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,