Saturday, June 16, 2012

'2022 Vision' : My Version : "Small is Beautiful"

All owners of Weaver Street Market Co-operative (both worker and consumer) will shortly be receiving an Owners’ News talking about the future of WSM, and inviting folks to stand for the Board of Directors.

I strongly urge folks to stand for the Board. If you are less than happy with what is happening with WSM, it is no good merely standing on the sidelines. If you do nothing, then nothing is what you will get. Take a stand, and stand for the Board.

The Owner News also has an Address from Ruffin Slater, WSM General Manager, in which he suggests that WSM should increase its impact in our community by becoming bigger. I disagree. I think WSM has, over the past 24 years, become too bloated, unwieldy and unresponsive. I believe that WSM can achieve more (and better quality) impact by becoming smaller. Sort of.

My alternative to WSM’s corporate office ‘2022 Vision’ would be one that emphasizes a co-operative future based on collective, consensual, collaborative and intimate alliance, rather than the patronizing remoteness of continued, trickle-down, enforced, corporate empire-building.

In accordance with the definition of co-operation preferred by the International Co-operative Alliance, the making of strategy (including ‘2022 Vision’) in the somewhat unique worker-consumer hybrid of WSM should involve two stages: first, consumers deciding what are their common needs; and secondly, workers deciding how they would prefer to meet those common needs.

However, some 24 years ago, our current General Manager, Ruffin Slater, and a few chums (this according to him) decided they wanted to superimpose their own ‘common needs’ onto WSM’s consumers and workers, and build a grand farm-to-fork program in our region. The idea was to underpin small local farmers by guaranteeing them consistency of destination for their produce with a chain of professionally-run outlet stores, supported by a community commissary.

Nothing wrong with that vision. If given the opportunity, I would have voted for it vigorously. If I had been given the opportunity. The problem is that then and now Ruffin and his chums in the WSM corporate office management team, although talking the language of co-operation, have never trusted the communities in which they have operated to support that vision democratically. Instead, time and again, they have sought to enforce their own strategy and tactics with top-down decision-making and implementation.

Again, I suppose, nothing wrong with that. If you’re honest about it. There are plenty of organizations doing good work around our community, in our nation and across the globe, which are not democratically run. But why then make such a big deal of WSM being co-operative?

The answer is both simple and controversial: capital. Putting philosophy to one side for a moment, if you want to build an empire (and that is what WSM is, and was always supposed to be), you need capital, public or private. The problem is that at the end of the day you have to be accountable in some form to that capital.

But Ruffin and his mates don’t like being accountable. They want, and have always wanted, to be free to forge their empire without interference, including from those providing the capital. And they have created a very clever construct to avoid that interference.

WSM is incorporated as a co-operative. That means our profits are not taxed, provided they are distributed as a patronage dividend (which device is only to be found in co-operatives). Most of that dividend is, in fact, retained as rolling capital. The dues you first pay when you become an owner are also classed as capital.

WSM can borrow against that capital on a ratio of three parts debt to one part capital, although it is more like five parts to one part. That’s how the WSM corporate office management team managed to borrow $10 million for the last expansion project in 2007/2008, pretty much with no-one knowing.

Ok. But surely the WSM corporate office management team, through Ruffin as General Manager, still has to be accountable to the capital and its original owners, right? Wrong. Not when you set up a Board of Directors which you control. You think I jest? Let me take you through that, step by step.

The Board of WSM has seven serving Directors: two consumer-owner Directors, two worker-owner Directors, two appointed Directors and Ruffin.

The two consumer-owner Directors. Not much room for control there. The two worker-owners Directors, however, are a very different story.

You set the price for worker-ownership so high ($500) that only a few long-term workers and, primarily, managers can afford it. You then make sure you put up a management candidate each election, and use your management payroll vote to elect them. So, two of those seven Directors are automatically management Directors, and are directly under your control as General Manager.

