Sunday, August 29, 2010

Worker-Owner Director Election 2010

What follows is the information that I have submitted in support of my application to serve as a Worker-Owner Director of the Weaver Street Market/Panzanella Co-operative:

Current profession or occupation

Hot Bar cook in the Southern Village store. Active worker-owner with Weaver Street Market/Panzanella, concerned with ensuring that owners, customers and workers are the source of all authority in our co-op.

Previous profession or occupation

I was trained as a lawyer, and practiced in the UK and the US, concentrating on progressive social advocacy. For example, I spent several years in a historically disadvantaged region of Appalachia, assisting in establishing a community law practice for working people.

I developed a secondary career as a values-driven community business consultant and company director, again in both the UK and the US. I specialized in troubleshooting for businesses that were experiencing serious financial or organizational difficulties.

That meant mediating disputes, opening new channels of communication and creating values-based strategies that encouraged the Boards of those companies to understand that the most important assets of any enterprise are fulfilled workers and happy consumers.

In 1996, I decided to leave behind my conventional corporate career to focus instead on social entrepreneurship and my creative pursuits (writing, composing and occasional stand-up comedy) – which is what brought me to Weaver Street in 2005.

Current community involvement

Weaver Street Market Co-operative’s governance process – as a concerned worker and owner, seeking first-time election as a Board Director. Our return to genuine profitability (free of crippling long-term debt) and authentic co-operative values is a huge task, allowing little room for other community involvement.

At the moment, I monitor our co-op’s corporate office and its Board of Directors, and advocate in respect of the impact of their decision-making on worker conditions, in part through the medium of my blog:

Previous community involvement

I have taken an active role in my local community since the age of 16, gaining experience which I believe will help me, on your behalf, to negotiate the complexities of our governance process, and to create space for all of our voices to be heard more clearly.

I have been a City Councilor and Council Committee Chair, a Special Needs School Governor, and I served on the Development Committee of Carrboro/Chapel Hill’s WCOM radio co-operative – so, I know how to engage in consensus governance in a way that encourages all points of view to receive a fair hearing.

I was a progressive social campaigner at the national level in the UK and the US (with special emphasis on poverty and immigration rights), and a broadcaster on WCOM – so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with others to assist them in expressing their concerns in a way that makes a difference.

I was an actor and Board Chair with a community theatre in North Georgia, wrote the By-Laws for a US domestic violence non-profit, and served on Weaver Street’s Elections Task Force – so, complex policy-making and intricate group dynamics don’t overwhelm me; actually, I really love working to bring both together so that the end result always serves people, and not the other way round.

Why would you like to serve on the Board of Directors?

I love our co-op, and I want to give something back. But I think we have lost our way. I believe that the only way to return us to sustainable profitability, and to being an authentic co-op where every voice matters, is to get new blood onto our Board. If you elect me, I will work consensually with the Board to:

a) Erase Weaver Street’s remaining long-term debt of some $8 million. Not by asking workers to work harder – we’re already working as hard as we can. But by changing the gameplan that says that we need to maintain a crippling debt burden of $8 million.

Once the need for the debt is gone, we workers will no longer have to struggle to repay the debt nor to find the $1 million a year to pay the bank interest on that debt.

That money will be available instead to invest in more staff and better resources. So that we can improve work conditions, food production, customer service and sales.

And so that the co-op can fully restore to us workers our hours, our proper pay levels and our dividends – along with the fulfilling work experience promised to us in our co-op’s Mission Statement.

b) Strengthen the monitoring powers of the Board of Directors, so that it is better able to persuade the corporate office to be more responsive to owners, customers and workers.

c) Reform the communication and democratic structures within our co-op, so that we get more accurate information, and so that decision-making is truly collaborative, and not merely imposed from above.

Why not, for example, make our “Market Messenger” an independent, in-store newspaper run by an editorial team of workers drawn from all of the units?

We have become a co-op of many different and separated identities, each with its own distinctive strength. Wouldn’t a reinvigorated and worker-run “Market Messenger” be a great facility for promoting better understanding and a real sense of belonging, while at the same time honoring our individual uniqueness? At no extra cost to Weaver Street Market?

