Saturday, November 26, 2011

SWAT, Interlopers, and a Lingering Sense of Bias: Lack of Political Leadership, or Incompetent Governance?

In the sleepy dual township of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, NC, we like to think that our thoughtful brand of progressive leadership provides an homogenous and caring exemplar of efficient local government. Events of the past few months have left me wondering if the reverse is true.

We are not homogenous. Not in our demographic or political make-up. Nor even in our alleged single brand of caring progressivism.

In Carrboro, all we imports (I am from England, by way of Rhode Island, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina) have become so taken with our over-enthusiastic efforts to engineer a social and artistic nirvana, that we quite forget to ask if we have the permission of the many thousands whose families have been living here for generations.

We build what we delightfully call a vibrant commercial center, without noticing that most of those who shop in its centerpiece (Weaver Street Market Co-operative – where I work and advocate) are white and well heeled. As one pithy YouTube observation noted, most of the ethnics are to be found in the kitchens or behind the counters.

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen, good men and women true, believe they are reducing the tax burden for local residents when they attempt to increase the commercial tax base by encouraging higher-rise downtown developments. But they don’t stop to consider what this might do to land and rent values for the surrounding, long-standing shop tenants and residential renters.

We talk of affordable housing. But we mean policies that will allow even more imports to knock $100,000 of their brand-new $300,000 McMansions. We’re not referring to finding ways to allow those imports from further shores to pay a rent that permits them three bedrooms, not just one, for their large families.

We blather about democracy. But we happily appoint our fellows to serve alongside us, rather than engaging in open, even elective processes. We bleed tears (finally) for those immigrants whom we wronged by introducing an unconstitutional Anti-Lingering Ordinance (I opposed it, back in 2006). But we forget to notice the abuse being suffered by our sisters and girlfriends, when they are harassed by some doing the lingering.

Our very own southern slice of heaven, Chapel Hill, prides itself on having moved far away from ugly scenes of segregation. Yet, we don’t seem to realize that the sight of armed Policemen, assaulting a group of residents on Franklin Street, on a Sunday afternoon, rekindles those same ugly memories for some.

What’s more is we don’t appear to want to find out precisely what was going on in the minds of folks, most of whom are neighbors in this town, that would inspire them to initiate such an aggressive confrontation among themselves. Why don’t we want to know? What’s clear is we don’t. At least, not those of us who oppose an independent review of the events surrounding the Yates Garage incident.

But heck, I’m an outsider (only been living in Carrboro for 6 years). What do I know? Well. I know what I see.

I know that I go into bars up and down the main drag in Chapel Hill, a block over from an historic African-American neighborhood, and I wonder why I am not partying alongside black drinkers and black dancers. I ask a friend who has lived here for 30 years, and she tells me, with a knowing wink, that things haven’t changed much – they just got quieter.

Well, until November 13th that is.

I know that I read a detailed account of the firing of two African-Americans from the employ of the Chapel Hill Town Council, in a newspaper that prides itself on its title The Independent, and what I read tells me that this bastion of progressive municipal leadership likely condoned class bias, racial discrimination and retaliation for dissent, while demonstrating, for all to see, the very essence of political indifference.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro like to play a pretend game. They both like to pretend that they do not contain distinct and different communities. Black, white. Rich, poor. University, secular. Moreover, they both like to pretend that there are not distinct and different brands of progressivism – if you don’t agree with the progressive line of the established progressive community, then it simply pretends that you are not progressive at all.

But, how can the powers-that-be in the two communities possibly admit to such distinctions? To do so would undermine the carefully-cultivated notion of a single strand of progressive ‘rightness;’ that same righteousness that validated censorship on the local flagship forum of progressivism, before an editorial panel was created in the past few years.

‘Othering’ may be less pronounced within that forum now (although, please note, this contribution is unlikely to find its way to the front page of that forum). But it still exists in other political arenas, in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill. And it is just as much a form of unprogressive political segregation as any other experienced in these two townships.

So it is that any political candidate who is not a part of the progressive mainstream (or should that be one-stream?) in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill is ‘othered’ on a regular basis by those offering political punditry and endorsements come election time – and on other occasions, too.

A sitting incumbent, who was offering himself for re-election in the recent Chapel Hill Town Council Elections, was listed as an afterthought in endorsements recommended by the aforesaid Independent newspaper, notwithstanding the fact that this same incumbent came close to winning the Mayoralty barely two years ago. He won re-election by the way, ‘independent’ endorsements for others notwithstanding.

My own brother-in-law, a resident of these parts for 20 years, and an acknowledged and active supporter of all causes progressive, was demonized as anti-progressive, when serving as co-host on a community radio chat show we fronted on WCOM a couple of years ago, simply because we had the temerity to ask local established progressive politicians to answer questions we put to them – questions they didn’t like.

We are not homogenous in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. We are different. We are diverse. If we want to put an end to the political fracking now threatening to wreck our two communities, it is incumbent on those who claim to be our progressive leaders to stop merely taking about diversity, and to start demonstrating real diversity in their thinking, and in the way in which they include diverse peoples’ diverse thoughts and concerns in their decision-making.

The latter cannot be achieved, however, unless and until there is demonstrated competence in local governance and up-front leadership among our politicians. Both, in my opinion, are lacking.

When we all get happy-clappy about progressive issues, and dance around the Weaver Street lawn, praising ourselves for patronizing a co-op, rather than Wal-de-Mart, but forgetting to look at the frowns on the faces of our exploited co-op workers, it is just as easy to forget that the first duty of government is to manage itself competently.

More often than not, that comes down to the question: who is in charge – the staff or elected representatives?

I fear that close examination of the Yates Garage incident, the history of Carrboro’s Anti-Lingering Ordinance (here yesterday, gone today, who knows where tomorrow?) and the sacking of the Chapel Hill Sanitation Two may well reveal that years and years of self-congratulatory Kumbiyah have left our twin municipalities firmly in the grip of our municipal employees.

Whose advice were the Carrboro Board of Aldermen listening to when they began their ill-fated journey into the land of constitutional hell, and passed the original Anti-Lingering Ordinance back in 2006? And why did they allow that advice to overcome what they have now demonstrated as being their better political instincts?

Why do progressives on the Chapel Hill Town Council kow-tow to their own staff when they know that injustice has been done in respect of the Chapel Hill Sanitation Two?

And who gave what orders to whom with respect to Yates Garage? What was the established line of command? Was there one? What are the Rules of Engagement? And are the answers to these questions the reason why the local established progressive community are so opposed to the Independent Review Commission proposed by Jim Neal, who has eschewed political back-slapping, in favor of taking a stand for what he believes to be right. As did Town Councilors Sally Greene, Laurin Easthom and Jim Ward, when they supported Jim’s proposal.

All of those who work in whatever capacity in our local government do so, for the most part, because they have a genuine desire to serve and protect their friends and neighbors in the communities in which they live.

I do not criticize them for attempting to provide competence, when they are faced with a dearth of such competence by their elected masters. But the rule is as old as representative government itself. Leaders do not look to their staff to provide them with excuses not to lead. Elected leaders do the leading. Make the decisions. Set the strategy. Take responsibility for the failures. Staff are there, as conscientiously as possible, to offer only advice, and then to carry out the clear and stated wishes of those we elect to lead.

I can form opinions only on what I see. There may always be more to the story than I see, than I read or I am told. With that caveat, and subject to anyone responding differently, I’ll stick my neck out, and say the following:

I see such governing competence from the Mayor of Carrboro. He includes. He considers. He decides. And while allowing room for his fellow Aldermen properly to make up their minds, he doesn’t allow too much dithering. What’s more is, he owns up when he’s been a clown. That’s competence, pure and simple. Whether or not I always agree with the outcome. I see it from a few others. But not enough.

Diversity definitely plays a part in the way I vote. And I’m not talking ethnicity here. First and foremost, I look for people I think will be competent. But sometimes, I’ll just toss that criterion right out the window, and vote for someone simply because they say things that make us think – and I won’t care whether or not they can competently organize their way out of a wet paper bag.

