Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Weaver Street Workers' Committee

Win or lose the Election for WSM Worker-Owner Board Director November 2, what have I learned in this Election, and what’s next?

More workers have opened up to me in the past few months than has been true in any previous Election.

I have learned that there are too many unhappy workers in our co-op. That the reasons for their unhappiness are multiple and different.

That I do not know everything. And that those who make the major decisions in our co-op at the moment know even less.

That those who make the important decisions on their own truly do not realize that they should not be making those decisions on their own.

And that the 260 employees who still work for Weaver Street, those who have not jumped ship, are still here because we still believe in our co-op, and we still believe we can make the co-op promise work.

There is a huge fund of goodwill and energy and ideas among our workers, just waiting to serve our co-op and its stakeholders, if only someone would recognize that, and find a way to release it – with dignity and respect.

So. I have an idea. A Weaver Street Co-op Workers’ Committee.

Such a Committee would enable all workers immediately to see that they have visible input.

It would create a permanent body for channeling all of the different worker concerns and suggestions to Admin and the Board, without the channel having to be informal, while guaranteeing a lack of retaliation.

It would create a vehicle for improved multi-directional communication between workers and their different units, and with the Corporate Office and its Board. By which I mean, there would be more information flow between the units, and more information flowing from workers TO the Corporate Office and its Board - and not just FROM the latter.

It would allow workers to discuss among themselves how they want to see their co-op develop.

And it would provide workers with a platform for intitiating projects of their own, arising from those discussions. There is absolutely no reason why activity in our co-op should be initiated only by the Corporate Office or its Board. It is our co-op, too!

We have all of the processes, machinery and personnel needed to establish the Committee. Once a year, each unit could hold an election to choose a unit representative to the Co-op Workers' Committee.

I would suggest the representative be a worker-owner (immediately creating a renewed interest in worker-ownership). But it could be any level of worker-owner (from entry-level clerk to long-time manager). AND all workers in the unit would get to vote.

The Workers' Committee could be overseen by the two Worker-Owner Directors, with the Owner Services Co-ordinator acting as staff support.

There would be no budget per se. But the OSC could interact with the General Manager to obtain funds for specific and worthy projects. I know it sounds silly, but a starting suggestion has been an inter-unit Dodgeball Competition. Go figure!

The Workers' Committee would have guaranteed access to any information it required, and could ask managers and Admin personnel to attend to give explanations.

The Workers' Committee would set its own agenda. And it would have the right to submit findings, thoughts, support and criticism to Admin and the Board, and expect responses. This might require adjustment to the Employee Handbook or Board Policy.

The suggestion in my Election Address for a worker-run Market Messenger might be seen by some as a step too far. But what about guaranteeing the Workers' Committee at least one page of every Market Messenger to include what it sees fit - without interference? Fun stuff. Serious stuff. Letters. Etc.

Yes, there might be open criticism. But that is far better than simmering resentment.

The best part of the idea for a Workers' Committee is that, even if the WSM Corporate Office or its Board decide they do not want to give such a Workers' Committee official sanction, it would still be open to workers to organize the Committee on their own. There is no reason why we should be stopped. Again, it is our co-op, too!

A group of interested workers could set up a preliminary Committee tomorrow. And then hold their own elections for representatives, unit by unit.

AND this Committee could be formed irrespective of the outcome of the 2010 Election for a WSM Worker-Owner Board Director.

Whatever the result of that Election, the workers in Weaver Street Market Co-operative deserve a proper voice in their co-op.

That is a right that should not be dependent on peoples' personal view of me, and whether or not they voted for me. It is a right inherent in the fact that workers own half of this co-op. And that right continues to exist whatever the outcome of the Election.

If you'd be interested in helping to get this Workers' Committee going, drop me a line on Facebook or at my e-mail address: Better still, why not go right ahead and form this Committee without any prodding from me at all ... ??

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Too Much Anger, Not Enough Conversation In Weaver Street Market ... ??

It will probably not surprise any of you to hear that the corporate office at Weaver Street Market Co-operative is angry with me. This was made clear to me at a couple of election meetings this past weekend and today. I wrote a letter in response to one of the corporate office staff members, and I share it below (names excluded):

"I just wanted to write, primarily to thank you for talking with me today. It is never easy to have to confront someone, even in the nicest of ways! I want you to know that I appreciate that, and that I understood what you were saying.

I don't want to take up too much more of your time. And I am not trying to convert you! But you deserve to know where I am coming from. We have known each other for about four years now. I do not like your being angry with me. And you should know that it takes quite a lot for me to get angry.

I do understand that you are angry with me. The thing is, there are a lot of my fellow workers - my friends - who are angry in the outlets.

