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 ... ??