Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Message From A WSM Worker, Who Is Not Me!

Maybe it's Wisconsin. Maybe it's the Middle East. But it would seem the season of protest and democratic demand is upon us all!

I received a message from a fellow Weaver Street Market Co-operative worker this past week. That person has agreed to allow me to send that message to the Board and Senior Management of WSM.

I think it serves as apposite complement to the WSM Employee Survey all workers at WSM completed this past week. See what you think:

"Dear Board and Management of WSM,

There was an old British TV Jeopardy-style show called Mastermind. The presenter, Magnus Magnusson, had a catchphrase: “I've started, so I’ll finish.” I think the catchphrase apposite here.

More than once, certain WSM Board Directors and Senior Management have stated quite bluntly to me that the views I share as being ones passed onto me by WSM workers, who will not speak out because they fear for their job, promotion or pay raise, are in fact merely my views alone.

I think that the truth will become clear in the answers to the WSM Employee Survey we all had to complete this past week. In the meantime, I thought it might be useful for you to read just one private message I have received in this past week.

I have the permission of the author, but I have removed certain information that might identify the author - at the author's request.

Folks, it ain’t just me. By definition, if we are a worker-consumer co-op, properly serving the common needs of our workers and consumers, then how come so many are so unhappy?

If our performance, our gameplan, our direction as a co-op is subject to some factor other than the common needs of our workers and consumers, then we are not acting properly as a co-op. And that extraneous ‘factor’ is, by definition, an inappropriate ‘profit motive.’

That ‘profit motive’ can be the unstated ‘common needs’ of the corporate office, or those to whom we owe money. It can be the covert vision of a small group. It can be the financial comfort of a few ‘special’ owners. But whatever it is, it has no place in a co-op. Here is the employee message:

"I was really pleased reading your letter to the Board [of WSM] and the column in 'The Chapel Hill News.' The section with particular resonance for me was:

"Namely that, unlike traditional grocery stores, we are not supposed to rely on impersonal and expensive marketing trickery to attract custom, and reactive management practices to inspire workers (as, in fact, we do now).

Rather, we are supposed to determine on a regular basis the common needs of worker and consumer, with continuous two-way communication, so that we provide what our consumers genuinely want, in a way that truly inspires workers, because they were asked.

In other words, if we involve consumers and workers consensually in our major decision-making, they will be invested in the results, and will buy more, and work harder."

Since starting work here, I've actually been pretty astounded/disenchanted with how little WSM actually functions as a respectable co-operative and alternative shopping environment. Much of the product and overall decision making seems relatively if not totally disconnected from the ideals that I think many in the community place on the store.

It’s been all the more discouraging as many of these feelings about the store have been compounded by national politics and the lamentation of our own national democratic ideals being eroded ever-faster each year. If such a process is failing on this small of a scale--with so much potential for direct and sustained participation--then what hope at all remains for the success/recovery of these ideals in larger systems? I think about this analogy quite a bit and I think it is important for people involved with the co-op to understand the implications of success or failure at upholding such systems in our community.

At least in my experience I haven't heard any of these things being touched on that you are discussing and that I often think about. So I just wanted to let you know it's nice to see someone else not just content to accept things as they are being handed down.

I do think this situation is at least partially a result of people being afraid or worried about speaking out. And the fact that our stores create that environment is telling in and of itself. The most troubling thing for me is how mutually reinforcing this loop is: the active role of the worker and customer voice is lessened or reduced to being disgruntled, marginal, uninformed or just plain wrong. This in effect allows for the environment which suppresses this voice to flourish, suppressing it ever further. WSM is now able to utilize its previously earned image of cooperative, community minded ideals to participate in a lucrative niche market. WSM is thus more often taking advantage of these cooperative ideals rather than acting on and embodying them. I think a lot of customers especially sense this changing role.

And therein lies a financial issue which should get the attention of the major decision makers if nothing else does. With the erosion of our cooperative functions, WSM is less distinguished from places like Whole Foods, etc. People feel that they have no more of a role in the direction and functioning of either one, and therefore likely shop less at WSM than they would otherwise. They see them as two fingers on the same bourgeois niche market fist, rather than two entirely different hands--one which they may be engaged with actively rather than passively as nothing but a consumer of value-added labeling and faux-pastoral sheen. The last line of defense that has kept many disenchanted customers, I feel, is the fact that at least we are actually based in the area. But if we were being completely honest, this is simply not enough and is not what is expected of our small-scale cooperative establishment.

The second issue I feel like contributes to the current environment (today maybe even more so than the lack of cooperative discussion) is a loss of direction and a sense of political apathy on the part of the staff as a whole, as well as many community members. A lot of this has to do with a lack of knowledge about the role of a cooperative and how it is supposed to function. I see this most clearly in the many, many customers who complain constantly about there being no discount or dividend, saying they wouldn't have joined if they knew they wouldn't get one. Putting aside the situations which created this issue, I often try to inform them in a respectful way that their complaint is greatly missing the point--and that even if that is all they are concerned with then the role of a cooperative should enable them to do something about it beyond just venting to a worker.

I feel like this really exemplifies the lack of community knowledge about the role of the customer in the system as a whole. It has been reduced, like in most other business, to a purely monetary relationship. The applicant experience seems to be similar, where maybe they 'like the store' or 'like the kind of foods we sell' but more often than not I would assume that many people who work in the stores could just as easily be working in a traditional grocery store with their current mindset--the fact that we are supposedly a democratically run institution seems not to play a role in the worker experience. Again, more or less it has become a monetary relationship. This time with the added bonus of worker companionship and discounts at the register. I am sure this is not the case for everyone, obviously, and the previous situation where discussion is suppressed enhances the perception of this issue for me, but I really do think this is equally as important of a concern for the long term sustainability of the stores. People need to understand what their roles are in the cooperative, what a cooperative actually means, and what a cooperative does not mean. A true co-op should seek out these values in its applicants/workers, and work to enhance them in its community. If this second issue is in fact non-existent, then I find it hard to believe that many workers would not have constantly been making their voices and opinions about the direction of the store known despite the environment of closed/one-way discussion.

These two issues, of suppression and apathy, are a chicken and the egg loop scenario which again mirrors the state of our national politics and is useful for contextualizing what is going on on a variety of scales and the importance of figuring all of this out."

Members of the Board, Senior Management, it does not matter how we got to where we are. The fact is becoming clear that we are no longer serving the common needs of our workers and consumers. It is long past time that we found a way, together, to start doing so.

Yours faithfully,
Geoff Gilson"