When I say something like this, some people say it's just me; there is no-one else. All I can say is this. You read the article on my blog about the Southern Village Store Meeting. And the things I said, and the questions that I asked.

In the two weeks after that meeting, 15 workers came up to me and thanked me for what I had said and asked. Of those, two apologized for not speaking up in support. I (gently) asked them why they had not. They told me the same thing that other workers tell me, when they do not speak up or speak out about their unhappiness - they are scared about retaliation; about losing their jobs; about not getting a pay raise; about not getting a reference when they leave.

There was even one senior manager, who, in a private conversation with me, said the he felt it was wrong that no-one from admin had answered my question about why the need for the 15% sales increase. Yet, even he did not speak up, and say that at the meeting.

So. It is not just me. There are a lot of workers who are very unhappy. Why? They tell me it is because they feel there are too many decisions being made in the admin offices that have huge impact on them, and they feel those decisions are not properly explained, and that they are not included in the making of those decisions.

I have been trying (and so have others) these past few years to find the place in our co-op where we are able to be a part of the discussion leading to those decisions. I have had no luck finding that conversation.

It is one of the reasons I stand for the Board, so that I can have some sort of conversation. Like we did this morning. But it is not enough. We were promised more when we became worker-owners. We should be able to expect more in a co-op we half-own. And it is no longer good enough to say, well, nothing is perfect.

Things have not changed in the four years that I and others have been begging for communication and conversation to improve. So, I have taken to having a one-sided conversation on my blog. And yes, it is angry. When you and your friends are constantly tuned out, you start to get angry.

And to be honest, when things do not change over the years, when people become more and more unhappy, and no-one seems to be paying any attention, after a while, yes, people begin to think it is deliberate. They begin to think that, yes, maybe there is a deliberate reason why they are not having things properly explained; why they are not included in the decision-making.

I don't mean to go on. But I hope you understand that I do not write my blog for sport. Just to get a rise. I write it because there is no other way to communicate. And because I do not like to see my friends hurting - not in a co-op.

I do not like to see you hurt either. I would like to suggest that, perhaps, the answer is not to get angry at me or my blog, but it is, maybe, to ask those who have the power to make changes - the folks sitting in the same offices as you - to ask them what they are doing to allow you and I and others to have the conversations that would allow us to discuss these matters, explain things to each other, and then make the decisions, rather than having those decisions being made by just a small handful of people in our supposedly democratic co-op. Maybe? That is all I have ever been about. It is all I am about now.

All the best,

Why The Need For A Weaver Street "Workers Task Force" ...

**PROUD TO BE A WEAVER STREET HACK...HACK...HACK...** Notwithstanding the continuing lurgy/tick disease/end of the world internals, and as promised, I wrote to the Board of WSM this morning about it forming a WSM "Workers Task Force." The e-mail is a little wonkish, I know. But WSM governance is a bit wonkish at the moment. I'm hoping to make it less so - for those that follow:

"Dear Board,

You will shortly be reviewing compliance by the General Manager (not in his personal capacity, but as the iconic representation of the entire corporate office and operations of Weaver Street, and therefore, every individual performer within the same) with Board Policy 2.3 - Treatment of Staff.

I have written to you on several occasions during the year setting out in some detail how, on more than one occasion, the General Manager and the corporate office and operations have been in non-compliance with 2.3. I would find it extraordinary, therefore, if you were simply to decide to the contrary.

I have two further matters to raise in this e-mail in that regard, but also a suggestion so that, going forward, the Board, and the owners it represents, may be able to give guidance to the General Manager to allow him to begin to rectify the non-compliance:

1) In the course of the past month, employees have been informed that they will be expected to achieve a co-op wide increase in sales of 15% in 2011.

There was no consultation with the general workforce before this announcement. This places the General Manager in non-compliance with Clause (4) - the General Manager may not permit a decision-making standard that does not allow for [employees to have the] opportunity to participate in decisions and shape the guidelines for decisions.

At the Southern Village Unit Meeting, I asked for an explanation as to why Weaver Street needed to raise an extra $3.75 million. The answer I was given covered only the extra $300,000 that would be needed to pay out a dividend in 2011. In other words, as an employee and as a worker-owner, I am left to conclude that there is no need for this extra money. That renders the decision in breach of the general provision that the General Manager will not allow workplace conditions that are unnecessarily intrusive.

Clearly, demanding without consultation that every employee work 15% harder is an intrusion (especially when no sort of incentive is being offered). And without proffered rationale, it is unnecessary.

The General Manager is, therefore, in non-compliance with 2.3, arising out of the decision to increase sales by 15%, and arising out of the manner in which the decision was made.

2) I just went through an episode which calls into question the effectiveness of Clauses (1) [protection against wrongful conditions], (3) [discrimination against staff member for expressing an ethical dissent], and (5)(b)(ii) [Board Policy not adequately protecting human rights].