Competence in governance is important. But so too is political courage. And I recognize that the two don’t always reside in the same skin.

We have had ample opportunity to hear our local political leaders say the right thing in the past few months. But, few have stepped up to the plate. They have hidden behind political opportunity or municipal face-saving.

I do not take the same view as Alderman Sammy Slade on the Yates Garage incident. But I didn’t vote for Sammy Slade so that he would agree with me. I voted for him because he doesn’t sit well with crap. He is a walking, talking municipal conscience. He says things that me sit up and take notice. And he didn’t disappoint me on Yates Garage. Even though I think he’s full of it, on this one. That’s political leadership.

I attended the Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting when the Anti-Lingering Ordinance was repealed. I like Joal Broun. Always have. I liked her when she criticized Chapel Hill for allowing the Bank of America Monument … I’m sorry, I misspoke … the now empty and foreclosed Greenbridge Tower Development, because it was going to overshadow the neighboring historic African-American community.

[By the by, isn’t it funny how Joe Riddle gets around, and the Chapel Hill Town Council lets him? But, I digress.]

I liked Joal just as much last Tuesday, when she remonstrated with those progressives (including me) and immigrants who wanted repeal of the Anti-Lingering Ordinance. Not because she didn’t want repeal (she did), but because she wanted to make sure we understood that, once repeal was approved, we would all be responsible for ensuring better behavior from the harassers in the future.

I have not always agreed with Jacquie Gist. But she was pithy in her denunciation of those who do not respect their fellow residents who are women. She flew in the face of the prevailing sentiment that evening. As political leaders do. As also did newly-elected Alderman, Michelle Johnson. And Randee Haven O’Donnell. I just wish we saw it more often.

There are few who are able to demonstrate both competence and political leadership in government. I don’t expect miracles. But I would like to see a healthy and ongoing dose of both from at least some quarter within the pool of those we elect to govern us. There’s enough of ‘em, and we need both competence and political leadership right now, in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

What would such leadership look like? I don’t know. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Besides, I’ve not yet been elected to a position where I’m supposed to be the one having the answers. What I do know is that I see what I see, and I say what I see.

What I do know is that it would not look like Aldermen waiting to hear from staff before finding the guts to decide what is right; it would not look like Councilors hiding behind staff when things go wrong; and it would not look like the established progressive community running scared from transparency, because it might have to admit that someone else has a better answer.

And maybe that’s a good place to start. Not assuming that we are the only ones with the answer. Not assuming that only we know best. Asking, before deciding. Especially asking those who are protesting what we are doing. Especially if what we are doing is implementing yet more social engineering. Maybe slowing down on the social engineering. Smart growth, walkability, infilling, whatever. Maybe representing people a little more, and the latest social fad a little less. Maybe … ??

[I have, by the by, also posted this note on OrangePolitics, in the event you are interested in seeing if there is any ongoing discussion. The photo shows students protesting segregation at a sit-in at Brady's Restaurant in Chapel Hill, 1964.]

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hot Bar-Tender @ SV ...

In the Southern Village store of Weaver Street Market Co-operative, we have been told by management to smile more.

I kid you not. Apparently, we have been scoring low on our all-important Mystery Shopper Reports (yes, I know; we actually have THOSE in our co-op!). So. We have to smile more, to make management smile more.

Well. If it’s customer-friendly they want …

… good-bye Hot Bar. Hello ‘Hottie Bar,’ and the newly-restyled Hottie Bar-Tender!!

The lights will be dimmed. Stools out front. A sports TV to one side. And the ubiquitous Disco Ball gently rotating in the background, to the insistent, sexy tones of 24 x 7 Barry White.

I have undergone an extreme make-over. Uniform will now be gelled hair, waistcoat and an ever-changing selection of brightly-colored, lycra muscle thongs.

The Weaver Street Market logo will be delicately applied each day, in dazzling pink lip glitter, to the freshly-exposed rear regions – and, if you’ve never seen two Weaver Street logo’s flesh-wrassle, prepare to be entertained (every day, but Sunday; noon, tea-time and a special full-frontal show, when I close the Hottie Bar at 9.00pm).

I am no longer Chef Geoff. Please refer to me in future as ‘The G-Prince.’ I will be cooking and serving my food in a soft, suggestive Andalusian purr, that will make Antonio Banderas sound like … well … a pussy-cat:

“Can I tempt you with my … MEATloaf ... garneeeshed with my fully-RIPEned, ROOTING vegetables, uh huh … ??”

Oh yeah! We’ll put up that Mystery Score …

♫”Girl, I don't know, I don't know why; can't get enough of your love babe"♫

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Backdoor Hiring Freeze ... ??

Further to my comments last week about Weaver Street Market Co-operative increasing sales, but hinting at wanting to put the squeeze on employees, two other anecdotal observations:

1) The most recent Market Messenger reported NO new employees. First time I can remember that since the formal hiring freeze was lifted in early 2010.

2) The word in my department is that the department manager thinks we are ‘heavy’ on hours. Even though our hours have been pretty much unchanged this past year. And certainly they have not increased by the same 10% our Southern Village store sales have.

Now, if you want to know what I think we can do about this, skip to the numbers at the end. Otherwise, stick with me, while I set out what I think is happening, and why it is important that it not be happening.

I have tried mightily to get the WSM corporate office management to discuss with us workers why it is that they have placed so much emphasis on sales growth these past two years. I put the point bluntly to them two years ago.

I wasn’t even allowed the opportunity at this year’s Unit Meeting, when we were told disingenuously that all financial goals were now ‘standard’ – for which read, not open to discussion.

The lack of discussion was a direct breach of our co-op’s policy. Board Policy specifically demands that employees be involved in the making of all major decisions that affect their workplace [Board Policy 2-3 (4)]. It also demands that workers not have imposed on them conditions or decisions that are unsafe, unduly undignified or unnecessarily intrusive – certainly not without discussion.

I do not think it is a stretch to call these continuing, unexplained demands for increased sales an intrusion. Especially when they do not seem to be accompanied by a commensurate increase in staff hours to be able to service the extra work.

A year ago, I began a dispute process (as allowed under Employee Policy 5.1 – you can find that in the Employee Policy Handbook, which is probably serving as the base to your kitty litter). I said that, since the decision that year to increase sales by 15% in 2011 had not involved shopfloor workers, it was in breach of Board Policy 2-3 (4).

I got a one hour meeting with our General Manager. He promised that increasing sales in 2011 would be matched with an increase in staff hours. Hasn’t happened. That is in breach of co-operative values of openness and honesty.

One of the primary features of the feedback from workers in the WSM Employee Survey this past year was that we workers felt we were overworked, understaffed and underpaid. We were promised our grievances would be addressed in action plans.

Frankly, the ‘real’ action plan seems now to be to find new ways to compel us to greater sales, while slipping and sliding our way to a ‘de facto’ hiring and staff hours freeze, without actually telling us why (breach of co-operative values of democracy, openness, transparency and honesty; breach of the corporate office’s own declaration in their Six Point Goal Plan to increase communication).

Of course, the reason the WSM corporate office management won’t actually come out and tell us what’s what is that it would leave them open then to my repeated charge that they continually make major decisions affecting our workplace without including us in the decision-making process.

What can we do?

A) Demand department meetings (of which we were promised more, under WSM's own Six Point Goal Plan), where we can ask our managers why the need for all these increased sales, and if staff hours will match increased sales, as promised.

B) Begin disputes under the Employee Dispute Process (Handbook 5.1). Make the dispute with ‘management’ generally. Say that management is in breach of Board Policy 2-3 (4) for not including workers in decisions about sales goals and staffing levels.

C) Become worker-owners. Stand for the Board of Directors. Vote for a worker-owner Board candidate who actually speaks up for workers at Board meetings. And make sure that, in future, the WSM Board of Directors and its corporate office are always in compliance with the Mission Statement, which requires that workers have a fulfilling work experience.

D) Maybe consider my Six Point Goal Plan.