The remaining two Directors are appointed. Essentially by Ruffin. You think I overstate. In 2008, a consumer-owner who was not a Ruffin stoolie put forward her name to be an appointed Director. Ruffin forced the Board to sit through three secret sessions until he got his own man appointed.

So, Ruffin controls five of the seven Board Directors. And has done from day one. All because he does not trust other well-meaning folk to support his vision of farm-to-fork

With that control, he has changed the system so that only the Board can change By-Laws. So that Special Meetings of owners can be called only with 30% of the ownership in support (currently, about 6,000 owners). So that he can raise capital, borrow funds and make strategic decisions without having to be accountable to the ownership, the consumers or the workers of WSM. However much he pretends to invite our input to ‘his’ conversation.

I’d stand at applaud at the sheer tyranny of it all, if it wasn’t so … tyrannical.

And so it is we come to Ruffin’s ‘2022 Vision,’ which proposes that we build three more stores, and effectively work our workers ever harder to pay for the new stores.

So what?, you might say. We hear you, Geoff. But what’s the point of making a fuss, even if we don’t agree? What’s the point of responding to this consultation exercise, if it’s all a fake? If the WSM corporate office management team don’t have to listen? If they will end up making all the decisions on their own, anyway?

Because, if we do nothing, then nothing is what we will get. If we decide at the very beginning that we have no power in the co-op Ruffin himself tells us is half-owned by workers and half-owned by consumers, then we, not Ruffin, we have rendered ourselves powerless. And we are not powerless. Not so long as we have voices. And remain the folk who keep this co-op running and in profit. It isn’t Ruffin and the WSM corporate office management team who make 25% of our produce, sell it and buy it. It’s you and me.

So, find your voice. Gather your thoughts. And engage in this consultation exercise, which Ruffin has commenced with this summer’s edition of Owners’ News. And let’s ensure that we are heard by the power of our numbers.

What say we come up with a Vision that takes the structure that Ruffin has already undemocratically created (much of which has essentially good purpose). Employ truly co-operative and democratic principles going forward. To engage. To inspire. To enroll the very best elements of the communities in which we operate. To create a collaboration of co-operation that expands Ruffin’s farm-to-fork experiment in a genuinely sustainable and accountable fashion?

It is my opinion that requires replacing top-down, remote empire-building with trickle-up, intimate, responsive consensus. Ok. What does that look like?

Go and stand for about ten minutes in Chatham Marketplace, in Pittsboro (a co-op that WSM helped to create, without it having to be a part of the WSM empire). Look around. See. Feel. Breathe. Then, go and stand in like manner in one of the branches of the WSM empire.

Now. Close your eyes. Imagine this branch has become its own stand-alone co-op. Where the Unit Manager has become the General Manager. Whose answer to penetrating questions is not, I’ll have to check with corporate. But is, let me go and ask Jack, the Board Chair. He’s right over there, working on the gluten-free demo.

Imagine inventory. Where we don’t all rush off, leaving a hapless manager to cope on his or her own. But we all stay after work, crack a couple of beers, and pitch in together. Where decisions about strategy aren’t taken behind a combination lock, fifteen miles way. But are made by the water cooler, because a quorum is always on hand, either working or shopping.

That is the intimacy of co-operation in action. It’s why it is called ‘co-operation.’ And not ‘hang-on-I’ve-got-to-call-corporate-and-get-ignored-for-two-months-and-then-wait-for-someone-I-do-not-know-and-never-meet-to-make-the-decision-for-me-without-my-input-ation.’ It is immediate, not remote. It is communal, not condescending. It is consensual, not enforced.

And we can create it in this WSM empire right now. By simply deciding that Item #1 of ‘2022 Vision’ will be that WSM becomes a collaboration of separate, stand-alone unit-based co-op’s, rather than this unwieldy, unyielding, uncaring, unresponsive monolith that we are at the moment.

And you don’t have to lose what WSM’s ‘2022 Vision’ endearingly calls the ‘economy of scale.’ You set up an alliance network of the newly-independent WSM units. A collaborative association of the stores, the Food House and Panzanella.

