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.']