I know it is difficult to stand up and speak out. But I look across America, and see Occupy every day. I look across the world, and see the Arab Spring. Folks are prepared to risk civil disobedience, in order to make points they know to be valid.

In our co-op, there should not even be the risk. There is no ‘civil disobedience in speaking up. Board Policy 2-3 (3) specifically protects employees against any action brought if employees have been expressing ethical dissent.

Remember this. Power is not given to the people. It is won by them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

#OccupyWeaverStreet?? -- Social Justice AND Sales Growth ...

What does it mean when the employee 'Market Messenger' for Weaver Street Market Co-operative announces that we are making more of a profit so far this year than last; but urges workers to increase sales in any event; while a financial report of confusing figures, posted quietly on the break-room noticeboard, grimly declares that our payroll costs are ahead of our sales growth?

Hmm. Before I answer that, let me quote the Editor of The Co-operative Grocer, from his Editorial Notes in the October issue of CG:

"Investor-driven corporations are eroding the world’s human communities and the natural environment that makes those communities possible. Giving primacy to return on investment is key to why privately held corporations are doing so much damage. Cooperatives’ foundation in democratic ownership, with shared responsibilities and benefits, is why they offer a better direction and a more trustworthy structure. Cooperatives offer a well-defined alternate means of addressing social injustice and organizing enterprise that meets basic needs."

Ooh. Sounds good. Like spreading a thick layer of Occupy all over your morning muffin, isn't it? Dave continues - and this is where it gets relevant to WSM:

"However, cooperative and capitalist firms alike, along with public and governing institutions, are challenged to shift their outlook to a recognition of limits: limits to debt, to resource consumption, and even to THE GOD OF ECONOMIC GROWTH. If conservation and governance are not grounded in a more stable and democratic economy, many shared improvements will be lost. Private capital’s social war will spread until its productive forces are themselves destroyed by the collapse of debt-based growth and by climate chaos."

If Occupy is about anything, it is about getting off the consumerist/capitalist/economic-growth-is-all bandwagon. And yet here is our very own local co-op whipping us into a frenzy to sell, sell, sell, at whatever cost, using all the marketing gimmickry in the consumerist handbook. Why?

Why did we need to achieve a 9% sales growth in 2010, and what happened to it? Why do we need to achieve yet more sales growth this year, and what is happening to it?

And what payroll growth? I'm not aware of massive new hiring. Certainly not of my department taking on 10% more staff, or of my receiving a 10% pay increase (my Southern Village store is currently recording a 10% sales increase for 2011).

And what is the starting point for saying that payroll is growing too quickly? The common view around the co-op (at least among shopfloor workers) is that The Great Recession left payroll too light in any event.

Co-op's exist solely for the purpose of providing for the common needs of their stakeholders - and that includes employees, consumers and owners, not just the management in the WSM corporate office.

I do not hear consumers demanding to buy 10% more. And I do not hear workers demanding to work 10% harder. Indeed, the talk in my department (kitchen) in SV is that we are overworked already.

So, what does this all mean? It means that workers are going to be asked to work even harder for the remainder of this year, without seeing a commensurate growth in payroll. That means working harder for less, as we go along. All over again.

And. What is worse. Workers are not being given any opportunity to discuss these figures, or debate what effect they should have on our working environment, notwithstanding the fact that one of the primary clauses of WSM's Mission Statement is that workers should experience a fulfilling work environment.

I write elsewhere that, in future, companies should be responsive not only to investors, but also to employees and the community. In our co-op, as Dave says, that should already be a reality.

It is not in Weaver Street Market Co-operative. It should be. Some consumers told me that they had been joking recently about #OccupyWeaverStreet. Why joke ... ??

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Worker-Ownership Just Became More Affordable !!

After some five years of campaigning, the Board of Weaver Street Market Co-operative finally decided to make it easier for ordinary workers in the co-op to become Worker-Owners.

The details, my friends, are on the third page of this week's Market Messenger. This is a victory for every ordinary worker in The Weave. We can now all of us afford to have a voice in our affairs, and to share in the rewards of our labor.

As the same MM attests, every single day, we workers are being asked to work harder and harder, to achieve a never-ending increase in sales, an increase which many of us do not understand, and few of us are able to question, or even discuss.

You now have an opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process at the highest level. And then to share in the benefits flowing from all those extra sales.

The only way to have a real voice in the co-op is by electing Worker Owner Directors to our Board who truly represent ordinary workers (our very own 99%).

At the moment, our two Worker Owner Directors are a Manager and a Corporate Office staff member (our very own 1%). The only way to have a vote in those elections is by being a Worker-Owner.

The only way to share in the rewards of all of our extra labor is to get a dividend. And you can only do that by being a Worker-Owner.

The very moment you start paying to be a Worker-Owner, you get the right to vote, and you start earning towards your end-of-year dividend. You do not have to wait until you are paid in full.

And. When you leave The Weave, you get back all of what you paid - with interest. You can not lose.

So, what are you waiting for? Become a Worker-Owner today. #OccupyWorkerOwnership!! Contact Brenda Camp Orbell, at

Give yourself a voice in decision-making. And get what you have earned from all of your hard work. Good luck to us all ... !!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Co-op's, Not Corp's, Work In A Recession ...

And so, the Great Recession, Act II marches ever closer (ok, not according to the corporate office management here at Weaver Street Market Co-operative).

I truly hope that these new pressing times will be met in our co-op with mutual resolve, mutual respect and a mutual sharing of the burden, and ultimately, a mutual sharing of the rewards of perseverance.

Yet, I fear we will experience only what happened in the Great Recession, Act I – silence, closeting, imposition, demand; decisions taken at the center (not consensually), ever-insistent poking in the back, and rewards eventually shared unequally, only among the few.

How sad. The beauty of the co-operative business model, based as it is on democratic and consensual decision-making, is that it realizes that the grim, tight fist of central control does not work, especially in hard economic times.

What works is happy and engaging democracy, among consumers, owners and workers. As this highlighted article, written back when times were tough before, amply attests …

Monday, September 26, 2011

Worker Democracy InAction ...

Sorry to say this, but it appears that the Board of WSM at its Meeting last Wednesday may have ducked the issue of making worker-ownership in Weaver Street Market Co-operative more affordable.

Those of you who know me know that I’ve been campaigning these past five years to give workers a bigger voice in the co-op our General Manager proudly boasts is half-owned by its workers.

36% of us stated clearly in the recent Employee Survey that the reason more of us did not become worker-owners was the cost. I have been proposing for some time now that the cost be reduced from $500 to $200.

In recent weeks, it seemed that that Board had, finally, got the message. But, apparently not. What happens next, I do not know. I’m still trying to find out. In the meantime, I will continue to press.

Every worker in our co-op works their hardest. Every worker has sacrificed these past couple of years. Every worker contributes to our co-op’s performance. And every worker should be given the chance to vote, to have a voice and to share in the rewards of his or her labor, with a dividend.

It should not be dependent on whether or not we have enough money to buy into worker-ownership …

Friday, September 23, 2011

Improving WSM Employees' 'Market Messenger' ...

Workers in WSM are today invited to submit ideas for improving what used to be the employee Market Messenger, but what has become simply a mouthpiece for the WSM corporate office.

Manfully, I restrained myself from all of the immediately obvious, yet inappropriate, suggestions (topless pics (blokes and blokesses); my blog; sports section; print it on toilet paper, so that it can be dual-use (oh, it is already ... ).

And instead, I came up with the grown-up version of a letter to our Human Resources Manager. Not as much fun. But more likely to be read:

"Hey Deborah,

Thank you for your note in today's Market Messenger inviting ideas for improving it.

Even I can remember a time a few years ago when it was several pages long, and was more of a communication vehicle for employees, and less of the platform for administrative office missives than it is today.

I appreciate that the tough times of the past few years may have accounted for the truncated content. But we've moved on from that point. And the Employee Survey was quite clear that employees wanted more communication.