What’s more is, by setting the Food House free, you give it the opportunity to sort out its own capital problems, perhaps raise more capital, form collaborative partnerships with other food-producing entities (such as the new Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center), and explore new opportunities for commercial sales. Thereby placing it on a much sounder and more sustainable financial footing, than one which is based on fiddling the books, to pretend that inter-unit transfers are profit.

In fact, this alliance of collaboration (let’s call it the Local Food Alliance – LFA) could be expanded to create a much more powerful regional farm-to-fork system by including entities such as Chatham Marketplace, Burlington’s Company Shop Markets, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, North Carolina Co-operative Extension, the Sustainable Agricultural program at Central Carolina Community College, Pittsboro’s Abundance Foundation, local Farmers’ Markets, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Ruffin and his mates in the WSM corporate office management team might see this as diluting the vision. I see it as an overwhelming expansion and enrichment of that vision. It’s not beyond the realm of imagination.

Ruffin sits on the Board of the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association, which works along exactly these lines – through voluntary collaboration. And succeeds in economy of scale without the need for NCGA to be a uniform, top-down empire.

All of those special Co-op Deals you see in the stores, all those printed cups, they come from that NCGA collaboration. And an economy of purchasing power, determined by separate co-op’s around the country deciding voluntary to create a joint vision, working together consensually. Ruffin is one vote on that NCGA Board. He ain’t the Boss. He knows voluntary collaboration between co-op’s works.

We have intimate, immediate and successful responsiveness at the sharp end. And regional strategy determined by a collaborative, consensual, energized and democratic co-operative of decision-makers at the top end.

Now, when WSM’s ‘2022 Vision’ talks of new stores, we can say, ok. But they have to be stand-alone units. They have to be wanted by the communities in which they will be established. And they have to be financed by those communities themselves, without imposing undemocratic burden on other communities. And once established, they can join the LFA.

If the WSM corporate office management team insist on setting up more stores under the WSM brand, then we should insist that only happens once the community in question has raised the finance to do so. No borrowing. And no imposing the burden on WSM workers by the backdoor, by making them work ever harder to raise the funds instead. And absolutely no investment in new stores until the debt from the 2007/2008 expansion has been paid off.

[Mind you, if the WSM corporate office management team simply plough ahead, ignore our input and toss financial caution to the wind, I would like it to be known that I’d be happy to work on the Hot Bar of the new WSM store planned for Barbados. But. I digress … ]

All of which brings me neatly to my next proposed alternative to the WSM corporate office management team’s version of ‘2022 Vision’: the future for WSM workers over the next ten years.

Unlike the WSM corporate office management team, I do not think that our co-op (either as empire or loose collaboration of stand-alone co-operative units) should be looking for yet more value from workers. I believe that workers should be looking for more value from the WSM, which our General Manager keeps insisting we half own.

We workers made huge sacrifices in the past few years of recession to keep our beloved co-op afloat – not just worker-owners; ALL workers. We should ALL now reap the rewards.

There should be no new productivity demands of workers unless those demands are agreed in advance by the workers in the Departments affected.

The entry level wage should be brought in line with the true living wage appropriate foe central north Carolina – something closer to $11/$12.

There should be an immediate across the board unmerit-related ‘thank you’ pay increase of $1 an hour for all staff. Followed by annual pay increases, which, at least in part, are related not only to individual merit, but also to sales increases within the individual Departments.

The cost of worker-ownership should be reduced to no more than $200, the cost to be spread over as much as five years, with all of the benefits (dividend and voting) applicable upon payment of the first installment.

And some form of bonus scheme should be initiated for those workers unable or unwilling to subscribe to the worker-ownership program. You shouldn’t have to pay to be rewarded for your labor. Not in a co-op. And you should not have to pay to be a part of the decision-making process in a co-op that describes itself as a worker-consumer hybrid.

WSM Employee Policy already demands that workers be involved meaningfully in all processes that make major decisions affecting their workplace. But that demand has been increasingly ignored by the WSM corporate office management team over recent years.

