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 ...]