, not just one man...

This is why I wrote to the Board last evening and asked that they request that you hold a full meeting of the co-op's employees to discuss the proposed extension of hours, and then allow us to vote on the proposal at the end of that meeting - where we can all see the result.

You're right when you say that it is the policy of our co-op to allow employees to be INVOLVED in decisions that affect their workplace.

But involvement is only REAL if the very fullest information has been provided. It has not. Why will you not share with us the raw data, showing what are the real costs to we employees each year of the debt interest charge, and what, if anything, is being done to reduce it?

There can only be REAL involvement if that involvement is inter-active. Where we get to explain to you what we think. Where we get to ask questions. Where we all get to hear the same answers. Where we can correct you when you are wrong.

There can only be REAL involvement if there is visible consequence to the involvement. Where we can all see what others have said. Where we can all gauge the level of support or dissent for the proposal. And where the most visible form of 'consequence' is a show-of-hands vote at the conclusion of a full meeting of the co-op's employees.

We used to have full meetings of the co-op's employees every year. We have not had one for 3 years. Why not? Why will you not go face-to-face with us on this issue? If you have the level of support for this proposal to which you allude in your blue form, then that support will be plainly obvious to all at an open meeting.

Do you not respect your own employees enough to believe they will understand the issues? Do you not trust us enough to put the interests of our co-op first when raising our hands to vote?

This is a huge decision that is about to be made. You say you want our involvement in that decision. Fine. Call a meeting. Let us be fully involved. Let us vote on the proposal. And then abide by that vote. I will, if you will.

Quite aside from the democratic value of such a meeting and vote (a good thing in a co-op), it makes good business sense. Business leaders all over the world are learning that it makes much more sense fully and democratically to involve employees in strategic decisions, because they are then fully invested in implementing the decisions successfully.

Thank you for the blue form, Ruffin. Now, prove your co-operative credentials. Prove that authentic co-operation is still alive and well in The Weave, and still a verb - to co-operate. Truly co-operate in allowing your employees openly and in sight of each other to make this decision co-operatively with you. []

All the best,

[I mention in the above letter a further letter that I sent last evening to the Board (interesting timing, eh?). You can find that letter on my blog @]

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Letter To Board On Opening Hours And Board Policy 2.3

In anticipation of the General Manager of The Weave moving ahead and trying to extend the opening hours of our stores without properly consulting my fellow workers, I wrote the following letter to the WSM Board of Directors:

"Dear Board,

In the last store "Market Messenger," our General Manager trailed the possibility that the opening hours of our stores might be extended to 10.00pm.

In order that the General Manager is not out of compliance with Board Policy 2.3, I invite the Board to request of the General Manager that he arrange for a full meeting of the co-op's employees to be held fully to discuss and then vote on this issue before a decision is finalized or implemented.

The rationale put forward for the floated extension of opening hours is that our co-op needs to increase sales in order to balance our accounts.

It is my contention that the imbalance in our accounts is caused neither by an insufficiency of sales nor by a lack of productivity on the part of my fellow employees. We are all working as hard as we can - to the point that health is being put at risk.

The reason for the imbalance in our accounts is stated quite baldly in this month's issue of Co-operative Grocer. It is that our $10 million debt (occasioned by expansion) is now resulting in the need to pay an annual debt interest charge of $1 million.

Leaving aside for one moment whether or not such a debt and its attendant interest payment is causing our General Manager to be out of compliance with those Board Policies requiring he not place our co-op in financial jeopardy, the debt and its interest are clearly putting an excessive burden on our workers, which means that the General Manager is already out of compliance with Board Policy 2.3, which states that he may not allow conditions that are disrespectful, unsafe or intrusive.

It may be that the Co-operative Grocer is wrong. But if so, then we employees have a right to know. It may well be that the only way we can overcome even that debt interest charge is to make further intrusive demands of our employees, and stay open whatever hours we can. Again, we deserve to see all of the figures that make that the case. I have sought those figures for myself. In direct contravention of the Board's Policies on communication with owners, I have been denied access.

I think that, in order for employees to be fully informed of the alleged rationale for attempting to increase sales and productivity rather than reduce the debt interest charge, it would be necessary for employees to see, as is their right in a co-op, the following information, at the very least:

1) Full accounts for the past two financial quarters.
2) The actual impact on the co-op of the operational expenditure of the Food House for the past six quarters.
3) The expected debt interest charge for the current financial year.
4) The impact on sales of the removal of the consumer discounts in July of last year.

I think it would be most cost effective for that information to be made available in one full meeting of the co-op's employees, which is my first reason for suggesting such a meeting.