I set out in a previous letter how I felt that, taking into account all of the commentary in the Survey results, it was not difficult to form the view that, when employees talked of more communication, they wanted that communication to be more than just communication to them from the center -

I understand the desire of the center to use the Market Messenger to improve the financial performance of employees. But you will know that our Triple Bottom Line (financial, social and environmental), our Mission Statement and Board Policy regard financial performance as only one part of the interaction between workers and their co-op.

Employees are required to have a work experience that is fulfilling and are supposed to be consulted on decision-making that affects their workplace.

Improving the Market Messenger offers a wonderful opportunity to assist in achieving those ends by helping to create more of a sense of belonging and team between the Units, and more of a sense of identity and involvement for each worker within WSM.

I think one of the the best ways of enabling such ends would be to have more involvement of ordinary workers in the production of the Market Messenger.

There could be an Editorial Committee of Unit workers, one per Unit, with each Unit deciding for itself how to choose that representative (but the representative not simply to be chosen by the Unit Manager).

I would be happiest to see that Committee, perhaps headed by someone from the Marketing Department, in charge of publishing the entire Market Messenger, with the administrative office given access to it - but not sole access.

That might be a step too far for some. So, why not let the Committee have one page to do with as they wish? There could be announcements for individual worker concerts, art exhibitions. Letters. Even competitions between the Units. Dodgeball has been mentioned more than once.

My next point is that, at the Southern Village Unit Meeting in 2010, there was an exchange about improving the financial literacy of employees in 2011.

In the context of the Triple Bottom line, our Mission Statement and Board Policy, I wondered in response if one of the reasons folks felt that not as much heed was paid to our being a co-op as it was to our being a grocery store might be that we placed too much emphasis on financial literacy, and not enough on co-op literacy.

Ruffin nodded his head vigorously.

The Market Messenger this past year has been full of information aiding financial literacy, but not one mention of co-op literacy. Maybe, an improvement of the Market Messenger would see more space devoted to our Triple Bottom Line, the Mission Statement and in what fashion we try to behave as a co-op?

In this latter regard, what about a regular report from our Worker-Owner Directors? Not some standard piece about what the Board is doing. But notes about what our Worker-Owner Directors are doing. Maybe more information more regularly about Worker-Ownership, as well?

Finally, what about putting the Market Messenger online? With opportunity for feedback?

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to comment.

All the best,

Friday, September 9, 2011

Worker-Ownership: Reducing The Cost; NOT Spreading The Cost ...

There is suggestion from the Board of WSM that workers will be encouraged to pay the $500 cost of Worker-Ownership if they are allowed to pay it over two years. My feedback is that workers will only be encouraged if the cost is actually reduced.

The Board will be meeting to discuss this issue next Wednesday (September 14). Time for one last letter, to let the Board know what workers are truly feeling:

"Dear Board,

Since publishing my last letter to you about the cost of Worker-Ownership on my various blogs, I have had some feedback from fellow workers which may interest you.

At the same time, I know that the sole candidate this year for the position of Worker-Owner Director has made the rounds of some Units, discussing his views on the same subject.

It is possibly the case that, in the absence of more formal consultation with workers in our co-op, this combined feedback may represent the only contact you have with the views of the workforce on this issue.

While on that subject, I would mention in passing that I am somewhat surprised that there has not been more formal consultation – even a vote – with the workforce, on an issue that is of primary concern to them.

Indeed, I wonder if this is not in non-compliance with Board Policy which requires that the workforce be consulted meaningfully on matters which affect them (2-3 (4)).

There is, of course, still time for such consultation. And when you meet soon to consider this issue, it may well be that you decide the best course of action is to initiate a consultation exercise, setting out the various options which I know you have been discussing, getting more formal and comprehensive feedback, and then holding a vote of all workers.

In the meantime, you have the feedback from me and from the sole candidate for Worker-Owner Director.

Our feedback is necessarily subjective and anecdotal. But this does not dismiss it. Merely sets it in context.

You will know, well, some of you may know (!), that I have been campaigning on the issue of increased democracy within our co-op, which we proudly declare to the public is half-owned by its workers, for some five years now.

I have gone out of my way not only to impart my views, but also to listen carefully to the views of as many workers as I can reach.

That reach has included setting up my own blog, and creating a network of almost 30-40% of the workforce through the platform of my Facebook account.

I have stood for the Board four times, attended every election table, and have, throughout the years, been assiduous in visiting Units and talking with all workers in between elections.

No-one is capable of being an uncompromisingly objective voice for other people. But, as a former lawyer, I think I am reasonably capable of imparting the difference between my opinions and those passed onto me by workers who feel nervous about giving voice to their own concerns.

The views I express about the cost of Worker-Ownership are not merely those given to me in the past few weeks, but are views that have been expressed to me over the past five years.

Indeed, as long ago as 2008 (specifically in the WSM Elections Task Force) I submitted the opinion, based on what I had been told, that a lot of workers were unhappy about becoming Worker-Owners precisely because of their perception that it was too expensive. This viewpoint found quantitative expression in the 2011 Employee Survey.

I did not mention this in my last letter, but I believe that Board Policy requires that everything be done to encourage new Ownership of the co-op. Frankly, I can't find the reference. It may have been 4-9. But that appears to be under new consideration.

In any event, if the Board are aware that there is an impediment to workers becoming Worker-Owners, and they know how to address it, and they do not, then the Board may well be in non-compliance with Board Policy as it currently stands.

In recent discussions with workers, I have raised two options: simply reducing the cost of Worker-Ownership to $200; and spreading the cost of $500 over two years. Indeed, to be fair, I have been raising variations of these two options with workers since 2007.

The result has always been the same. The majority viewpoint expressed to me is that simple reduction would encourage workers to become Worker-Owners. Spreading the cost of $500 over two years would not.

The concern with the latter proposal is that it would confuse workers, who feel that too many would be discouraged from making a commitment to anything for two years.

Again, with reference to Board Policy, I wonder if the Board might not be in non-compliance with Board Policy if it opted for a measure that it has been told might well discourage Worker-Ownership.

Which, of course, might bring us back to the notion that the only way to know what workers think quantitatively is to consult them and to allow them to vote. Don’t take my word for it. Ask workers. As eventually you did with the Employee Survey.

A real concern flows from simple reduction of the cost of Worker-Ownership. There are existing Worker-Owners who have expressed to me their sense that it would be unfair for new Worker-Owners, who are paying less for Worker-Ownership, to receive the same dividend.

To be honest, I think this concern is answered by the nature of the beast.

The first point to make is that you can not have different classes of the same type of Ownership. This would be in non-compliance with co-operative principles and policy of equality.

That is the whole point behind having a single Ownership fee. So that no one individual may build up a larger stake in the co-op than any other stakeholder, and so that every stakeholder benefits at the same rate of return.

Frankly, as I say, I do not see this as an insurmountable issue. If you paid $500, you will get $500 re-imbursed to you when you cash out, plus interest. If you paid $200, then you get $200 back, plus interest. Doesn’t that deal equitably with the difference in initial cost?

Another option might be to re-imburse $300 (plus interest) to each $500 Worker-Owner with the next payment of dividend. Another might be to go through a slightly more tortuous process of immediately re-imbursing all existing Worker-Owners their $500 (with interest to that point), while subtracting the ‘new’ Worker-Owner fee of $200, putting all Worker-Owners on the same footing.

The point here is that there is a difference between some complexity and a little inequity in implementation of a fairer and more policy-compliant system, and an intrinsic inequity in the final result.

The final result cannot have an inequity of return. But you don’t not implement a fairer and more co-operative policy just because the implementation is a little bit difficult.

After all, the Board decided it would be more equitable between Worker-Owners and Consumer-Owners to have a system of return where all Owners received a dividend. Implementation of discounts-to-dividends was not easy. But the co-op found a way and the will to overcome the problems.

There is no good reason why the Board and the co-op should not find the same will to introduce a system of Worker-Ownership for all workers, that is demonstrably fairer, more affordable and more inclusive, and is more compliant with Board Policy.