If we are to set out on a ten year path to becoming a more responsive co-operative – more responsive to the common needs of both of our consumers and our workers – then it follows that it is not enough merely to change the structure. We need to change the mindset.

Frankly, I could spend another ten pages setting out the proposals I have already made over the past seven years to improve accountability and democracy within our co-operative, so as to make it a stronger business and a better co-operative. Check out the rest of this blog to get an idea of what those proposals are.

But, whether WSM remains a widely-spread and remotely-managed empire, or becomes a more intimate collaboration of stand-alone democratic units, it will become more responsive only if management decides it wants to be responsive. Beginning with this consultation. Over to you, Ruffin …

Friday, June 15, 2012

Democracy Begins With You

All owners of Weaver Street Market Co-operative (both worker and consumer) will have today received their invitation to stand for the Board of Directors.

If you are an owner who is unhappy that your co-op is not more democratic, don't just whine about it. Stand up. Be counted. And stand for the Board.

And when you are elected, don't just meekly soak up the sap fed to you by the WSM corporate office management team, and rubber stamp everything they put in front of you.

Do your own research. Talk to owners. Take a stand. And make change.

Change our co-op so that its assets and common property are truly owned by the community, and are not siphoned off into side companies, for which the sole registered agent is Ruffin Slater, General Manager of WSM.

Change our co-op so that By-Laws can be changed only by the ownership; not by the Board of Directors acting on their own and at the behest of the WSM corporate office management team.

Change our co-op so that major strategic decisions and the co-op's common needs (especially the upcoming '2022 Vision') are determined by that same ownership; and not by a self-selected few in the WSM corporate office.

In other words, change our co-op so that it is once more democratic and accountable to its owners, its consumers, its workers, and its communities.

It is not enough that Ruffin invites us to be a part of his conversation. This is our co-op too, not just his. We should not merely be bystanders in the decision-making process. We should be the ones making the decisions.

That will only happen if we elect a totally new Board of Directors.

In the case of the worker-owner Director election, the tragic and untimely death of Steve Bos means that the election will be for a completely open position.

I am have stood as a worker-owner for the Board four times already. Time for someone else to have a shot.

But I have a few words of advice: get out, talk to folks and truly listen to them. Oh, and if you're talking to a manager, tell 'em you don't agree with a word I say!

A quick shout-out to that same management. Please leave this election alone. You have representation on the Board with the General Manager. You are the folks who make the decisions in manager meetings already. Let this be an election where shopfloor workers get to choose someone who genuinely represents them.

Folks ask me why they should even bother. The answer is simple. If we do nothing, then nothing is what we get. Nothing will change. All we have to do is elect four people, over two years, who truly believe in accountability and democracy, and we can change this co-op, for the better, for good.


I think the part I like the best in the blurb that owners are receiving is the Address by Ruffin, which essentially boils down to this:

1) I have spent 24 years building a monolith that is bloated, unwieldy and unresponsive.

2) It has only left us $8 million in debt.

3) But we are now making 25% of the food we sell. Ok. We were doing that before we went $8 million into debt. But, look at the lovely office I have now.

4) I'm now going to do more of this empire-building.

5) If you insist, I will let you have input to the private conversation I'm having about that empire-building with my chums in the WSM corporate office. You can make comment on a document you have not yet seen by writing to an e-mail address no-one will answer.

[By the way, I do have my own version of '2022 Vision.' I will be posting it this coming Sunday. I don't believe one should criticize others, unless one has an alternative to suggest.]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Weaver Street Market Wins 'Dirty Old Man' Award

Yippee! Weaver Street Market just won Best of Category in the 2012 Annual Indy 'Best Of' Awards!

Our food, you're thinking? No. Best cheese? Nope. Best wine selection? Uh uh. Best co-op? Ha!

Organic? Local? Sustainable? Nope, no, not a chance. Best employer? Never. Prettiest Recycling Bin?? Nice try!!

Nah. None of these. We won: 'Best Place For People Watching.' Again. Cue sound of water droplet hitting bottom of 100 foot well.