I want to assist in creating the space in our co-op that makes it easier for all the voices to be heard. That ensures that it is not only a small group of people who get to determine the direction of the co-op we all love. And that requires that the corporate office engage in a lot more asking and a little less demanding.

Briefly describe any experience you have had with worker or consumer co-operatives or with other small community-minded businesses

My LinkedIn ( and Facebook ( profiles demonstrate a history of successful engagement in the self-empowerment of various small community-minded businesses.

Right now, I am formulating a business plan to help a semi-retired chiropractor re-establish his practice in Hillsborough in a way that allows him to maximize his retirement benefits while creating a lasting holistic enterprise that will benefit our community.

One of my happiest ventures was assisting a co-operative radio station in the UK, owned and run by its workforce, to re-structure itself and win one of the UK’s premier FM broadcasting licenses.

I have always and passionately practiced the belief that the key to any successful and sustainable business is happy and fulfilled workers and consumers.

If our co-op would trust its workers, respect our talents and expertise, and empower us to make our own decisions, rather than stripping us of our dignity, treating us as numbers, and imposing faceless gameplans from above, then we would be truly inspired to achieve genuinely sustainable profit and productivity, along with excellent customer service.

Briefly describe any experiences you have had developing organizational policies or plans that reflect the values of that organization

As a lawyer, management consultant, social entrepreneur and elected official, I have had the good fortune to be able consensually to develop values-based organizational plans with all sorts of different enterprises, whether for-profit, non-profit or governmental.

I wrote an 80-page strategic oversight plan for the Board of Weaver Street back in 2007, called “Informal Intimacy.” It wasn’t adopted by the Board. But not to worry. We can still use it! –

Include anything else about yourself that you may like others to know

This election is not about me. It’s about you. I want to know what YOU think, and what YOU want. Please feel free to chat, or to contact me at: One last thing about me? I really do enjoy singing karaoke at the WSM/Panzanella Christmas Party!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Giving Voice To Workers (II)

Is it just me? I sat through a two-hour store meeting last night, and I still don't know why we are being asked to work 15% harder in our worker/consumer co-op next year.

15% increase in Weaver Street/Panzanella sales = $3.75million. We were told (in a roundabout way) by some corporate office staffers (half of whom I did not know - talk about 'them' and 'us') that we need $1 million extra next year to be able to start paying dividends again.

Of course (and I know you've worked this out all by yourself), if we didn't have to pay just under $1 million a year in interest on our long-term debt (of $8 million), then we wouldn't have to work harder to find that $1 million for the dividend, in the first place.

But, leaving that on one side, what's the need for the other $2.75 million, I asked? The Finance Manager looked blank and said: "Expenses? Maybe?" I swear on my mother's dentures. That is exactly what he said. [Can I have his job, please? I want a nice big salary, and an office with a carpet, too...]

Where was I? Oh yes...

MAYBE?!? The corporate office wants me to sweat 15% more blood next year, and the Finance Manager can't even tell me why? Fine, I responded. Every time you poke me in the back to work harder, I'm just going to poke you right back and say, only when you can tell me why. That's the point at which my Department Manager (Darth Hotbar) gave me the death stare.

However, that wasn't the point at which I lost my temper. That was when one of the Wal-M...I'm sorry...Weaver Street corporate officials said,"We have pay raises for you." I do believe I responded, somewhat icily, "No you don't. We made that money. Not you."

The rest of the meeting was one of the slickest and most frightening marketing presentations I've ever seen in a co-operative. It was all about how Weaver Street is going to make more and more and more money. I'm sorry. I meant, how we workers are going to make more and more and more money (for the corporate office, mind you; not for us). And not one meaningful scintilla about why. Nor whether any of the stakeholders (especially workers) had been consulted, or would be.

So much for the declaration at the front of our Employee Handbook which states that, in accordance with co-op policy, workers must be allowed to participate in making the decisions that affect their workplace.

In three of the ten minutes allowed for comment (that is what debate for workers in our worker/consumer co-op has boiled down to – ten minutes, once a year, to respond to a marketing plan already set in stone behind a combination lock in the corporate office; but I digress)...