Whatever the outcome of all this consideration, the principles and policy remain the same: you can not have two classes of return on investment; and the Board is bound by duty and by common sense to encourage Ownership, and to choose an option which it has been told will more likely encourage more Ownership, over an option it has been told will not.

Or, at the very least, it is bound by Board Policy to test competing options with the workforce it will affect with its decision.

I hope this has been helpful. I look forward to an equitable and democratic outcome. I am unable to attend the meeting on the 21st as I will be working, and have already taking time off for personal matters.

All the best,

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Democracy InAction ...

I have just discovered that, for the first time since I have been with Weaver Street Market Co-operative (six years now), there will be no contest in the Annual Election for Consumer-Owner and Worker-Owner Board Directors.

Three years ago, I sat on a WSM Elections Task Force, and we grappled with all sorts of ways of increasing Owner democracy in our co-op. I do not think uncontested Elections this year are a sign of the success of our deliberations.

In my opinion they reflect the fact that Owners have simply given up on a co-op that has given up on them.

Demonstration of this unhappy truth is the fact that the bulk of the suggestions put forward by our Task Force to encourage participation and democracy in our co-op were simply tossed aside by the self-appointed few in the WSM corporate office who have undemocratically abrogated power to themselves.

More importantly, the lack of contest this year for Worker-Owner Board Director leaves workers in our co-op represented by a Manager and a member of the Finance Department of the WSM corporate office. Hardly what you'd call shop-floor representation.

This could have serious impact in a couple of weeks, when the Board will be considering a reduction in the cost of Worker-Ownership, a step I regard as vital if we are to allow all workers to share in the rewards of their labor, and to vote for real worker representation on their Board of Directors.

I think it extremely unlikely that our two existing Worker-Owner Directors, both of whom were specifically recruited to run against me, so that they could be voted in by the existing inbuilt management bloc vote, in order to prevent the disaster that might befall the co-op if it had a real worker's voice on the Board - sorry, letting my personal petticoat show there for a sec ...

Anyways, I think it extremely unlikely that the Finance Department or the Management Team would want to extend Worker-Ownership, such that it would become affordable for mere grunts. I mean, who knows what sort of 'communist' those grunts might elect to ensure the co-op is in compliance with its Mission Statement requirement that co-op workers have a fulfilling work experience?

Hmm. I could be on an incoherent rant here ...

Bottom line: democracy in our co-op just took another hit - on several levels. But, it does not have to stay that way. So, my fellow workers, when the one candidate for Worker-Owner Board Director (Curt Brinkmeyer - Finance Department) comes visiting your Unit in the next couple of weeks, grab him by his ... emoticon ... and demand he votes to make Worker-Ownership affordable, so that next year, you can vote -- or maybe even stand for the Board yourself ...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reducing the Cost of Worker-Ownership ...

Every last worker in the Weaver Street Market Co-operative contributes to the profit that allows a dividend to be paid to Worker-Owners and Consumer-Owners.

It is only fair that all workers be given the opportunity to be able to afford Worker-Ownership, so that all workers may be able to share in the rewards of the labor of us all.

This is not the case at the moment.

Those of you who know me will know that I have been campaigning for several years now to reduce the cost of Worker-Ownership, so that we can all afford to share in the rewards of our labor, and so that we can all vote in Board Elections.

I am told that the Board will, at last, be considering the cost of Worker-Ownership this Autumn. So, I wrote to them, with one final plea:

"Dear Board,

At the Southern Village Unit Meeting this past week, in answer to a question from me, Ruffin announced that you would be considering the cost of Worker-Ownership in Weaver Street Market Co-operative this Autumn.

I write to you now to ask you to reduce Worker-Ownership to $200, to give all workers in our co-op the opportunity to be able to afford to share in the rewards of their own labor, and the right to be able to vote for their Board Directors.

You will know that one of the six goals for 2012 presented to Unit Meetings by Ruffin was improvement in communication. As things stand at the moment, the only meaningful opportunity workers in WSM have to communicate views such that they find their way into policy-making is through Worker-Ownership.

You allowed for a dividend to Worker-Owners this year for the first time in three years. This is due not least to the magnificent effort of ALL workers in improving sales in 2011 by 9%.

However, even though every last worker in WSM contributed to this sales increase, and to the profit that led to the dividend, not every last worker will be able to share in the rewards. Not every last worker will get a dividend.

Only some 50% of workers in WSM are Worker-Owners. The 2011 WSM Employee Survey elicited the information that some 36% stated that their reason for not being a Worker-Owner was the exorbitant cost.

I understand that, when it was only Worker-Owners who received the patronage dividend, it was necessary for tax reasons to have the Worker-Ownership cost high, so that there was a sufficient patronage capital base - created as it was only out of Worker-Ownership contributions.

Now that both Consumer-Owners and Worker-Owners receive the patronage dividend, and we can count Consumer-Owner as well as Worker-Owner contributions for that patronage capital base, there is no need to keep the cost of Worker-Ownership so high (it is $100 for Consumer-Owners -vs- $500 for Worker-Owners).

Ruffin confirmed to me last Autumn, when I met with him, that there was no reason to keep the cost of Worker-Ownership so high.

In all of the circumstances, I can see no good reason to keep Worker-Ownership at $500, and many good reasons for reducing it to, say, $200. When it would become more affordable for Worker-Owners, while still maintaining a differential with Consumer-Ownership; fair, since Worker-Owners receive a higher amount by way of individual dividend.

I can not believe that there is any worker or Worker-Owner in WSM who would want to deny the person working next to them, doing the same work as them, the opportunity to be able to afford to share in the rewards of their same labor.

I can not believe Worker-Owners would want to deny their fellow workers the opportunity to have the same input to policy-making, and the same opportunity to vote for Board Directors.

More to the point, I can not believe that there is any Worker-Owner who would want to create a sense in our co-operative of a two-tier worker system. Where those who have money and can afford Worker-Ownership are the only ones who get to benefit from the labor of all, and are the only ones who get to vote and to have input to policy-making - simply because they have more money.

It could be seen as the antithesis of the principle of equality to which we, as a co-op, are supposed to subscribe.

And I can not imagine our Consumer-Owners thinking any differently, can you?

I look forward to your decision, finally, to introduce equity to the distribution of financial benefits in our co-op and to the system of electing our Worker-Owner Board Directors.

All the best,
Geoff Gilson"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Co-op Died Last Night ...

WeaverMart, the centrally-controlled, local foods, grocery chain combine is alive and well. Weaver Street Market Co-operative, the democratically-controlled, community co-operative pretty much died last evening.

The staff of the Southern Village outlet of WSM held its annual meeting last night. It was supposed to be the first shot in the much-touted new communication-friendly mode of WSM’s corporate office management team.

But, it was less of a democratic conversation; more of a WalMart-style sales presentation and ra-ra rally. All happy-happy, pretty balloons and self-congratulatory sales-increase pep convention. Provided no-one mentioned Triple Bottom Line, co-operative values or Mission Statement.

It would have been funny, if it hadn’t been so eerily Orwellian.

I think I have a reasonable capacity for observing, analyzing and interpreting the human behavior I see around me, pretty accurately. I mean, I can’t be that bad at it. Back in my dark corporate days, there were folks who paid me six figures for doing it.

I’m bound to say that Weaver Street is the first place I’ve been told that it amounts to fabrication. Told by WSM’s corporate office management, that is.

The meeting, and WSM’s 2011 Annual Report (which we were given at the end of the meeting – heaven forbid we be given it at the beginning; we might have had awkward questions), was a slick marketing exercise in double-speak.

I could take it apart, point by point. But to what end? I would say the point is to expose the lie, in order to reveal a better way forward. But frankly, I can’t see that anyone cares any more.

[If, perchance, you do still care, you can get a little background by reading the first couple of posts on this blog, after this one.]

I can’t even tell whether this is because folks now believe the lies, or they’re just too beat down to speak up.

For example, for the first time in my six years with WSM, the Election for the vacant Consumer-Owner Board seat is uncontested.

