Friday, April 13, 2012

Taking Back Our Co-op [II]

This is the second of my two Notes on how we can return our very favorite local food co-op (Weaver Street Market) to being the very best co-op it can be - in addition to its being an efficient grocery store, specializing in local and organic food.

These two Notes arose as responses to questions raised in another discussion, wondering why WSM, as supposed bastion of the local alternative sustainable economy, has played and still plays no active institutional role in the Occupy dialogue.

So. Here is the body of this second Note:

"I moved heaven and earth to join Weaver Street in 2005. Done a lot in my life. My politics have changed dramatically. I wanted to support my creativity and advocacy by working somewhere that was supportive; which was not about trying to force folks to buy things they didn't want to buy; and which allowed regular conversation to ensure we all maintained the above.

The first thing I noticed, after a few months, was that folks were beginning to poke me in the back. Work harder. Sell more. Er. Why? We're making a profit.

And so, I asked where the conversation was. I've been asking ever since. I started the blog to keep a record. But that is all my advocacy within WSM has ever been about. Trying to create space for meaningful conversation.

The need for conversation became urgent (and has remained so ever since) in 2008, when a small group within WSM, without proper permission, undertook the now disastrous expansion of WSM, and borrowed $10 million to do so, without asking the ownership if this was ok.

How could they do this? Well, it comes back to my point about who actually owns WSM. You don't have to ask no-one if you have the assets in your back pocket ...

In any event, 'their' way of paying back the $10 million turned out to be asking workers to work harder and harder, without the necessary tools or compensation (because the failure of expansion has meant we can't afford those).

The need for conversation is to examine the finances, to see if there are better ways out of the financial muddle; to determine if WSM is in compliance with the Mission Statement that says that workers should have a fulfilling work experience, and consumers a fulfilling shopping experience; and to create new opportunities for ongoing conversation.

It really is no more complicated than that. It only becomes complicated because the WSM corporate office management team and their Board of Directors will do all in their power to avoid conversation.

How do we achieve the latter? To return us to being a co-op? Well, it's a constantly moving feast, 'cos the 'powers' constantly move the goalposts. But, here's my recipe for today:

1) Hold a full meeting of all employees in the co-op (we used to have one every year, until 2008), to allow employees to express their true feelings, in the solidarity of numbers. This is a part of the process I am undertaking at the moment. I'll let you know how it goes.

2) Request of the Board of Directors that they set up a Task Force of consumer and worker-owners immediately to investigate the finances of WSM (and the ownership of assets), to determine if they are sustainable (especially the program for repaying the debt), and in compliance with the norms of co-operative structure.

Also to investigate whether WSM is in compliance with the MS terms about fulfilling work and shopping experience. And to make recommendations. Again, I am pursuing this. But there is no reason why others could not turn up to a Board Meeting and demand the same.

3) Request a second Task Force of owners to review the structures of WSM to ensure they are truly co-operative, democratic and supportive of regular conversation.

We need to undo the situation which now allows the Board to change its own By-Laws without reference to the ownership.

We need to ensure that all Directors are elected. Currently, three of the seven are appointed - essentially by Ruffin Slater.

Ruffin should be the General Manager only. According to the governance model to which we subscribe, the GM should not be on the Board of Directors. Conflict of interest.

Worker-ownership should be made affordable to ordinary workers, so that the two worker-owner Directors are truly representative of ordinary workers.

I would like to see Discussion Groups established for consumer-owners and worker-owners, which have input to Board deliberations.

I would like to see an Online Forum for consumers, owners and workers, to which management and the Board would have to respond.

I would like to see all assets firmly under the control of the full ownership of WSM.

And that, I think, is a good start for getting WSM back to being an authentic community co-op.

Of course, none of this happens unless more than a few of us do the asking, the writing and the organizing ... "

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Taking Back Our Co-op [I]

I had some thoughts the other day about whether our very favorite local food co-op, Weaver Street Market, was actually owned by the community, and whether this might not be the reason for there being so little democratic conversation within the co-op.

One or two of you asked what we could do to take back our co-op. I had some further thoughts. I shared them as comments on Facebook. But I thought I would also post them here also, as separate Notes.

Aside from the dry detail, the answer is this: take notice, ask questions, go to meetings, get involved. Now, for the first of my dry comments:

"Well, I'm in the middle of something else. But I'll whet your appetite by saying that incorporation of co-operatives in North Carolina is covered by NC General Statute 54.

GS 54-157 has an interesting provision, which the Board of Directors of WSM might want to read:

"§ 54‑157. Breach of marketing contract of cooperative association; spreading false reports about the finances or management thereof; misdemeanor.