But. We did manage to beat out Carrboro Commune, Hillsborough State Detention Facility, Dairy Queen, and that funky park bench opposite the Varsity Theater, in Downtown Chapel Hill.


You know what? Sod it. I'll take it! Where do I sign up, and get my year's free supply of Adam and Eve, BOGO, flavored gel coupons ... ??

Monday, June 4, 2012

Weaver Street Market Planning More Stores

Weaver Street Market Co-operative still has $8 million in loans to repay from its last failed expansion project in 2007/2008. Yet, it is now planning, in its '2022 Vision', to build at least three more stores over the next decade.

I’m sorry. I misspoke. A few of the self-selected upper management in the corporate office in Hillsborough, NC are making these plans.  And, to date, have shared them only with other managers.

Owners and workers in this worker-consumer co-op, where all are supposed to be equal, are not deemed equal enough to be consulted on the planning. Notwithstanding the fact that Board Policy and Employee Policy both demand that workers be meaningfully involved in major decisions that affect their workplace.

Which is a good spot for a little history for newcomers to the Family of Weave.

In 2007, the same upper management sort of told us that they wanted us to support them in their plans to have a new store in Hillsborough (which, we were told, Hillsborough folk really wanted, and would really want to finance), expanded capacity for food production, a re-model of the Southern Village store, and a re-model of the Carrboro store.

We all said, yeah, why not? Where’s the harm? The harm was that we weren’t told all of the details. We weren’t involved when things went wrong. And we haven’t been told the truth ever since.

The boys (and girls) at the top hired idiots to do the planning (by their own admission). Didn’t get enough expert advice (“we are the experts” – I’m not joking; I quote). Bought the wrong equipment. Flour machine, anyone? Decided to own buildings. Ran over budget. Emptied the piggy bank. And then borrowed to the hilt.

When they couldn’t borrow any more, the boys and girls went cap in hand to the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association to get bailed out (‘the co-op too big to fail’) to the tune of $1.5million. A fact which only came to light when the NCGA published the story in “The Co-operative Grocer” two years later.

All in all, we ended up $10 million in debt. Our turnover, by the way, is about $28 million. And the same boys and girls have the nerve to compare their antics favorably to those corporate capitalists who just crashed our national economy.
There is still some $8 million left to repay. Over the next five years. Which is about $2 million each year - $1.5 million for principal; $500,000 for interest. And these aren’t local banks. No. For all our talk of re-investing in the community, this money is being exported well away from our communities.

And how do we come up with this money? Simple. By making workers work harder and harder and harder, for less. That’s why we have the seeming conflict of the ‘Market Messenger’ telling us we are making record profits, while our managers are demanding we go on making 10% sales increases each year.

As good as worker performance is, WSM needs even more from us, if it is to be able to go on paying back the huge debt. And as much as WSM needs worker performance, it can’t afford to pay the decent wages or give us the decent pay raises that reflect our increased effort. Hence the working harder for less. Year after year after year.

And just when I’m thinking it can’t last forever. Eventually, the debt will be repaid. We’ll have a big party. Hugs all round. Huge bonuses for all workers (not just worker-owners). Proper dividends for consumer-owners. Well. No. This document called ‘Weaver Street Market 2022 Vision’ comes to my attention. The boys and girls have learned nothing. We’re about to do it all over again.

It purports to be a plan under discussion by management. There are 10 Strategies to achieving the Vision. Which is a noble statement, about local food, economic democracy, world peace, space travel, etc.

Well, it would be noble, if it were a co-operative vision that was being discussed by the stakeholders of the co-op (its workers and its owners), and not just by the General Manager and his chums.

Anyway. Strategy 7 says, “In the next ten years plan for a similar number of new stores as the three units we opened last decade.” If there were a literary device for the sound of a solitary drip of water hitting the bottom of a 100 foot well, this is where I would use it.

Ok. How are we intending to finance this expansion? “Partner with downtown and citizen groups to fund capital expense.” Literary device for sound of single cricket chirping in middle of empty Yankee Stadium.