Is this really because Consumer-Owners are overwhelmingly happy with all that is happening? Or is it because they’ve given up trying to change direction in a co-op that no longer listens to them?

In an Orwellian twist, the corporate office management team announces in the Annual Report that it is so interested in owner exchange that it has created a brand new position of Owner Services Co-ordinator.

This is a blatant lie. The position has existed the whole time I have been with WSM. But it has never been given the prominence that other co-op’s assign the function – other co-op’s give the title-holder their own Department.

As a consequence, in 2008, the job was merged with Events Co-ordinator. And this year, it was split off into a separate job once again, but with a much-downgraded remit.

But this is what the WSM corporate office management team does so well. They know the language that triggers the feel-good factor. And they abuse it, blatantly, so that no-one ever looks behind the screen. Our meeting last evening and the Annual Report that will be available next Monday are classic examples of this slick whitewash.

The only real 'discussion' (as opposed to glossy and slippery presentation) allowed at our Southern Village staff meeting last evening was feedback on how to meet six co-op goals, that had been decided upon by WSM’s corporate office management team, without any consensual conversation with the workers to whom those goals will now apply (in contravention of our co-op policy on including workers in major decisions that affect them).

I tried to raise objection. Um. Here is where I get accused of fabrication. I would say I was shouted down by management. They would say I was gently guided away from being off-point.

And that is the essence of why I say the co-op, as opposed to the grocery store, died last evening.

We are a co-op when we are concerned about how we do business as much as we are about doing that business.

We are a co-op when we are a democratically-controlled community enterprise; not one that simply has a survey and a suggestions box.

It is not enough that stakeholders get to comment. In a co-op, they should control. The only ones controlling anything in this co-op are the corporate office management team.

Is that so bad?

Not if you believe the slide-show and the colorful Annual Report. Where all is glowing testimonial from national magazines, who have spoken only with the corporate office management team.

Not if you believe that profit achieved through downgrading the social and environmental impact of your co-op, and overworking and under-rewarding your workers, is the sort of Wall Street profit of which we want to feel proud.

Not if you believe all the financial verbiage and figures. But fail to notice that no mention is made of how unspecified social and environmental goals have been achieved.

If you miss the fact that, for the first time, the Annual Statement excludes the amount of money that WSM exported out of the community to repay the annual capital and interest charges on its long-term liability of some $7 million.

That figure last year was about $2 million. $2 million that could have been better utilized rewarding hard-working employees, or replacing outdated equipment, or meeting the overarching 2012 goal of becoming more fiscally stable.

If you feel unhappy that, for the first time ever, no mention was made of WSM’s formerly equal emphasis on financial, social and environmental bottom line profit.

If you feel uncomfortable with the fact that the corporate office management team continues to hold the view (because they will not allow discussion of it) that the crippling debt burden of $7 million should only be paid down at the expense of what they ironically describe as loyal Consumer-Owners and dedicated workers.

But, why bother? No-one else spoke up at our meeting last evening.

No-one else wanted to query why we have to accept that increasing sales every year is ‘standard’ practice in a co-op. When the only standard practice should be meeting the common needs of our stakeholders.

No-one else queried why it was that a self-appointed few set the goals in what is supposed to be an organization governed by principles of democracy and equality.

No-one else wanted to query why those goals included nothing about the Mission Statement requirement that workers have a fulfilling work experience.

[Um, I won’t go into details – might be accused of fabrication – but the fact is that our little split-off group demonstrated conclusively that somewhat less than 98% of WSM’s workers are happy.]

No-one else wanted to know why we ‘failed’ to reach the 2011 sales increase goal of 15% because the corporate office management team failed in their task of implementing category management techniques into the Food House.

No-one wanted to ask why the corporate office management team reneged on their promise to increase staffing levels if we workers increased sales at all (which we did, magnificently, in all the prevailing economic circumstances, by 9%).

No-one else wanted to hold accountable the corporate office management team for their other failings this past year …



Why bother?

My background is in law, marketing, management consultancy and politics, all professions in which you excel if you can up sell the positive, and spin away the less palatable.

There is much about Weaver Street that is positive. There is much that is simply glossy spin. I only raise it, because I believe that the unchallenged spin holds us back from being a stronger business and a better co-operative.

I feel even more compelled to raise it when all constructive conversation about authentic improvement of our Triple (Financial, Social and Environmental) Bottom Line is stifled.

As it was last evening. As it is in the Annual Report.

Why should I be surprised? Why should I be surprised that meetings and Annual Reports are merely exercises in Orwellian propaganda, rather than genuine attempts at honest discussion and meaningful improvement of social and environment as well as financial performance?

What could be more self-explanatory or Orwellian than the fact that the results of the 2011 Employee Survey remain under lock and key?

Could it be that those truly controlling your co-op do not want you to know that those results show that 37% of the staff in the corporate office do not agree that their own managers accept new ideas and want to improve the co-op?

That 47% of the staff in the corporate office (including the marketing team) do not believe that their own managers communicate properly with the rest of the co-op?

That some 70% of the staff in the corporate office are not prepared to agree that their own managers implement policies and procedures consistently?

And yet, we workers, we owners, we consumers of our co-op, golden and fair, merrily, verily, gaily accept each and every sweet word spoken and written by these same folks, these self-appointed few, these corporate office managers, the very people who cannot command the confidence of their own staff, the very people who use language as so much beeswax. To gloss. To hide.

For why? Because it is easier to accept the Orwellian pretty-pretty than it is to risk the darker malaise that might be revealed by rippling the seemingly calm waters. And so, the Orwellian double-speak continues. Because we buy it. Lock, stock and barrel.

If that makes you happy, take your paycheck, get your dividend, and be happy. If not, try asking some questions. If not, well, I’ll go on asking them. I’ll see you at the beach.

Oh, by the by, the same lads and lasses who serve up the Orwellian double-speak also accuse me of being negative. Of not liking my co-op.

Bollocks. I love my co-op. I just have a piss-poor view of the management team that led us blindly into debt of $7 million, and now abandon any and all pretense of co-operation, in a headlong rush into the worst of undemocratic, non-inclusive, exploitative and deceitful consumerism, in order to pay it back, and cover up their shortcomings.

And, when they've done failing at accusing me of being negative, same blokes and blokesses then say, well, all I do is rant; I don't contribute to any solution.

Again, Bollocks. I have presented three different strategy documents, all of them chock-a-block full of solutions. You can find them on my co-op blog.

The thing is, the corporate office management team just don't like the fact that central to my proffered solutions is the essentially co-operative concept (but the kiss of death to control freaks) that we would become a stronger business and a better co-operative if only we would return power in our co-op to our stakeholders (our owners, our consumers and our workers).

One more time. Sigh.

I just wish I could fit all this onto a T-shirt …

Friday, August 19, 2011

Six Co-operative Goals for WSM in 2012 ...

WSM corporate office management will be announcing six goals for 2012 at worker Unit Meetings next week. I will be pleasantly surprised (not to mention bowled over with joy) if those goals look anything like this:

1) Authentic Triple Bottom Line Profit

* With a potential double-dip to the Great Recession just around the corner, keep financial profitability simple. No grand plans or expansive goals. Open the doors. Sell consumers what they have asked us to sell them. In a way workers have agreed. Make a profit. Go home.

* It is no good announcing that WSM has made a financial profit when that profit has only been achieved by overworking, underpaying, over-stressing and under-equipping workers. That is called exploitation. It's how WalMart is able to announce a profit. It's not something of which any one of us should feel proud.

* Remember that our Triple Bottom Line includes social and environmental profitability, as well as financial profitability.

* We are not achieving environmental profitability when we continue to use non-recyclable plastic bags for transporting food (which we announced was a temporary measure three years ago), or when we convert our delivery trucks away from being bio-diesel.

* The social bottom line is not how much money we return to the community. It is the social impact of our business on our owners, our consumers, our workers and our community. To put it simply, whether or not we piss 'em off with the way we do business. At the moment, we piss 'em off. We are not making a social profit, and have not for several years now.

