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 ... "