Um. The last time we called on citizens to fund us, they coughed up $100,000. One of the reasons we got into such trouble in 2007/2008 was that the good people of Hillsborough, the ones we were relying on to fund their own co-op, didn’t step up. Clearly, the communities we serve have wised up to the fact that our corporate office isn’t to be trusted with their spare change. Why do we think it will be different this time?

Ok. But this can’t really cost all that much, can it? Strategy 8: “Reduce occupancy costs by … owning buildings.” Do I need a literary device?

What this is going to come down to is continuing to work workers to the bone for the next ten years and beyond. And the boys and girls of the corporate office management team know this. There is loads of talk of higher productivity. Plus Strategy 1: “Expect employees to perform at a high level by working multiple functions” “to make them more valuable to WSM” (sound familiar?).

Ok. But we will get rewarded, won’t we? You mean, like we are now? My department has achieved a total sales increase over the past two years of about 25%. We are told the co-op’s profit has increased 100% over last year, due to worker productivity. And last Fall, I got a 3% pay raise. No. The money is going to pay off the debt from the last expansion. And then to pay for this new one.

Ok. But worker-owners will get a dividend? Yes, they will. For those workers who can afford the $500 buy-in price for worker-ownership. I am still trying to get the Board to reduce that price to something ordinary workers can afford. Maybe $200. But to little avail. And with no support from the corporate office management team, or the worker-owner Board Directors.

This explains why my Dispute was never allowed to be argued by me in front of the Board, as should be my right. I began a Dispute last Winter, saying that my work experience was not fulfilling (a requirement of our co-op’s Mission Statement), and that I was not being properly involved in decision-making that affected my workplace (Board and Employee Policy).

Well, the corporate office management team could hardly allow me to address the Board of Directors on those two subjects, when they were in the middle of planning a huge and unfulfilling (for me) impact on my work experience, without so much as giving me notice.

It also explains why the same corporate office management team suppressed all meaningful discussion of the 2011 WSM Employee Survey. That Survey came up with much the same view as my Dispute. Employees felt they were being worked too hard, without explanation, and without being allowed to be properly involved in the decisions mapping a way forward for our co-op. Er. Apparently, we still aren’t.

And let’s be clear. It isn’t just workers who will be paying for this new expansion. Consumer-owners are going to see diddly-squat by way of an improved dividend over the next ten years.

So. What should be happening?

Simply put, a co-op is a voluntary association of folk, who provide for their common needs. It is for the consumer stakeholders to decide what are their common needs. It is for worker-stakeholders then to decide what they are prepared to do to meet those common needs. And finally, worker and consumer stakeholders should then instruct management and staff to implement their decisions.

What we have instead is a self-selected few of the corporate office management making the decisions. And then telling owners and workers what is good for them. What we have is the tail wagging the dog. And it keeps wagging the dog over the financial bloody cliff.

What can we do?

Demand to be a part of the discussion of ‘Vision 2022.’ That’s it. Make the demand. If you are a worker, ask your managers what is going on. Ask them when this will be discussed at Department Meetings. At Unit Meetings. Not just the implementation. But the principles, the objectives, the strategies.

If you are an owner, write to the Board of Directors (, or to Ruffin Slater directly (, and ask them why you are not being involved in this planning.

There is no way Weaver Street Market Co-operative can afford another catastrophe like the 2007/2008 expansion. But the only way to stop it is to get involved. Whether the corporate office management team want you involved or not.

It is no good reading learned articles in ‘The New York Times’ about how the alternative economy might work. This is how it is supposed to work. By you and I demanding that we be involved in decision-making in our own community co-op. Before it is too late.

‘Vision 2022’ says that it will encourage the co-operative business model. Good. Let’s put that claim to the test.

Oh. On a personal note. There are some folks who say that my advocacy is an indication that I hate WSM. I don’t. I wouldn’t still be working here if I did. I truly believe that co-operation is the best antidote to the destructive tendencies of corporate capitalism. And one of co-operation’s greatest strengths is its accountability to stakeholders and community, and its promise of genuine participatory economic democracy.

