Monday, November 8, 2010

Equality In Worker Input - Why A Weaver Street Workers' Committee ...

This letter to the WSM Board about the desirability of a Workers' Committee is a tad wonkish. I get like that.

But, it's a cold and rainy day, and the letter follows on neatly from the one yesterday about reducing the cost of worker-ownership in the Weaver Street Market Co-op:

"Dear Board,

This is really the second part of my thoughts about worker-ownership in WSM going forward - although I wasn't intending to produce a series!

The way worker-ownership has evolved, we essentially have two classes of worker in WSM at the moment: worker-owners, who have something of a voice (but not enough, in my opinion) through their vote in Board elections; and ordinary workers, who have little of any kind of voice, save for the occasional feedback exercise.

I have been working on an idea (shared with a number of the folks who have been talking with me during this past Board election) about a Workers' Committee, to overcome this separation and to give workers a voice that reflects their status in the worker-consumer co-op hybrid that is WSM.

In our discussions yesterday, Ruffin mentioned that, early on in WSM's history, a proposal had been made simply to make ALL workers into worker-owners after 6 months, and then to start deducting the fee from their paycheck.

The worker-owners at the time voted it down. And even Ruffin expressed concerns at doing something mandatory in this way.

It got me thinking about my own idea last year just to give the vote in Board elections to all workers. But you know, I'm now against that idea. Here's my thinking.

When I first joined the co-op, I knew I wanted to become a worker-owner. Mostly for the dividend. Now, as soon as I became a worker-owner, I found myself much more interested in the co-op's performance. Of course I did. Better performance = more dividend.

The other part of that equation was that it would only lead to more dividend if the 'right' decisions were taken by admin and the Board. So, I started taking an interest in their decisions, also.

And that is essentially worker-ownership.

It occurs to me that, if worker-ownership or its benefits (the vote) become a passive 'gift,' then it dilutes that active interest.

It likely leads to a group of worker-owners who are less interested in performance and decision-making, and maybe use their vote for extraneous reasons instead.

Let's have a quick look at the recent worker-owner elections. I can - and have - argued that there is a bias towards a management/corporate bloc vote. I have also wondered aloud why we have managers and workers voting in the same election.

But, let's leave all that on one side. I have advocated in those regards, and that advocacy has not found favor among the existing worker-owner electorate. Where I come from, when you lose an argument, you move on.

So, let's look at the results in a different way. Not so much as manager -v- worker, as worker-owners more interested in financial return -v- workers (maybe) more interested in social return.

I'm not completely convinced that is all that wrong. I don't think it demands the system be turned upside down. And that we replace it with a new system (be it Ruffin's worker-ownership-for-all, or my vote-for-all), that could have the effect of artificially creating a new 'bloc' of workers, who have no 'investment' in worrying about financial performance, but are concerned only with social health.

I would find that replacement system no more satisfactory than the existing system artificially dominated as it is by the management/corporate bloc vote.

That said, however, I do think we need to start addressing the concerns of the minority of worker-owners who consistently vote against that management/corporate bloc.

'Consistently'? One thing is clear, there is a distinct pattern to the voting in the past four Board elections. There is an establishment/management/corporate vote (call it what you will - I'm not being tendentious) that totals between 30 and 35 votes; and the non-establishment/worker/protest vote (again, call it what you will) that gets about 17 to 20 votes.That = consistent.

The reason I stress that it is consistent is that I think it behooves the Board and admin to find a way to hear the voices that make up that consistent vote - whose concerns are clearly not the same as the majority management/corporate bloc vote.

Even in conventional capitalist corporations, there are legal obligations for majority shareholders to take note of the concerns of minority shareholders.

At the moment, there is little by way of communication vehicle to allow the voices in the minority vote to be heard - let alone the voices of all the non worker-owners who say they can not afford the $500.

Hence, a Worker's Committee.

As I envisage it, the Committee would not be separate or outside of the existing system or current worker-ownership model, but would feed into and buttress it.

To begin with, I would see this Committee made up of self-appointed worker-owners, offering themselves from all of the units. In time, the process could be one of election by each unit of one or more representatives - who would have to be worker-owners.

Those having the vote on the Committee would have to be worker-owners, although all workers could attend, discuss and take part in any activities organized by the Committee. This would allow non worker-owners to have a voice, but a limited one. Plus, they would see the benefits of a collective worker-owner voice, and might be more persuaded (along with a reduction in the worker-ownership cost) to become worker-owners.

In talking with other workers and worker-owners, they see the Committee as a useful talking shop (not unlike the Discussion Group that Jacob helped to form a time ago); a vehicle for lobbying admin and the Board; a way of promoting worker-ownership, while still giving voice to those who don't or can't become worker-owners; and for some, simply a means of having fun and encouraging better understanding and communication between the now-separated units.

My concern is and will be that the Committee continues to function as part of the existing governance system, and that it does not set itself up as something separate to that. Hence the emphasis on voting rights being restricted to worker-owners.

While I envisage this Committee being organized by workers for themselves (and for the overall benefit of the co-op - since an informed, involved, included and energized workforce can only work to the co-op's advantage), it may be that, in time, it could receive some form of Board sanction.

There are many co-operatives where the Board has a sub-committee known as an Owner's Committee, the purpose off which is to allow owners to have wide-ranging discussions, which can then feed back into main Board business.

And if that sanction should occur, there is no reason why a similar Committee could not be encouraged for consumer-owners.

These are early days. But I am hoping that admin and the Board will welcome any such Committee, and give it - and the newly-energized worker members - every possible support.

All the best,

I have written more about this Workers' Committee. Please get in touch if you are interested in being involved -]