Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why I'm Standing For The Board Of Directors In 2010

I will again be standing as a Worker-Owner Candidate for the Board of Directors of Weaver Street Market Co-operative this coming October (2010). []

I will be standing to ensure that:-

1) Workers and owners are able properly to hold the General Manager accountable for the decisions that he now says are his alone to make.

2) Our co-op is returned to true profitability, by seriously tackling the debt, rather than by making further unwanted, unnecessary and overly intrusive demands of the workforce.

3) Authentic collaboration is re-introduced into our co-op, so that “Collaboration – We're Stronger Together” becomes a workplace reality, not merely a cute marketing slogan on our new plastic bags.

My decision was occasioned by the Note received yesterday from the General Manager announcing his decision to extend opening hours in the Carrboro and Southern Village stores, beginning June 4, 2010. []

Co-operative Policy demands that all workers be allowed meaningful participation in the making of strategic decisions that affect their workplace. The General Manager conducted a shortened consultation, without giving workers any detailed financial information. The feedback was overwhelming opposition. The General Manager admitted that he was going to ignore the feedback and press ahead anyway.

It was my contention, during the consultation exercise, that the General Manager had failed to prove the need for extending the opening hours, since the imbalance in the accounts being experienced by Weaver Street was not occasioned by a lack of sales or productivity, but by the annual interest ($1 million) having to be paid on the co-op’s debt ($10 million). In his Note, the General Manager failed to give any details of any effort being made to reduce the debt. []

For these reasons, I have written to the General Manager and the Board formally complaining that the General Manager is in non-compliance with Board Policy. I expect little from this. The General Manager has been in non-compliance with one Board Policy or another for the last three years. The Board nod grimly, and carry on.

That is why I am standing for the Board. I believe it is time we had on the Board someone who did something other than nodding. We could be so much better than this. We could be a better co-op and a stronger business. If only we wholeheartedly employed co-operative values as a living business model, and not just as decoration on the front page of our store newsletter. []

In the meantime, I set out my latest letter:

"Dear Ruffin,

I received in my mailbox this afternoon (4.00pm, on a Friday afternoon) the Note of your decision to extend the opening hours of the Carrboro and Southern Village stores.

On this same day, we began to use in the cash register lines new plastic bags with the slogan “Collaboration – We're Stronger Together.”

But where was the collaboration in your decision? Where is the “working together” (a phrase you use later in the same Note), when it is you making the decisions on your own, but it’s not you helping to shut down the Southern Village Hot Bar at 10.00pm?

You sought our input, without giving us very much by way of detailed financial information. I know for a fact that the prevailing view in Southern Village was overwhelming opposition. Yet, you completely ignored this, and went ahead and made a contrary and uncollaborative decision.

The irony is that you now want our collaboration (“working together”) in implementing this decision made solely by you.

This would be bad business in a traditional capitalist corporation. But it is in direct contravention of our Co-operative Policy, which demands that workers be allowed proper participation in strategic decisions that affect their workplace. It is not proper participation if you ignore what we say.

You say in your Note that the financial situation demands that you ignore us. Yet you continue not to share with us the detailed financial figures that would explain that. At the very least, as a Worker-Owner, I am entitled to see those figures.

You hint at the very end of your Note that, yes, we need to do something about the co-op’s huge debt. But you skim over it, as if it were an insignificant contributor to our grim financial state.

Ruffin, $1 million a year in interest on debt of $10 million and a turnover of $25 million is not insignificant. Not when the extra sales you propose will, at the very best, bring in $650,000 a year.

I stress, 'at the very best.' Again, you give us nothing by way of support for these figures. No meaningful rationale. For example, being on the sharp end of store sales, we all know that they are mightily affected by seasonal changes – yet, you give no acknowledgment of that.

Well, it could be said, shouldn’t we just accept the figures you give us at face value?

In 2008, you told us that we were experiencing a slight sales dip, which would right itself by the end of the year – at the same time, as we now discover, you were writing to the National Co-operative Grocers' Association, asking for a $1.35 million bail-out, to prevent us going bankrupt.

In the 2008 Annual Report, you said that the $400,000 loss was a one-off. Yet, we suffered a $1.2 million loss in 2009.

You told us at the beginning of 2009 that our sacrifices were bringing us back to operating profitability. Yet, 6 months later, you told us that we needed to cancel all the consumer discounts, in order to make up a $700,000 deficit.

You told us that getting rid of those discounts would, indeed, bring us into profitability. Yet, here you are, in 2010, telling us that, oops, we’re still not there. What’s to believe, Ruffin?

What I do know is that the Annual Report for 2009 did, in fact, show that we were running a $40,000 operating profit. That all of the hard work and sacrifice of the workers was paying off. What then put us into loss was that interest on the debt.

THAT is what is killing this co-op financially. The debt. Not the productivity of your workers. Nor the lack of sales.