I could wax lyrical about my loss of rights under the First Amendment, or launch appeals, or make further direct approach to the Board on the specific matter. But frankly, I was blessed with sufficient of a brain and 'political' stamina that I have never needed the support of other people or pieces of paper to fight my advocacy battles.

What bothers me though is that, through no fault of their own, there are many who do. And there are many workers in our co-op who now need you to step up for them and protect them. Not least because the episode which I have just experienced, along with the many other humiliations and embarrassments that my co-workers have witnessed being heaped on me because of my co-op advocacy work, make them even less likely to speak up and speak out for themselves.

Moreover, I am not looking with this e-mail to prolong the episode in question. What happened is over. We all move on. I do what I always try to do. Draw positive lessons from negative situations.

The primary lesson I draw from the episode in question is that, one way or another, in the past few years, we seem to have lost sight of what is the role of worker-ownership. What is its purpose.

Isn't it supposed to include an opportunity to have direct input into Board policy-making, as I was promised in writing by Ruffin Slater, when I became a worker-owner? Doesn't it include a responsibility to monitor the Board, which, in turn, monitors the General Manager/corporate office/operations? Doesn't that include monitoring the effect of the activities of the General Manager/corporate office/operations on co-op policy/Mission Statement/Board Policy, etc? How is that supposed to look? More to the point, where is any of this defined in writing?

Which brings me to my suggestion. That, at the conclusion of its discussion on 2.3, the Board recommend the formation of a Board Committee, to be called something like "The Workers Task Force," with the following remit:

A) Define the role, rights and responsibilities of worker-owners. Determine what pathways should be set up to allow them the input to Board policy-making, which has consistently been promised to them by Weaver Street. Review the worker-owner Board Director Election Process, to ensure (as the Weaver Street Elections Task Force demanded) that the Process be fully free, fair and independent of inappropriate interference by the corporate office, senior management and the Board of Directors itself.

B) Review worker conditions throughout Weaver Street Market and Panzanella to determine if they are in compliance with the Mission Statement, which requires that the work experience be fulfilling, and with Board Policy 2.3 ("Treatment of Staff"), which requires that the work experience be not unnecessarily intrusive, unduly undignified or disrespectful, and that all workers be allowed to participate in decision-making that affects their workplace. Such review to include watertight mechanisms to allow workers to give evidence anonymously, and with no fear of retaliation.

C) Thoroughly review the decision by the corporate office to increase sales in 2011 by 15%, including taking the fullest representations from the corporate office, so as to determine if the decision is necessary; why; and if it represents an unnecessary intrusion on the workforce.

I thank you for your time.

All the best,
Geoff Gilson
Worker-Owner 9997"

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Be Or Not To Be A Weaver Street Worker-Owner ...

I became a Weaver Street Worker-Owner five years ago because I wanted to be a part of the conversation about how our co-op is governed.

I didn't become a Worker-Owner so that I could rant at Ruffin Slater, our co-op General Manager.

I didn't become a Worker-Owner so that I could spend my time being rude about our Board of Directors.

And I sure as heck did not become a Worker-Owner so that I could face possible termination for my co-op advocacy work.

I became a Worker-Owner because the documentation enticing me to separate with $500 (the price of Worker-Ownership) included two articles in which Ruffin waxed lyrical about how ours was a special co-op, where Worker-Owners had a special pathway of communication and input into the policy-making process of our Board of Directors.


I recognized that a co-op moving from being an intimate corner shoppe to a five unit mini-empire, including its own food-processing facilities, in the space of a decade, was going to have a lot of problems keeping intact its intimate co-operative feel.

That we might all too easily lose sight of some of our basic co-operative values and principles. Like, owners are the source of all authority in our co-op (not a centralized corporate office). And, the sole ambition of our co-op is to provide for the common needs of our stakeholders (how do you know what are those needs if you become too remote from the stakeholders?).

I thought (and still think) I had some good ideas to help resolve these issues. So, I waited for the pathway into the Board's policy-making to open up. Never happened. Still hasn't. I'm cutting a long story rather short here. But you can fill in the pieces by browsing through this blog sometime.

Anyway, I decided the only way I was going to be able to engage in the conversation was by joining the Board itself. So, I stood for the Board for the first time in 2007. I hope you notice that my themes then were pretty much the same as they are now. I'm the one who has been consistent. It is the corporate office which has changed.

Well. I lost that Election. But the more worrying aspect was that there were serious irregularities with the Worker-Owner Election Process itself. I don't mind folks not agreeing with me, or my fellow candidates. But I do mind when we are not only 'competing' with each other, but also with the inappropriate meddling of the corporate office and/or senior management, who have taken a dislike to one or other of the candidates.

