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 …