Yet, you brush the debt under the carpet. You mention it in a passing breath. And you do not even do us the courtesy of explaining exactly how it is that you are “pursuing…reducing debt.” You ask us, again, to accept on faith that this is, in fact, being done. Well, if it is being done, where are the results?

I have spent the best part of the last four years trying to persuade you and the Board of our co-op that the best way to make strategic decisions is to do so collegially. This gives you the benefit of our expertise. Plus, it makes us more invested in the decisions that are made. Which means we take more responsibility for them, and feel more accountable for their successful implementation.

For the very first time, you have admitted that you want no part of that sort of collegiality – which is merely ‘co-operation’ in action. You want to make all these decisions on your own. So be it. But with responsibility goes accountability. If you are solely responsible for the decisions, then you are solely accountable for their consequences. That is not my wish. It is yours.

To use a sports analogy, you’re the coach who wants total control over the decision-making for the team. Ok. It makes a bit of a mockery of the “Collaboration – We're Stronger Together” slogan. But, if that’s what you want.

But I’d point out, to continue with the sports analogy, you are now the coach responsible for a team’s three-year losing streak. Are you prepared to be accountable for that? Because, sure as heck, the responsibility does not lie with the players – who have given their all. It lies with the coach and his playbook.

Technically, you are accountable to the Board of Directors. But it is quite clear they are not doing their job, especially the two Worker-Owner Directors. They are singularly failing to hold you accountable for anything.

For that reason, I will again be standing for the Board this October. I will be standing to ensure that workers and owners are able properly to hold you accountable for the decisions that you now say are yours alone to make; that the co-op is returned to true profitability, by seriously tackling the debt, rather than by making further unwanted, unnecessary and overly intrusive demands of the workforce; and that true collaboration is re-introduced into our co-op, so that “Collaboration – We're Stronger Together” becomes a workplace reality, not merely a cute marketing slogan.

When I say ‘co-op is a verb,’ it’s not just some idealistic fascination with democracy. It is the knowledge that you are a stronger business when you make true collaboration the cornerstone of your productivity initiatives. If you would only open up and truly collaborate with us, Ruffin, we would collaborate with you, and the results would be exponentially greater than the remote top-down approach you favor now.

In the meantime, I will be doing all that I can to make the transition to extended opening hours a success. Unlike you, I WILL be one who stays until 10.00pm. Unlike you, I AM actually accountable for the decisions that you take.

Since I am sending this e-mail also to the Board of Directors, I wish to make clear to the Board that I am, with this e-mail, making formal complaint to the Board that the General Manager is out of compliance with Board Policy 2.3 (Treatment of Staff), not least because the extension of hours represents an unnecessary intrusion on workers (it would not be necessary if the debt was being adequately tackled), and because the workers were not allowed meaningful participation in the decision to extend hours (for reasons stated in this and earlier e-mails, including the fact that we were not given proper information or enough time, and our input was, to all intents and purposes, then ignored).

Yours sincerely,


It occurs to me that when I blather on about Board Policy, I might well be talking Greek to some folks. Ok. Time to try some English...

Our General Manager, he who takes all the major decisions in our co-op, he is supposed to be accountable to the Board of Directors.

The way it is supposed to work is that, each and every year, all through the year, the Board reviews each Board Policy, and makes sure that the GM is in compliance with that Board Policy.

Each October, the Board gets to Board Policy 2.3, which is "Treatment of Staff." You can find that provision at the front of the Employee Handbook, or on the WSM webs-site by following: Home/Co-op Ownership/Board of Directors/Board Policies/Management Limitations/Treatment of Staff/2.3 - or just click here,

Each and every year that I've been taking notice (the past few), when the Board review 2.3, they nod sagely and decide that our GM is in compliance with 2.3.

I say that, currently, he is not. I say he is out-of-compliance with 2.3. He keeps proposing initiatives, like the extension of opening hours, that unnecessarily intrude on us workers.

The intrusive part is obvious. I say they are unnecessary because our financial woes would be resolved if only the GM and the Board would seriously address the co-op's debt of $10 million.

They refuse to address the debt because to do so might alter the vision that they have for the co-op - a vision they singularly fail to share with us. Which puts them out of compliance with the transparency provision of 2.3, also.

I also say that the GM is out of compliance with the provision in 2.3 that says that we must be allowed to participate in strategic decisions that affect our workplace.

It ain't proper participation in the 'game' if he takes the ball out of the net every time we score a goal.

So, why do the Board keep agreeing that the GM is in compliance with 'Treatment of Staff.' Beats the heck out of me. Beats the heck out of me that our elected Worker-Owner Directors sit on their hands when this happens each year, too.

That's why I'm now going to keep on writing formal letters to the Board about non-compliance. And that's why I'm standing for the Board.

To stop this nonsense where the Board and the GM think they can just ignore the Board Policies that are supposed to ensure we stay profitable, out of debt and protective of our owners and workers - and keep us adhering to authentic co-operative values...