2) Authentic Debt Reduction Program

* Restructuring and recapitalizing the co-op's long-term debt of some $8 million, to transform it such that it no longer drains funds away from investing in the resources necessary to provide fulfilling shopping and work experiences.

* We will never be able to give workers the tools they need (staff, equipment, proper pay increases, etc.) to provide customers with a fulfilling shopping experience, as long as each year we throw away $2 million out of our $25 million turnover due to our long-term debt.

* Currently, WSM exports some $2 million a year in interest and capital repayments to banks outside of our community because of that crippling long-term debt.

* This is the only reason WSM corporate office management, year after year, produces goals that place an intolerable burden upon our owners, our consumers and our workers, and which have nothing to do with providing for their common needs (which, by international definition, should be the sole ambition of any co-operative).

3) Authentic Communication and Accountability

* Structures, systems and processes should be introduced that allow for genuine communication within Departments, Units and the Co-op as a whole.

* That communication should be two-way. We get to tell management and the corporate office what we think, and they have to listen and take what we say into account. Otherwise, 'improved communication' just means another opportunity for management to poke us in the back, and tell us to keep our hands busy.

* Communication is useless without accountability. And that accountability, in a democratic co-op, based on the principle of equality, should also be two-way and absolute. We are responsible to our managers and to Ruffin. They should also be accountable to us.

* At last year's Unit Meetings, we were told that our efforts to increase sales by 15% would be supported by the WSM corporate office and Food House implementing category management improvements to our prepared foods. That has not happened. How do we workers hold the corporate office and Food House management accountable?

* We were told that, as and when we increased sales, staff levels would be increased. That has not happened in my Department. Whom do I hold accountable, and how?

* If a part of communication and accountability is to regularize job descriptions, then the co-op as a whole should be deciding the job descriptions, not just a self-appointed few; those job descriptions should cover every position, up to and including the General Manager; and all job descriptions should include a requirement to comply with WSM's Mission Statement and the Triple Bottom Line.

4) Authentic Shopping Experience

* Our consumers should determine what we sell. In that way, we could do away with all the expensive, consumerist marketing gimmickry, which serves only to encourage our consumers to buy what they would not otherwise want to buy. That's what conventional capitalist/consumerist grocery stores do, not co-operatives.

* We could then re-assign marketing staff away from the current marketing gimmickry, and have them focus instead on processes to discover the genuine common needs of our consumers, by way of an online forum, revived newsletter, consumer discussion groups, and the like.

* If consumers are choosing what we sell, and workers are deciding how we sell, and consumers are discussing all of this in consumer discussion groups, then there is no need to waste any more money on the reactive, unprofessional and counter-productive Mystery Shopper Program. There is way too much of a culture of secrecy and mystery in this co-op, which is supposed to subscribe to co-operative principles of openness and transparency.

5) Authentic Work Experience

* WSM's Mission Statement requires that workers have a fulfilling work experience.

* It should be made a specific requirement that every manager's job description include reference to this fact, and that every manager be reviewed each year as much on their success in ensuring a fulfilling work experience as in achieving financial goals.

* With our crippling long-term debt taken out of the financial equation, there would be enough funds (which we workers generate by the way) to increase staff, renew equipment, pay proper merit pay increases, and the like, all of which would allow us workers to provide customers with the shopping experience they want, and which we want to give them - in an environment of mutual respect and dignity. That's how you improve all three levels of profitability. Not by poking us in the back.

6) Authentic Decision-Making and Democracy

* Why were the six goals to be presented to us by WSM's corporate office management determined by a self-selected few, and not by the co-op as a whole? A co-op is supposed to work on principles of equality and democracy. Where was the equality and democracy in this decision-making process? Indeed, where is the equality and democracy in any of WSM's decision-making processes?

* Leaving aside principle, it is common business good sense that, if consumers, owners and workers are involved in making the major decisions in our co-op, they will all be more invested in achieving their successful implementation.

* The only opportunity available to workers to participate in wider policy-making in our co-op and to vote in Board Elections is through the purchase of worker-ownership. Ruffin told me last Autumn there was no good reason for keeping the cost of worker-ownership at $500. 36% of the co-op's workers said the reason they would not become worker-owners was due to the cost. Why can we not IMMEDIATELY reduce the cost of worker-ownership to, say, $200? It is plain wrong that only a few get to share in the rewards of the labor of us all.

We are not acting as a co-op if, at the end of a year, we have achieved some goal set by a self-appointed few behind a combination lock, but we don't feel good about ourselves.

What sets co-operatives apart from conventional corporate/consumerist businesses is not just what we do, but how we do it.

The answer to that viewpoint has too often been, 'Well, we're not a social statement.' Actually, provided we are not making a financial loss, that is exactly what we are.

I am told, if I feel that way, perhaps I should work elsewhere. Actually, if those who tell me that do not like working according to co-operative ideals, it is time for them to be working somewhere else.

Sorry. But it is time to take back our co-op.

I remain ever hopeful that the six goals that WSM corporate office management will be announcing next week will work towards these ends, and will consequently look something like the six set out above.

I remain hopeful, but I think we may be in for another fight ...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Consumerism is Dead; Long Live our Co-op ... ??

The past few weeks have been a body blow to irrational consumerism in the US. My fear is that my local food co-op, far from being a part of the alternative solution, continues to be a part of the problem.

In the US as a whole, fiscal irresponsibility, beginning in the Eighties, and fueled by successive administrations in the Nineties and then the Noughts, led to cheap money. Which created an unsustainable housing bubble. Which, through dicky mortgages and tacky marketing caused a consumer spending boom. Which put us all in debt we could not afford.

The economy finally hiccuped (2007/2008). Interest rates tweaked. Mortgages went unpaid. Enter foreclosures. Banks tanking. Getting bailed out. Putting governments even further into debt. Leading to the government debt crisis in the US and Europe (2011). And our hope we have all learned our lesson.

Meanwhile, Weaver Street Market Co-operative, happily skipping along as a two-unit and restaurant co-op, genuinely serving the expressed common needs of its stakeholders, as good co-op’s are supposed to do (cf. ICA definition of co-op) suddenly decided, in 2007, it wanted to abandon co-op principles, take advantage of the cheap money, and, without properly consulting its stakeholders (naughty; cf. ICA co-op principles of democracy and openness), expand to three units, a restaurant and a Food House, and become a traditional, consumerist, chain store.

As with everyone else, the Great Recession came along. And WSM found itself $10 million in debt (on turnover of about $20 million at that time), with sales going in the wrong direction.

Did those we have consented to manage our community co-op do the right thing (again, cf. ICA principles of transparency, democracy and accountability), fess up, and try to find a consensual solution to the problem?

No. They battened down the hatches. Closed down communication. Tossed any remaining co-operative principles overboard. And determined to hack their way out of debt by using rampantly consumerist marketing to encourage our customers to buy products that WSM wanted them to buy, not those for which our stakeholders had a genuine common need.

Meanwhile, workers, all pretence of consensual decision-making long since gone, have been used as fodder to produce as much money by way of sales as possible. Hence the demand from WSM corporate office management during the 2010 round of Unit Meetings to increase sales in 2011 by 15%.

A co-op is a voluntary association of stakeholders. Come together to provide for their common needs. There was no demonstrable need expressed by our consumer stakeholders to increase sales to them by 15%. There was no demonstrable desire expressed by our worker stakeholders to increase their workload by 15%.

No. The need being serviced was that expressed by a self-appointed few (in contravention of the co-op principle of equality) in the WSM corporate office to rescue, through rampant consumerism alone, the failed plan of expansion, which was itself driven by irrational consumerism, in the first place.

What to do?

Demand in our worker Unit Meetings, to be held later this month, and at the Annual Meeting of Owners, that WSM disregard the discredited consumerist plans of WSM corporate office management, and adopt a truly co-operative three-part plan for 2012 and beyond, to return our co-op to authentic and sustainable profitability - financial, social and environmental:

1) Take the long-term debt (now, $7 million?) out of the equation. Set up, as I first suggested at the Annual Meeting of Owners in 2008, a Review Committee of Owners, to investigate the finances of WSM, top to bottom, and suggest options for eliminating the long-term debt as soon as possible.