Any person or persons, or any corporation whose officers or employees knowingly induces or attempts to induce any member or stockholder of an association organized hereunder to breach his marketing contract with the association, or who maliciously and knowingly spreads false reports about the finances or management thereof shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor and subject only to a fine of not less than one hundred dollars ($100.00), and not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), for such offense and shall be liable to the association aggrieved in a civil suit in the penal sum of five hundred dollars ($500.00) for each such offense: Provided, that this section shall not apply to a bona fide creditor of any member or stockholder of such association, or the agents or attorney of any such bona fide creditor, endeavoring to make collection of the indebtedness, or to any communication, written or oral, between a business company or concern and persons with whom it has an existing contractual relationship which communication relates to the performance of that contractual relationship and duties and responsibilities arising therefrom. (1921, c. 87, s. 25; C.S., s. 5259(dd); 1963, c. 1168, s. 14; 1993, c. 539, s. 430; 1994, Ex. Sess., c. 24, s. 14(c).)"

Bottom line? Being a co-operative these days isn't some happy-clappy vision, dreamt up on the Weaver Street Lawn. There are rules. There are protections.

Until now, I have been trying (these past seven years) to engage the 'powerbrokers' in WSM to return WSM to the democratic, community co-op it is supposed to be. With the help of a lot of other folks, I might add. It isn't just me.

I have one last attempt underway. Which I am necessarily not sharing at the moment. But there are sanctions if that last attempt at conversation fails. Sanctions which will not hurt the welfare of ordinary consumers, owners and workers. But which will catch the attention of those who are making decisions at the moment, without reference to those consumers, owners and workers.

More to follow. But, in the meantime, the most important things you can do are: (1) Go on buying - we who want things to change will achieve nothing if we hurt what it is we want to change; (2) Go to Board Meetings and at least observe; (3) Stand for the Board, and don't let yourself be bamboozled."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Is Weaver Street Not Engaged In The 'Occupy' Dialogue'?

When Occupy began last October, it represented for me a protest against the domination of our society and our economy by the uber-rich, their heartless banks and their gutless politicians.

I became involved when Occupy started up locally, and the conversation was about highlighting the deleterious effects of arbitrary authority and conventional corporatism in our local community.

In January of this year, Occupy Chapel Hill/Carrboro decided it was time to move from mere protest to discussion about alternative local possibilities, and engagement with the community to explore more community-orientation and democracy in our economy and political life locally.

One of the issues that has bothered me (note, I’m off the Carrboro Commune kick today!) is that at no point in this developing conversation has Weaver Street Market Co-operative been involved.

Here is an organization that declares to the world that it is a community-owned grocery store. The living, breathing exemplar of alternative, democratic economy and sustainable society in action – and we hear nothing from them in this new adventure in social economy we call ‘Occupy.’

Indeed, the only institutional contribution of WSM to the communal debate has been to keep very quiet and stay very still as the rest of us in Carrboro, NC try to work out where was the democratic discussion that preceded the sale by WSM of the plot of land soon to become the monstrosity known as CVS, to which everyone and his community-gardening uncle seems to be opposed.

The general understanding was that this property was going to be redeveloped by WSM, in concert with the wishes of the surrounding community, in a fashion that would be communal, and that would be commensurate with what we in Occupy feel is a developing consensus on what social economy could look like locally.

Instead, WSM, without any reference to that surrounding community, sold out the community to corporate America in the worst possible way. And closer examination finds that it wasn’t even the 15,000 consumer-owners or the 100 worker-owners of WSM who made this decision.

The property appears to have been sold by a company called Carrboro Community LLC, for which the sole registered agent is the founder of WSM – Ruffin Slater. Ok, you might say. Perhaps this was a one-off transaction, supported by the Board of WSM (albeit, without any reference to the owners of WSM and the surrounding community – remember, ‘your community-owned grocery store’?), that required a separate temporary company, for whatever reason … ??

Until we discover that the Hillsborough Weave, which we all thought we owned, lock, stock and barrel (building as well), is, in fact, owned by another company for which Ruffin Slater is the sole registered agent – this one called Hillsborough Community LLC (anyone noticing a pattern here?).

Ok. Once more. Maybe there is a good reason? Which is why I have been trying these past few years to obtain the fullest financial disclosure about WSM, any associated companies and the ownership of its assets (our assets). And have been refused.

None of this necessarily means that anything untoward is occurring. But then why not just release the financial records, and say so?

In the absence of such transparency (which the corporate office management of WSM and its Board claim are its norm), it may mean that those assets, which we believe are owned by the community, are, in fact, not. Which may mean that we are not really a community-owned co-op.

More to the point, it may mean that money that we, as a community, have pooled for use by the community in our community-owned grocery store, has been diverted into assets no longer owned by the community. And that should give us cause for pause.

And this, in turn, may explain why we have a co-op that does not seem to make decisions that support the community or its workers; that does not allow much internal democratic conversation; that does not release full financial records; and that does not engage in the wider Occupy dialogue about an alternative democratic and social economy.

None of this may concern you one dot, tittle or iota. But it concerns the heck out of me.