Friday, August 17, 2012

The Weave, 2022 Vision, Employee Empowerment - The Letter

I have made it a point never to criticize Weaver Street Market Co-operative management, policy, strategy or tactics, without offering an alternative.

In respect of the manner in which WSM management told us at our Annual Store Meeting they were going to plan and implement 2022 Vision, I'm doing it the other way round.

I offered the alternative already. Now I set out my criticism, in the letter I wrote to the chain of management, beginning with my Department Manager and ending with the General Manager:

"If you ever wanted to know why I engage in what I know distresses some in management, namely taking the discussion in our co-operative to a wider audience, even to the extent of disseminating what some of you consider internal documents, last night was a prime example.

The whole of the Annual Store Meeting came down to this: you will all be expected to raise it a notch, because we in management have a vision.

It doesn’t matter if it is a noble vision. It doesn’t matter if it is well considered. Passionate. Exciting. Far reaching. It is a vision that has been put together by a few, with little opportunity for those upon whom it depends for success having any meaningful input.

Does this matter? Yes. Logic dictates that your workforce will be more invested in any vision if it is a vision they helped to design. But more than this, you simply have no right to be abrogating to yourselves the right to design the vision alone.

It’s no good saying, but we employees can have input, when you stand before us and declare what it is you will be expecting from us to implement the vision. Enough of the major decision-making has been undertaken, so as to make our input superfluous.

It’s not so much the horse has bolted. It’s gone. The stable door’s been shut. The stable repainted. And the farm sold. And you’re asking me what name I’d like to give the horse.

Again, why does this matter? Because some of the primary principles of co-operation are equality, democracy and openness. There was little about last evening that suggested an equality of democracy in the fashioning and implementation of this vision.

I hope you prove me wrong. I hope that last evening proves to be only the beginning of the conversation about the 10-year vision. That there will be wider discussion in the co-op – discussion that is meaningful, not mere window-dressing. I hope there will be some attempt to devolve implementation of the vision down to the units and the departments. But the language of last evening makes it more hope than expectation.

To all intents and purposes what I saw last evening was not bare bones. It was driving force. Armed and ready to go. Leading food business in the Triangle. Three new stores. Increase sales to fund. All the result of many months of planning. And all without us.

I would have preferred that the planning, the discussion had commenced in the working groups now being touted. I take my view of co-operation in Weaver Street from the definition and principles defined by the ICA, from WSM’s Mission Statement, and from the Worker-Owner Mission Statement. I’m not sure where you take yours.

As such, I believe that strategy should commence with the body of stakeholders, not management. The latter can provide some talking points. But last night and the past few months have been about a lot more than mere subject heads.

If those working groups had been convened properly, I would have spoken out against further expansion. I would have asked that we pay off our existing debt, before outlining new capital expenditure.

I would have insisted that any new expansion place no burden on employees without their concurrence. And you’re placing burden without concurrence when you tell employees to raise it a notch, and you don’t give them an opportunity (in a co-op, where the principles of co-operation say we are equal) to say, no thanks.

I would have suggested that we have quite enough still to do absorbing the last expansion. Much remaining to get right. I would have wondered if ‘local’ does not actually mean providing for the needs of our immediate community (Southern Village). And whether it would not be better to find out what they, our immediate stakeholders want, not the rest of the Triangle.

Anyway. That would have been some of my specific input. The more important point is that it wasn’t sought when the major planning was under way. And there is little suggestion that, even if working groups are convened now, that input, even if it were to find favor with a body of stakeholders, would have any meaningful impact upon the direction management seem already to have chosen.

And that is why I widen the discussion. Because you won’t. And the principles of co-operation, the WSM Mission Statement and the Worker-Owner Mission Statement demand that you should.

On a couple of side notes. As a former management consultant, I was a little unhappy with some of the figures you presented in the opening section, comparing the performance of WSM with the alleged activities of other grocery stores. It is normal to give sources.

There has been a move in recent years, during these presentations, to make the dubious inference that certain practices are ‘standard’ or ‘normal,’ when no such justification is given for the assertion.

I would have questioned the statements at the time, but there was no Q and A section for that, and I did not want to swamp the General Discussion section. Again, it really is asking a bit much of us to try to cram last year and the coming year all into, what, 40 minutes of General Discussion, don’t you think?