...I gave my little spiel about the sole ambition of a co-operative being to provide for the common needs of its stakeholders (owners,customers and workers); and how I wasn't hearing any consumers clamoring for15% more product, or workers begging to work 15% harder; and how the 'why' should be agreed with stakeholders, before the corporate office begins working out the 'how'; and how, even then, the 'how' needs to be planned in collaboration with workers, not just imposed on them, because we are a co-operative, and co-operation is a verb; etc, etc.

But, when it was all over, and I had won a really nice gift card in the raffle (yes, I'm a cheesy, cheap date), I still did not and do not know why our co-operative needs to make another $3.75 million in 2011. Nor why we workers are being instructed to work 15% harder to achieve that ambition.Without any incentive, or improved resources and staff levels.

And the truly worrying aspect is that the whole pack of cards – the ambition to increase sales by 15% – is dependent upon an intricately interlinking combination of improved food production, category management (whatever that is), new signage, slicker merchandising, Kim Kardashian and a partridge in a pear tree. I got dizzy just trying to keep up. [Psst, Kim, I hear you're free again – my e-mail address is in my Facebook Info]

Now, I applaud ambition – at the best of times. But you know, we workers are still suffering from the effects of the last of The Great Weaver Adventures. Why are we undertaking another? Upon which so much appears to depend (although, apparently not my paycheck – no-one suggested last evening an expansion of my wallet by 15%), and all of which could be doomed if any one of the many fragile pieces comes unstuck. We just don't have a terribly good track record with Great Adventures.

Four years ago, at a similar store meeting, I warned of the dangers inherent in The Great Expansion – too much being attempted, all at the same time, with no expert guidance, in the name of a vision which was not properly explained or shared. We all know where that ended up. And we seem to be going there again. The only thing the corporate office seems to have learned in the meantime is how to use prettier graphics to confuse us.

Why can't we just come up with a simple plan, like, get the debt down, live within our means, forget Great Adventures, invest in improving work conditions (of which there was not one word last evening) and just sell good food and excellent groceries to wonderful consumers who like to be served by happy workers? Hmmaybe?

Particularly when all this talk of a 15% sales increase is being tossed around at a time when the nation's economic forecasters are predicting that, next year, there will be a consumer-purchasing slowdown, if not an outright return to recession. Oops. I think someone just walked over my grave...Darth, go home...

Ooh. Ooh. I nearly forgot. We are now being told that the profit for 2010 will be $700,000. Quick recap. Two months ago, we were told we were only going to break even. A month ago, we were told that the profit would be $300,000. Now, a month later, $700,000??

Hang on. At this rate, if we did nothing, just sat tight,and waited for monthly updates, in a year's time, we could have paid off the debt, turned the Food House into a Caesar's Palace Casino, and all be driving brand new Lamborghini's! Now, there's a plan. No. I didn't say that last evening. I do know Darth Hotbar's boiling point.


We can't get new blood on the Board of Directors of the Weaver Street Market [Worker/Consumer] Co-operative soon enough...

And whoever that new blood may be, come November, I will be asking the new Directors immediately to set up two Board Committees of worker and consumer-owners, tasked with:

1) Reviewing the co-op's finances, top to bottom, especially expenditure in the corporate office, this new marketing plan and our long-term debt, with a view to making recommendations to place our co-op on a genuinely sustainable path, ensuring the new marketing plan is not a waste of time and money, and erasing the debt in a way that no longer impacts workers so harshly.

2) Reviewing worker conditions (taking evidence, where necessary, in the strictest confidence and anonymously), including the workplace, pay and benefits, and elections, with a view to making recommendations to ensure that those conditions are once again in compliance with co-op policy that states that the work experience will be fulfilling, non-exploitative, dignified, respectful and not unnecessarily intrusive.

And any recommendations that flow from those two committees will be fully discussed with stakeholders BEFORE being implemented.


Now, to be fair, after our store meeting, a mate sitting next to me did come up with a possible rationale for needing that extra $2.75 million.

He had noticed a slide, that was not shown during our presentation, all about plans for the Carrboro store, including its long-overdue refurbishment. He wondered if the money could be for that?

