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...