If it is, in fact, the case that, at such a meeting, after scrutiny of the proffered full information, it becomes clear (as I suspect it will) that the reason for the imbalance in our accounts is not a lack of application by my fellow employees, but the size of the debt interest charge, then, before any decision is made further to intrude on employees by extending opening hours, it is the right of those same employees to discuss openly other alternatives, including quizzing the corporate office and, if necessary, the Board about steps that are being taken to reduce the co-op's debt. Again, such discussion would be most easily undertaken at a full meeting of all of the co-op's employees.

The right to participate in such a discussion is inherent in Board Policy 2.3.4, which allows employees to participate in decisions. Not only that but the separate decision-making process instituted by the corporate office specifically states that employees will be allowed input into decisions of a strategic nature and which affect the workplace. I would say that a proposed extension of opening hours falls within such a definition.

A feedback procedure about 10.00pm was held last year. We are now told by our General Manager that the feedback raised only operational difficulties. I'm bound to say that was not my experience from Southern Village, where considerable disenchantment was expressed. I think the simplest and most 'co-operative' solution would be to allow the General Manager to confirm his contention in an open meeting, in front of his employees, where a straight open vote on the proposal could be taken. To do otherwise would place the General Manager in non-compliance of his obligation under 2.3 to allow employees meaningful input. And frankly, would be plain bad business sense.

It is an arguable proposition that the decision to extend the hours to 10.00pm is an operational decision. One could argue that a decision of such consequence to the workplace transcends even the operational decision-making process that is supposed to involve workers in strategic decisions. Becoming instead a policy decision governed by 2.3. In which case, if the Board receives warning that the process of making that decision places the General Manager in non-compliance, they must intervene to prevent that non-compliance. They may not retreat to the position that it is solely an operational matter.

The Board is receiving such notice with this e-mail. 2.3 requires that workers be allowed to participate in decisions. There can only be real participation if there has been full information provided. There has not been.

There can only be real participation if the participation is genuinely two-way, with the participants able openly to participate with each other, in front of each other, and with all participants knowing the contribution of other participants. That is not being offered at the moment. A full meeting of the co-op's employees would offer just such real participation, in the most immediately effective way.

There can only be real participation if there is consequence to the participation, and the consequence is truly visible for all to see. The most effective form of visible consequence to participation is an open show of hands at a full meeting of the co-op's employees.

Now, it is entirely open to the employees present, once they have been provided with full information, once they have participated in adequate and open discussion, once they have been able to determine for themselves that the cause of the imbalance in the accounts is not the annual debt interest charge, or, even if it is, that they accept an extension of hours, then to vote to support the extension of hours. In which case, implementation of such a move will be made that much easier, because the workforce will have democratically voted for it. It's not only Democracy 101; it's Business 101.

At which point, it becomes irrelevant what sort of decision it is, operational, strategic or policy. The co-op is in accord, and we all move forward, in like step together. Something we have not done since the idea of the Food House was first concocted.

Surely this is preferable to the situation we had over the Food House, where disillusion, not least with the lack of participation in the making of decisions, forced a Worker-Owner Director to have to break with his Board and with Board Policy and to go public, in order to get the co-op to speak with its own workers.

Or preferable to the situation in 2008, when disillusion with the manner in which personnel and operations were moved from Carrboro to Hillsborough reached such proportions that staff were compelled to write to the Board, before steps were taken to alleviate their suffering.

Or preferable to the situation last year, when outrage at the impact on staff of the removal of consumer discounts was expressed at at least two of the three store meetings, again not least because there had been no consultation with the workforce. And it did not go unnoticed that the only reason the dissent was contained was the fact that the workforce was divided into separate meetings.

Indeed, what a terrible word to have to use about staff relations in a democratic co-op: containment. It makes us sound like one of those Central Asian nations in revolt.

You, the Board, have a chance to avoid such a mess this time. Indeed, to make a virtue out of a necessity. Openly employing a democratic process in a democratic co-op. At the same time, laying all the cards on the table with your employees, and engaging them fully in making the right decisions about the way forward, and thus enrolling them in the successful implementation of those decisions. Quite aside from anything else, we used to have full meetings of all the co-op's workers every year. We haven't had one in 3 years now.

In all the circumstances, I would appreciate a response to this e-mail on whatever view it is that the Board takes. And since this e-mail is addressed to the whole Board, I want a Board view, as Board Policy dictates. Not the view of one Board member, abrogating to himself the right to speak for the Board without a consensual Board decision having been taken.

That said, and slightly separately, I wish to address the two Worker-Owner Directors for a moment. While Board Policy states that the Board must speak as one in the decisions it makes, that does not preclude individual Directors explaining the reasons for their support of a consensual decision.

In all of the circumstances, since this matter is going to have such impact on the people who believe they are being represented by the two Worker-Owner Directors, namely the workforce, I think it appropriate that the two Worker-Owner Directors respond to this e-mail, or in another place of their choosing (provided it is public and on record) why they make the decision they do in response to the request of this e-mail for a meeting of all of the workers in the co-op to discuss an extension of hours to 10.00pm, before such a decision is made. So, I look forward to a response from the two of them or an indication where I might find public record of their reasoning. At the same time, I would be grateful if they could indicate whether or not a decision to extend opening hours to 10.00pm would involve them personally working until 10.00pm or later.