Well, let me be the first to say that, if the extra $2.75 million is to be used to upgrade Carrboro, where I have many friends, and which was left eviscerated by the move to the Food House and the new store in Hillsborough, then I'd be happy to work three times as hard next year.

But then, why not just say so? Why the big secret? Plus, I have a feeling that is not the answer, since the last I heard the Carrboro refurbishment was to be paid for with new consumer investment. Can any of my Carrboro friends elucidate? Were you guys (and gals) told anything at your meeting that sheds more light?

Bottom line: one more good reason for a lot better communication in our co-op; a deal sight more openness and transparency; and the return of the annual meeting of all the employees, in the same place, so that we all know what we're all being told.


We can't get new blood, blah, blah...

Giving Voice To Workers (I)

Oh bloody hell. Another newspaper article [], inspired by the corporate office of Weaver Street Market, which fails to thank us workers for the sacrifices we are making to turnaround our worker/consumer co-op, and which mangles the financial figures. Sigh. Yet another Letter to the Editor...

"Dear Editor,

There is no-one who wants to hear good news about Weaver Street Market Co-operative more than me. Provided it is genuine good news.

What was not clear from your recent article was whether or not the reported $300,000 profit for 2010 takes into account the $1 million in bank interest that needs to be paid (each year) on our continuing $8 million long-term debt.

What was not clear was that the corporate office of Weaver Street has no announced plan for tackling that long-term debt other than continuing to ask the co-op’s workers to work harder for less – just as they have done these past three years.

And what was missing from your article was any appreciation of the fact that it is the sacrifice of those same workers that has been the primary cause of any financial turnaround in The Weave.

Two years ago, the Annual Meeting of WSM's owners supported my call for a Financial Review Committee to devise options for dramatically reducing the debt, other than simply demanding year after year that the co-op's workers work harder for less. The Board ignored the expressed wishes of their owners and refused to form the Committee.

If we were to erase our long-term debt (and the annual interest payment of $1 million), we would be able instead to invest that $1 million in improved product and customer service, and we would no longer have to go on making impossible demands of our already overstressed workers.

Yours faithfully,
Geoff Gilson
Weaver Street Worker-Owner"

[I am always ready to discuss any and all ideas co-operators might have about sustainably improving the finances and co-operative values of Weaver Street Market Co-operative, so that we are an organization that truly succeeds and genuinely 'co-operates.' You can find some more of my thoughts in this regard scattered around this blog]

The Chapel Hill News very kindly published the longer version of my letter -- Followed by a generous response from longtime consumer and owner, Chris Franks --

The Carrboro Citizen also printed my letter -- Which actually drew a veiled response from Ruffin Slater -- Yay for the power of the workers' voices!


The Chapel Hill News interviewed Ruffin Slater, compared what he had to say with information to be found on this blog, and then produced a follow-up report.

I had the following to say on Facebook:

**PROUD TO BE A WEAVER STREET HALF-OWNER** Ruffin Slater, GM: " ... the only business in the area half-owned by its workers."

Which is why the WSM corporate office should stop acting like it's a privilege for WSM workers to be more involved in decision-making. It is our right. We half-own the co-op.

By the by, I'm not opposed to the 15% sales increase per se. But we workers have a right to know why we need to raise $2.75 million more than the $1 million needed to pay a dividend in 2011 (15% = $3.75 million).

Equally, I'm not necessarily critical of the decisions being taken to rescue the co-op we all love. But we workers have a right to participate in making those decisions. And we workers deserve much more tangible credit for the consequent financial turnaround.


The folks at the Orange County blog,, then got in on the act with a mind-blowing analysis of WSM's finances, based on figures contained in WSM's Annual Reports. And I had this comment, also on Facebook:

I had absolutely NOTHING to do with this analysis of the Chapel Hill News article about Weaver Street's loans this past Wednesday. But it makes for fascinating reading.

I especially love the table at the end, showing how WSM corporate office costs have risen 500% -- yes, 500% -- in the past five years. When worker salar...ies were frozen, and the worker-owner dividend disappeared.

Anyone still believe we don't need a Board Director prepared to ask tough questions of the corporate office and the other Board members ... ??