Saturday, March 5, 2011

Letter to Board of WSM, re: Change in Financial Direction

Weaver Street Market Co-operative has a crippling long-term debt of $8 million, incurred undemocratically by the Board and corporate office without consultation. It is costing the co-op millions each year in capital and interest repayments.

It is the workers who have to meet those repayments by working harder for less. We get longer opening hours. Less shift hours. Insufficient staff support. Paltry pay raises. And no dividend. Time for a change. Time for a letter to the Board:

"Dear Board,

We workers received our 'Market Messenger' this past week, in which it was outlined that WSM made only a 9% sales increase in the first two Quarters (not the 15% required - $3.75 million), resulting in only a 1% profit figure (as opposed to the 3% needed).

I'm not going to re-run all the discussion of last year, save to say this. I met with Ruffin for an hour in the Fall. There were some very limited figures shown to me. But the upshot was that we needed to make more than a 10% sales increase just to break even, and that we needed to make a 15% sales increase to pay a dividend.

As I say, the figures were limited. But what was clear, even if not openly stated, was that a large amount of the extra $3.75 million would be needed to pay capital and interest on our continuing long-term debt of $8 million.

The 'Market Messenger' gave what in capitalist parlance is called a dividend warning. Namely, that we might not get one. In any traditional corporation, after four years of not paying a dividend, corporations start making changes. At the very least to the financial gameplan.

I think it well past time that the Board began a conversation within both this co-op and its supporting community about a financial direction that actually works, and that finds a better way to erase the debt of $8 million, rather than continuing to make undignified, outrageous and unachievable demands of its workers.

I would be grateful if the Board would immediately consider the following changes, and then respond to all workers with its conclusions:

1) Changes to the Financial Direction of WSM

At the 2008 Annual Meeting of WSM, the attending owners voted to support my call for a Board Committee of Owners immediately to review the finances of WSM to determine the sustainability of the long-term debt and the efficacy of the financial direction of WSM. The Board decided to ignore that democratic call. I now ask that the Board immediately form such a Committee, its work to be completed in time for presentation to the 2011 Annual Meeting - without editing by the Board.

2) Changes to the Conversation about the Financial Direction of WSM

There is no meaningful conversation within WSM about its financial direction. I would invite the Board to begin its own conversation within our co-op and its supporting communities. Now. Or make it one of the terms of the above Board Committee that it engage in the widest consultation, both within WSM, and in the communities supporting WSM.

As a worker, we have no Department Meetings, although we were promised these last fall. We no longer have Annual Co-op Employee Meetings, which all co-op employees attend, and where employees can meet and compare notes. The last one was held in 2007. I ask that we re-institute such a meeting, to be held in September of this year. And that most of the time be set aside for Questions, Answers and Discussion, not Presentation.

3) Changes to the Representation of Workers on the Board of WSM

Every time I raise the subject of worker input to conversation, I am told we are represented by two Workers on the Board.

No we are not. We workers are represented by a Manager and a staffer from the Finance Department of the WSM corporate office.

You find me five genuine WSM shopfloor workers who describe that as true democratic representation of the workforce of WSM, and I will pay for Ruffin to have a meal at the best restaurant in Carrboro.

It is time to change the cost of worker-ownership so that it is affordable. You can do it at your next Board Meeting. $200 would be fair. I have already suggested that you raise the consumer-ownership fee to the same $200. You could then put out a call to owners to make up the difference. You could probably raise about $300,000.

It is time to allow worker-owner candidates to have meaningful access to their electorate. The break-room election table gizmo does not work. Workers want their breaks. Or they're working. Or they're at home. Get real.

Again (for, what, the third year in a row?), I would ask that worker-owner candidates for the Board be allowed to take questions form their electorate at the newly-reinstituted Annual Co-op Employee Meeting in September.

We are a co-op. We are a democracy. We are a community organization. And we are still failing financially. Because of the debt that was undemocratically incurred to fund what can now only be described as a failed expansion plan.

It is time to design a financial future that works. That does not make impossible demands of our workers. And that involves both the whole co-op and the communities supporting our co-op in the conversation that designs that financial future.

In this latter regard, since all meaningful channels of communication and conversation for workers and consumers have now been shut down within our co-op, I will be taking this conversation to community organs of communication and discussion.

I appreciate this may be in breach of Employee Co-op Policy. I have taken legal advice. The section in question is a breach of my First Amendment rights.

All the best,
Geoff Gilson"