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.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Looting in London; Looting in my Co-op ... ??

I am in a place of contradiction and confusion at the moment. But strangely, I see parallels between world events and happenings in my local food co-op. Especially as far as the looting in London is concerned.

I want to condemn the looting in London. But how is it so different from the Arab Spring? I want to say the rioters aren't protesting for democratic expression. But do I know that? I want to say, of course, it's not the same; the looters are wearing fancy clothes and driving smart cars. But, does having consumerist trinkets preclude the possibility that they are outraged because they feel excluded from the process that determines their destiny?

I go through a thousand tortuous thoughts in my head. I review all the bad decisions, personal and governmental, that led to this crisis of confidence in the UK. I consider the crippling debt (again both personal and governmental), the austerity measures introduced to cope with the debt, the sense of impotence that surrounds the whole debate, leading to the rioting and the looting. And then. Oops. Freeze.

Until a light bulb suddenly turns on in my head. Isn't the answer: (1) To take debt out of the equation; and then (2) Return power to the people, so that they may no longer be burdened with decisions by people who know nothing of them? They make the decisions for themselves.

Funny thing is, at least as I see it, this is exactly what the LibCon Coalition Government in the UK is trying to do, however ineffectually others may think they are achieving it.

They have gripped governmental debt by the horns, and undertaken to reduce it, as quickly as possible. At the same time, they have set out programs attempting to devolve power, so that collective decision-making is made as close to local communities as possible.

Of perhaps the most interest to me is the Government's open advocacy of co-operatives, to provide services both private and public.

The ethos is that remote entities, be they multi-national companies, over-large unions or layer after layer of out-of-touch government, they have all failed the people, because they simply do not know what 'the people' want. And besides, people aren't cyphers. They have different needs, from one community to another.

The definition of a co-op is a voluntary association of individuals who have come together to provide for their common needs. If folks come together to provide common health or education or food services, and, according to the principles of co-operative equality, democracy and openness, they do so on an equal and consensual basis, then what is provided is what those same people want, and it is provided in the way they want.

There can be no 'bad' decisions. Because the people are making the decisions for themselves. Yet, if mistakes are made, and openness and accountability are fully present, then the people can consensually decide to put right the mistakes.

Which brings me merrily to my own food co-op, Weaver Street Market Co-operative (WSM), here in North Carolina. Where happiness is not abundant, precisely because a self-appointed few have taken power away from the people, given it to themselves, decided to make decisions that are not consonant with the common needs of the stakeholders in the co-op, and have since sought to cover up their mistakes, only making matters horrendously worse.

In about 2007, this self-appointed few decided it would be a joyous adventure to cast aside principles of community, locality, prudence and consensus, and determined instead that they would like whole-heartedly to join with the consumerist-capitalist mainstream, and become a chain store.

Without properly consulting with stakeholders, they created plans for a new store in a town some ten miles away, and a new Food House (in the same town) to service everyone.

They then took the check book, went on a spending spree (hey, this was 2007; money was still cheap!), and the next thing we stakeholders knew, our co-op was $10 million in debt, on a turnover of $20 million, at the beginning of the worst recession since the Depression.

There has been much gnashing of teething and biblical wailing (not least from me) since then. Consumers and workers have been ridden roughshod in a vain attempt to rescue the unrescuable, to remain committed to the corporate office management gameplan, and simply to pay off the debt on the backs of those same consumers and workers.

I could go on at length. I have done. On this co-op blog. But, when I try today, I merely short-circuit. Again.

But then, another light bulb turns on in my head. Why not apply the same solution as with the UK? (1) Remove debt from the equation; and (2) Give power back to the stakeholders?

First, do what I suggested several years ago, when we all realized we were in for a sh**-storm, what with our annual interest repayments on the total debt being anywhere up to $1 million.

Set up a Review Committee of WSM Owners (with specialist knowledge) to review WSM's finances and its debt, and find a way to get rid of the debt without relying on measures that simply bring more and more pain to the stakeholders (consumers, owners and workers). Pain that has been visited on them year after year, and without their consent.

Then, allow our co-op to give power back to its stakeholders - its consumers, its owners and its workers.

Let consumers once more be the ones who decide what their co-operative will sell and how. Whether there will be a discount or a dividend. Through consumer discussion groups. An online forum. And a Board of Directors which is fully elected. Not one where three out of the seven Directors are essentially appointed by the WSM corporate office management.

Let workers decide for themselves, and in consultation with consumers, how they will provide for the common needs of the consumers, and in a way that is consonant with co-operative principles of dignity, and WSM's own Mission Statement that eschews exploitation and requires that workers have a fulfilling work experience.

No more would we need to waste vast amounts of consumerist-marketing time and money trying to get consumers to buy what the self-appointed few want them to buy. That is the traditional consumerist model, and its death knell was pretty much sounded in the past few weeks. The need for such marketing would be replaced by WSM simply providing what its consumers have told it they want it to sell.

No more would managers need constantly to poke their workers in the back, encouraging them to keep their hands busy. Setting targets. Setting goals. Imposing from above.

If workers knew what their customers wanted by way of service provision, through discussion and interactive feedback. If workers were asked, not told. If they were allowed meetings to make consensual decisions. If they ... no, we ... were permitted to be a part of the existing policy-making process, by reducing the cost of worker-ownership from its existing unaffordable $500. Then, we workers would be the ones making the decisions. We workers would be the ones responsible for the consequences. And we workers would be much more likely to be invested in implementing those decisions successfully and happily, and providing to consumers the food and the service consensually agreed between consumers and workers.

This is the very essence of co-operation.

I understand mistakes. I understand bad decisions. None of us are immune. Least of all me. I understand the desire not to admit. To cover up. To 'see it through.' I would be one with the WSM corporate office management, if their attempts to 'see it through' were proving successful.

But the fact is that, over the past few years, consumers, owners and workers have become increasingly disenchanted, the principles of co-operation have been left further and further behind, and the only success the corporate office can claim is the same sort of success that traditional capitalist corporations boast when their profitability and increased share value is attained only at the expense of downsizing and placing impossible burden on their consumers and workers.

Is that really the sort of claim we at WSM want to be able to make in our Annual Report 2011?

It is not too late. Indeed, the need for a change of course is vital in view of the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that the Great Recession never ended; it merely went into hibernation.

It is now imperative that we find a sensible way to rescue WSM from its heavy debt burden, freeing our co-op to renew its commitment to the vibrant principles of co-operation, through a return of power to its stakeholders.

We have nothing to fear but the ability of the person buying from us, or the person working next to us, to control their own destiny in their own co-op. Is that really such a frightening possibility? After all, if it is good enough for the British Government, is there any reason why it shouldn't be good enough for us in Weaver Street Market Co-operative ... ??