You cannot have that accountability and participatory democracy if major strategic direction is being considered in secrecy, and by a small self-selected group of managers. All of my efforts, including this one, are about making WSM stronger, by making it less secret, more accountable and more democratic.


Aware of the impact of this post, I did first write to Ruffin Slater, General Manager of WSM, to ask him to send me a copy of the document ‘2022 Vision,’ to test how secret this whole process actually was.

I got no response. Not very encouraging.

Then I wrote him the following longer letter of … er … ‘notice’?:

“Dear Ruffin,

I must say I am disappointed by your lack of response to my e-mail requesting a copy of the document 'Weaver Street Market 2022 Vision' as it exists at the moment. Disappointed, but regretfully not surprised.

It is part of a pattern of secrecy that has become prevalent within Weaver Street Market Co-operative, since things started to go wrong with the expansion project of 2007/2008, notwithstanding our purported adherence, as a co-op registered with the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association, and articled under North Carolina General Statute 54 (Co-operative Organizations), to principles of openness and transparency. 

I have been attempting to view a set of the full Audited Accounts of WSM for several years now. Only to be ignored. And now to discover that the primary assets of WSM (not least its property) appear to be placed in companies which are not controlled by the Board of WSM. [See below: “Who Owns Weaver Street Market Co-operative?”]  

We cannot, as our slogan suggests, be a grocery store owned by the community, if we are, in fact, a grocery store whose assets may be under the control of one person – you. This is especially significant since ‘Weaver Street Market 2022 Vision’ calls for new stores to be owned, not rented. 

Management is the servant, not the master, of the stakeholders of WSM. Those stakeholders are all of the owners, consumers and workers of WSM. Not just a few of the management. It is normal procedure in a co-op for the stakeholders to be the body that decides strategic direction. Not management, in the first instance. Yet, that is what is happening with ‘2022 Vision.’ Management is seeking primacy over the stakeholders in strategic decision-making.

It is also what happened with the expansion project of 2007/2008. Not at first, mind you. There was some discussion with stakeholders. But then, a few of the upper management, with the often silent connivance of the Board, kept the detail of the project’s dramatic growth and subsequent problems to itself. Culminating in the borrowing of some $10 million, without the prior knowledge or permission of the stakeholders. 

This situation was made possible by the Board changing the By-Laws to allow the Board alone to change the By-Laws going forward. Which it then did to allow the Board to create capital and borrow funds without recourse to the stakeholders. Somewhat akin to the President of the United States unilaterally amending the Constitution, to allow him to raise taxes without reference to Congress. 

And now you seek to engage in another massive expansion project. With all sorts of far-reaching consequences for the stakeholders of WSM. Without allowing stakeholders to be the ones to make the important decisions. Floating grand ideas about the funding coming from owners. When you know the last few attempts to do so met with a pitiful response. 

Which means (as you foresee in ‘2022 Vision’) that the funding will depend ultimately on making employees work harder (“Expect employees to perform at a high level by working multiple functions”). Treating us as objects “to make them more valuable to WSM.” This in contravention of the Mission Statement’s obligation upon you to make our work experience more fulfilling. And Board Policy’s legal requirement that you involve us meaningfully in any decision-making that affects our workplace environment.

For all of these reasons, if you will not conduct discussion about the strategic direction of WSM in a manner which is consonant with the principles of co-operation, and in line with the Mission Statement and Board Policy, deferring to the common needs of stakeholders, as defined by them, rather than dictated by you, then, as a matter of ethical dissent, consonant with the provisions of the Employee Policy Handbook, I will take it upon myself to make the document ‘Weaver Street Market 2022 Vision’ widely available to the community which is supposed to own WSM, before it is too late for that community substantively to affect the outcome of the ‘2022 Vision’ discussions.

Ruffin, there are folks who say that my advocacy is an indication that I hate WSM. I don’t. I wouldn’t still be working here if I did. I truly believe that co-operation is the best antidote to the destructive tendencies of corporate capitalism. And one of co-operation’s greatest strengths is its accountability to stakeholders and community, and its promise of genuine participatory economic democracy.