If this matter is considered by the Board as a whole, I would request that the discussion and decision be in open meeting, and that a record be kept of the manner in which people voted, unless the decision is consensual. I look forward to response.

All the best,

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How Co-operatives Can Work - Even In Tough Economic Times

Well. I lost my rag again last week. Nothing new there.

I care passionately about The Weave. And so dislike it that we are now in a huge financial pickle, simply because a few misguided souls forgot what 'co-operation' is supposed to be (er...a verb...that works both ways), and decided on their own to start building an empire, which is now costing us $1 million a year in debt interest.

And that, as a consequence, we workers are now footing the bill, by constantly having to work harder for less. Without the courtesy of explanation, apology or the opportunity (guaranteed to all workers in our Co-op Policy) to be involved in the dialogue that determines why we should be working harder for less - and what we could be doing to remove the burden of that $1 million a year debt interest charge...

Anyway, I lost my rag. And in the middle of losing it, I realized that I might well be talking to myself. That a lot of my fellow workers might be saying, er Geoff, we're in a recession, we are where we are with debt, we suck it up.

And it further occurred to me (without being patronizing) that I was taking it for granted that all my fellow workers knew that co-operation, when it is allowed to work properly, actually overcomes the problems of recession. In other words, we don't need to be doing all that we are doing, in the way we are doing it. It can be better than this.

Duh. So, I took a moment to post a comment on Facebook (some time around midnight) to set out how co-operation is supposed to work, and how, if allowed to work in The Weave, it could still save The Weave, all of our jobs, and all of the benefits of expansion.

And then, I thought, well, why don't you share these thoughts elsewhere? So, here they are:

"The thing that makes me angriest of all is that I'm constantly made out to be negative, when, in fact, I'm the one most positive and optimistic about what we could achieve at The Weave, if only we were fully to embrace what being a co-operative is truly about.

Traditional capitalism uses all manner of marketing gimmickry artificially to inflate demand among a public it never meets and which constantly changes to serve only the creation of financial profit.

Co-operative capitalism is supposed to exist primarily to serve the needs of its identifiable consumer-owners. And it is supposed to stay small, so that there is a greater chance it may always know what those needs are through regular contact and meetings.

If the needs of the consumer-owners change (for example in a recession, or when a new store opens in our market), and we are meeting with them on a regular basis, then we can more easily adapt to those changed needs.

As for profit, well yes, we like to give our consumer-owners a dividend when we can. But their real profit is the joy of being in a grocery co-operative, where they can buy what they've asked for, and where they are treated as human beings, not cyphers.

And it is that latter 'profit' which keeps them coming back. And it is that loyalty which makes co-operative capitalism potentially more successful and sustainable than blind competitive capitalism.

Traditional capitalism uses all manner of financial incentive and reactive disciplinary action to goad workers, with which it never associates, to achieve goals that are imposed on those workers without discussion. It is not a sustainable relationship, and it is one that naturally leads to high turnover.

A worker co-operative (WSM is a worker-consumer co-operative) sets goals through collegial dialogue with its workers, who are then much more invested in implementing the results of the discussion, and need no artificial carrot or stick to urge them to achieve goals they have had a hand in creating.

It is that collegiality, rather than artificial, expensive and time-consuming reactive trickery, that creates worker loyalty and improved productivity, and, in turn, a sustainable relationship between co-op and worker.

This is not some utopian, finger tambourine-clanging, marijuana-inspired nonsense-speak. It is the very business paradigm that makes other co-operatives successful all over the US. It is the paradigm that used to make The Weave successful - through two other recessions. And it is the paradigm that could work again.

All we have to do is: (1) Get the attention of the Board and corporate office, who have lost their way, and tumbled down the rabbit's hole into a Wonderland of Empire-Building and No-No Capitalism (which is where my screaming on a regular basis comes in); (2) Take steps to become a co-operative association of smaller, stand-alone co-op units; thus (3) Laying the foundation for each of the new units to practice true local, responsive, respectful co-operation within themselves, and then with each other.

It ain't a pipe dream. It can happen. It's why I'm still here, banging away on my computer at midnight on a Saturday evening..."

Now, and once again, hand in hand with introducing real co-operation into our co-op, we need at the same time to take steps to get rid of the debt millstone that hampers all that we are trying to do.

Just as soon as we get rid of that debt, and begin to practice truly authentic co-operation in our co-op, with our customers and between all of our staff, then we will become - and remain - a better co-op and, with it, a stronger business.

[By the way, the "V for Vendetta" mask stands (in my usage) for "V for Verb," as in 'co-operation is a verb - that works both ways.']