So that we workers are no longer working harder and harder, for less; going without realistic merit pay increases; and constantly being poked in the back to look busy; just because we workers are being forced to find $2 million a year to pay off WSM corporate office management's mistakes.

2) Return to the co-operative principles to which we subscribe, and make our co-op one that provides ONLY for the common needs of its stakeholders. NOT for the need of some irrational, unsustainable and unprofitable vision kept secret by WSM corporate office management, behind a combination lock in Hillsborough.

We made a sensible step in that direction a few years ago, when we replaced the 5% consumer discount (consumerism, if ever I saw it), with a dividend. In other words, making the return to stakeholders dependent on the real performance of the co-op.

So far, so good. I supported this move. I believed (and still do) that, properly implemented, it would help to induce real loyalty (and thus, sustainable buying power) among our consumer-owners, as opposed to the here-today/gone-tomorrow ADD one finds amongst most sale-only customers. I was just unhappy that we were introducing it without the consent of stakeholders (cf. democracy and accountability).

I was also unhappy that, contrary to assurances from our General Manager, we did not implement the second stage of the move from discounts to dividends.

You see the discounts-to-dividend move is not one that WSM invented. It is a concept that is being introduced, with great success, in food co-op's all over the US.

The reason it is having huge success encouraging greater loyalty among owners of other food co-op's is that those other co-op's are sticking to the gameplan, and are introducing the second stage of the concept.

Stage one is to remove the discounts, and say to owners: in future, your return on investment will be dependent on the performance of the co-op; you don't just get your return upfront, as a discount.

Stage two is then to say to owners: since we are making your return on investment dependent on our performance; we will give you democratic control over our performance.

Other co-op's, those which are experiencing success in increased owner loyalty and buying performance, are those that have take real steps to introduce stage two: improved democratic control by owners.

It is this second part which has not been introduced into WSM – yet.

If we want the move from discounts to dividends to lead to greater owner loyalty and to improved buying performance among our owners, then we need to implement measures to give them authentic democratic control over the performance of our co-op and its corporate office management.

This is not just some wishy-washy, utopian, democratic ideal. It is how we in WSM ensure improved sales through improved owner loyalty. It puts our stakeholders back in charge of determining what are the common needs to be serviced in our co-op, and of deciding how those needs will be addressed. And it is the only antidote to the collapse of consumerism in our society, and what all now recognize is the oncoming double-dip of the Great Recession.

I have suggested that the newly-appointed Owner Services Co-ordinator be given a remit to set up an interactive forum on the WSM web-site; to hold regular Consumer-Owner Discussion Groups; and to re-establish the Owner newsletter.

All ways of ensuring that what we sell and how we sell are determined by hands-on co-operative interaction with stakeholders, and not by impersonal, reactive, expensive, consumerist marketing gimmicks.

And a start to taking power in our co-op away from the self-selected few in the corporate office, and putting it back into the hands of our stakeholders, so that they (and not corporate office management) control the performance of our democratic co-op.

Now the 2011 WSM Consumer Survey was a start to inter-acting with our consumer-owners. But actually a pretty piss-poor start. It boiled down to one question: do you want us to be fiscally responsible again? But. It was a start .

Which neatly brings me to a suggestion as to how to pay for this newfound interest in our stakeholders.

If we believed that replacing discounts with dividends would be more financially responsible and more co-operative, and would be more likely to foster genuine and sustainable loyalty among our stakeholders, then why not take that belief to its natural conclusion?

And do away with ALL remaining discounts, owner specials and the like?

Quite aside from the principle, in one fell move we would sweep away the cottage industry we have created in the marketing department producing endless signs, labels, merchandising reports, et al.

When there was a simple 5% discount, we needed none of this extra marketing effort. But introducing all these never-ending specials and sale items (quite aside from being a rather tacky demonstration of a consumerist dependence on forcing people, through gimmick, to buy what they don’t really want) requires huge amounts of labor to organize.

If we did away with all the specials and all the associated labor, we would free up the marketing department to focus on liaising with stakeholders to determine what are their common needs, and how they would like them addressed.

Which allows me to segue conveniently to discussing another essential group of stakeholders in our co-op: its workers.

3) When WSM corporate office management panicked at the size of our debt and the onset of the Great Recession, in addition to sweeping away any pretence of providing for the common needs of our customer stakeholders, and resorting instead to tricking them into buying more and more stuff with consumerist marketing, corporate office management also decided pretty much to stop asking us workers how we would like our work experience to be fulfilling (cf. WSM Mission Statement requirement), and instead determined they would adopt the Wal-Mart approach and simply tell us what to do.

And what they wanted and want us to do is sell, sell, sell. Forget the Triple Bottom Line. Forget that we are supposed to have an environmental bottom line and a social bottom line (which is NOT how much money we put back into the community; it is the social manner in which we engage in business; the impact of our business activity on our workers and consumers, in a social context). Just focus on the financial bottom line.

Mind you, while corporate office management have been demanding we work harder and harder to pay off their debt, and without asking us if this is what we want to do, they have refused to introduce any sort of sensible incentive.

You don’t have to be an MBA to know that eventually, workers stop wanting to be productive within that sort of equation. And that was the message from the 2011 Employee Survey. Well, it was if you bothered to read the 72 pages of closely-typed criticism of the leadership and direction of WSM, submitted by workers across our co-op. Rather than just the one question which asked if we liked working at WSM.

Workers said they felt over-worked, over-stressed, underpaid, under-appreciated, excluded, under-equipped and unhappy. Unhappy primarily because they felt WSM was no longer acting like a co-op.

WSM corporate office management produced something of an Action Plan by way of response. I have said elsewhere that, if that Action Plan is genuine, it is a good start.

But to be genuine, it needs to allow for proper expression of grievances by workers. It needs to allow for managers and the corporate office to be held accountable to workers (who are their equal) for the decisions they make. And we workers need to be more involved in the making of those decisions.

We should have been involved in the process that led last year to the decision to increase sales in 2011 by 15%. And if further demands of made of us workers at the upcoming Unit Meetings, I will say, quite forcefully, that those demands should not become binding until we workers have given them our approval.

No more imposition. A lot more asking. And a deal less poking in the back, and ‘hey, look busy fella.’ Every time I now see a message on a board asking what we workers are doing to make our customers’ shopping experience more awesome, I’m going to be tempted to post my own message asking managers what they are doing to make their workers’ work experience more awesome.

Both are equal requirements of the WSM Mission Statement.

I made some specific suggestions in my other Note about workers as stakeholders. The most important are these: hold more meetings; make decisions of those meetings binding; give workers access to the Market Messenger; and reduce the cost of Worker-Ownership.

Worker-Ownership is the only process by which workers, at the moment, may be able to share in the rewards of their labor. It is also the only means by which they can obtain meaningful input to WSM policy-making. It is wrong, simply wrong, that we should have to pay $500 to buy access to that incentive and to a vote.

There is one side issue that is worth mentioning. Far from learning from its mistakes over expanding WSM to meet its consumerist-driven desires, rather than stakeholder-requested needs, the corporate office management have drawn up a Capital Plan, for further capital spending.

This Plan has been drawn up without any input from stakeholders, and it will absorb worker-produced earnings and profit which could otherwise be used to reward workers with meaningful merit pay increases and a better workplace environment, both of which would encourage workers to assist our consumer stakeholders in having that awesome shopping experience.

The most effective way of improving the shopping experience is by making workers happy through a more fulfilling work experience.

So. There you have it. Why don’t we as a co-op learn from our own mistakes, and from the body-blow that has been delivered across our nation to irrational consumerism?

Why don’t we now turn our back on the out-of-place consumerism which has seeped into our co-op, and replace it instead with a wholehearted return to authentic cooperative principles?

It’s not just good co-operation. It’s good business, too.