You cannot have that accountability and participatory democracy if major strategic direction is being considered in secrecy, and by management dictating to the stakeholders. All of my efforts, including this one, are about making WSM stronger, by making it less secret, more accountable and more democratic.

All the best,

At first, no response. Then, a couple of days later, I got a reply to my first e-mail – the one asking for a copy of ‘2022 Vision’:

“Hi Geoff,

Thanks for your interest. We will be discussing this with WSM employees starting in a couple of weeks.

Thanks, Ruffin”

Which elicited this reply:

“Hey Ruffin,

Thank you for responding to my e-mail requesting a copy of 'Weaver Street Market 2022 Vision.' Whether the content of your response was promulgated by my two e-mails or not doesn't really matter, for the moment. What does matter is that there will be wider consultation, beyond merely managers.

I trust that consultation will permit meaningful input by workers. Which input will truly be taken into account. Bearing in mind that it is we workers who ultimately will be footing the bill for all this proposed further expansion. With the sweat of our brow.

I trust also that, in accordance with the Principles of Co-operation, as espoused by the International Co-operative Alliance, and as subscribed to by WSM, the final decisions in respect of '2022 Vision' will be taken by the owners of WSM, and not by management on its own. [See “Who Owns WSM?” below, and]

In all these regards, I know you will understand that my ethical concerns require me still to publish, not least those concerns, so that owners, consumers and workers may have time to consider their views, and within a context which is not merely the one set out by the WSM administrative office. Seeing as we are all equal in this co-op.

With thanks,

As always, it’s up to owners, consumers and workers to make their views count. What’s the point? you might ask. Read on …


Weaver Street Market Co-operative advertises itself as a ‘community-owned grocery.’ The General Manager is on record in the local media as saying that workers should have no complaints, because workers half-own WSM.

But is this, in fact, the case?

To be sure, the International Co-operative Alliance has the following definition of a co-operative, and it is the definition to which WSM publicly subscribes:

“A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” [My emphasis]

Before the regular WSM consumer newsletter became no more than a glorified coupon booklet, we used to print, with pride, at the front of every newsletter, the ICA Co-operative Principles. Let me remind you of a couple:

“2nd Principle: Democratic Member [Owner] Control – Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.” [My emphasis]


“3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation – Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.” [Again, my emphasis]

My interest in the ownership of WSM’s ‘common property’ was first tweaked when I read in The Independent that the property at the corner of Greensboro and Weaver, in Carrboro (which we all believed to be owned by WSM), was sold to CVS, not by WSM, but by a private corporation called Carrboro Community LLC, for whom the sole registered agent was Ruffin Slater. Not exactly putting the common property of WSM under the control of its members.

Ok. Maybe there was good reason for this one-off transaction involving the intervention of a temporary holding company? Surely it’s not part of a pattern? Until we dig a little further. And we discover that there are a series of ‘Community LLC’s,’ which, among other assets, own the Hillbsborough Weave.

The Gateway Building housing the Hillsborough Weave is split into three condominiums. The bottom condominium is owned by Hillsborough Community LLC, and the sole registered agent is … you guessed it … Ruffin Slater.

Even better is the fact that the documents filed with the NC Secretary of State describe Hillsborough LLC “doing business as Weaver Street Market.” This is odd, because Weaver Street Market, Inc. is the official entity that does business as Weaver Street Market.

Why is this relevant? Aside from the fact that it most likely means that owners of WSM actually own nothing other than its $8 million debt. And that we can’t be a ‘community-owned grocery’ if … well … we aren’t. It’s relevant because it is the intention of ‘2022 Vision’ that the three new stores be owned, not rented.

The question that should concern owners, consumers and workers of WSM is precisely who will own these new stores. Will it be those who have advanced the capital funds, those who pay off interest with the sweat of their brow, those who are supposed democratically to control ‘common property’? Or someone else?