So, my suggestion of an Elections Task Force was agreed to by the Board. And I had what was the closest thing to a sensible conversation in our co-op, about our co-op. We drafted new rules for the Elections going forward. But more than that, we identified for the Board other areas where Task Forces would be useful in helping to introduce new ideas and schemes to keep our co-op an authentic co-op.

Well, it all came crashing down. We were supposed to be re-convened, to continue with our work. But that never happened. I fancy that we stepped on too many toes with our insistence on re-instituting as policy the quite normal co-operative notion that the corporate office and operations of a co-op are the servants, not the masters, of the co-op. And that, as co-operative values insist, it is the owners who are the masters of the co-op, and, therefore, masters of the corporate office and operations.

Well, after that, it just got worse. Any and all remaining opportunities for Worker-Owners to have input to the Board were shut down. The right accorded ALL workers, in the Employee Policy Handbook, that they shall be allowed to participate in the making of decisions that affect their workplace, has pretty much been set to one side. Workers were not consulted over the decision to increase sales in 2011 by 15%. And even when workers are consulted, their feedback is now ignored. There was overwhelming opposition to the proposal to extend opening hours. Happened anyway.

So, I have found myself increasingly fighting merely a rearguard action simply to find what little space I can to set up my own lines of communication and discussion for workers - my blog; Facebook. While trying to ask tough questions of the corporate office and the Board about those decisions they make which keep impacting workers so heavily and so badly. All the while, standing for the Board each year. And, each year, finding the Election Process subject to more...technical glitches...

Which brings me to this last week. When it was made quite clear to me that: the corporate office knows there are now no pathways for Worker-Owners to have input into Board policy-making; the corporate office takes a dim view of alternative pathways that are set up by folks like me; the corporate office will monitor such pathways very closely; the corporate office recognizes that there is no longer a clear definition of the role and rights of Worker-Owners; and, as a consequence, the corporate office will feel free to bring Employee Disciplinary Proceedings against any such alternative communication pathways, if there is something they do not like, since there are no special privileges clearly defined for Worker-Owners to advocate publicly.

Dorothy, we are a long way from Rochdale...

Which brings me back to the beginning of this Note. I did not become a Worker-Owner to whine and rant and complain and scream and carry on. I became a Worker-Owner to offer positive and useful suggestions as to how we can become a stronger business and a better co-op.

Quite aside from anything else, I'm not going to be able to achieve anything on behalf of the co-op, its workers, its stakeholders and customers if I am terminated for screaming at the wrong people. Sometimes, you have to recognize the immovable force, and come at it a different way.

So, when I am feeling a little better (you have no idea how much this has taken out of me; but I wanted to get it said), I will be writing to the WSM Board of Directors and suggesting that they set up a Board Committee of Owners (a "Workers Task Force"?), with both Consumer- and Worker-Owners as members, with the following remit:

1) Define the role, rights and responsibilities of Worker-Owners. Determine what pathways should be set up to allow them the input to Board policy-making, which has consistently been promised to them by Ruffin. And review the Worker-Owner Elections Process, to ensure (as the Elections Task Force demanded) that the Process be fully free, fair and independent of inappropriate interference by the corporate office, senior management and the Board itself.

2) Review worker conditions throughout the co-op to determine if they are in compliance with the Mission Statement, which requires that the work experience be fulfilling, and with Board Policy 2.3 ("Treatment of Staff"), which requires that the work experience be not unnecessarily intrusive, undignified or disrespectful, and that all workers be allowed to participate in decision-making that affects their workplace. Such review to include watertight mechanisms to allow workers to give evidence anonymously, and with no fear of retaliation.

3) Thoroughly review the decision to increase sales in 2011 by 15%, including taking the fullest representations from the corporate office, so as to determine if the decision is necessary; why; and if it represents an unnecessary intrusion on the workforce.

I am not naturally negative. Anyone who works or socializes with me knows that (well, except for my outre and totally inappropriate sense of humor!). I remain the eternal optimist. I wouldn't be running for the Board for the fourth time if I wasn't one of those.

But isn't it fair to ask: who is actually being negative - the ones who create the negative conditions, or the one who points out how negative they are (and then offers positive alternatives)?

In any event, when all the teeth-gnashing is over (and there was a lot of that this past week), I re-gird the old loins, and find a new way to promote co-operative values in our co-op. I believe a Workers Task Force will go some way in that regard - at least as far as workers and Worker-Owners are concerned. And I hope that whoever wins the Worker-Owner Director Election this November, the victor will support the Task Force's formation. I know I will ...

[And what with my still undiagnosed lurgy, this Note has pretty much wiped me out. So, it's back to bed now ...]