I would be grateful if one of you could please go through each of the slides at the beginning, and provide me with the source for the comparative figures – sales increases (Micki said something about these being ‘normal’ for grocery stores; um, says who; and what is normal for a co-op is what that co-op decides for itself, with respect?), pay increases, et al.

There has been some discussion about the alleged separation of ‘governance’ and ‘operations.’ I think it is an illusion that serves those who wish to prevent wider discussion of strategy.

For me, the separation is between strategy and tactics. Stakeholders decide strategy, and the paid staff then implement the tactics. That is what is ‘normal’ in other co-operatives.

But it isn’t really separated. Ruffin might say that 2022 Vision is merely a tactical implementation of the strategy of the WSM Mission Statement. I would say that tactics is choosing the wallpaper for the new stores. Not deciding how many to build.

When you ask folks on the cash register to sell co-operative ownership, they are promoting governance. When management makes decisions that affect what owners may expect, that is operations straying into governance. When the Board sets the budget, it is defining operations.

When governance drafts a Mission Statement that says that the work experience should be fulfilling, and a manager says that the Mission Statement is not co-op policy, then that is a conflict between governance and operations.

When operations craft changes to Employee Policy, which, on the face of them, interfere with a work-owner’s duty to promote co-operative principles in the community, then that is another conflict between governance and operations.

There is another way of looking at the dichotomy, specifically as it relates to 2022 Vision. If one says that 2022 Vision is governance, then operations have no place promulgating its design. Instead, as a worker owner, there should be separate discussion available to me.

If, however, one is advancing the argument that 2022 Vision is within the purview of operations, then I am a part of operations too, and I should have equal impact upon its design.

Otherwise, we have created a tri-partite model of co-operation: governance, management and staff. A model that is not recognized by John Carver, or by any other aspect of co-operation that I have seen or read.

So. The distinction between governance and operations is not as clear as some would like. What the distinction does require, and it is pretty much all that it demands, is that Directors and worker-owners have no right, in that capacity, to tell a member of staff what to do. And operations may not bypass their accountability to stakeholders and the Board of Directors.

Finally, I will be returning my 360 Evaluation this year uncompleted. Frankly, after last evening, I do not feel it makes any difference. You will make the decisions you make in any event.

And to be honest, whether you think there should be equality, democracy, transparency and openness in a co-op, indeed and perhaps, because I think that you do not, when co-operative principles demand that there should be, I regard this letter and any responses as open material.

If you believe in what you say, then you should have enough conviction to stand by it publicly. I do.

All the best,

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Weave, 2022 Vision and Employee Empowerment

Workers of The Weave, it’s entirely up to you. If you want real input to 2022 Vision (which is being presented at each of our Annual Unit Meetings), then read on. If not, sit back, enjoy the raffle, and expect in this coming (and in future) years to continue to be told to work harder, for less.

Don’t get me wrong, the Vision 2022 which Ruffin and my store management team presented with passion was very compelling. But it was theirs. Not ours. They spent the last 6 months designing our destiny for us.

I didn’t waste too much time last evening on my preferred alternative Vision 2022. You can read it elsewhere. And besides, there wasn’t enough time.

I focused on one thing. Trying to get them to understand that sustainability of a 10-year vision in a co-op requires that those you want to implement the vision (your employees) be invested in it. And we employees will only be invested in it, if we had a hand in designing it, and if we then have a hand in deciding how to implement it.

Well, came the retort, this is only the beginning. Hmm. If it’s only the beginning, and nothing is yet set in stone, how come half the meeting was spent with our Store Manager telling us (not inviting, not asking, telling us) that the Vision (which has not yet been finalized) will be implemented by requiring each of us to “raise the bar.”

Er. Sounds like a done deal to me. Also sounds like working harder to me. Forget, for why. I’ve run that argument for so many years I’ve lost count. Today, I’m interested in, says who? In a co-op. Where we are all equal. And decision-making is supposed to be consensual.


Oh well. Never say die. I didn’t. And I proposed three ways of rendering the whole 2022 Vision process a tad more sustainable:

1) Since management insisted 2022 Vision was not yet a done deal, I challenged them on the assertion. Suggested that WSM use Panzanella on Monday evenings, to convene discussion groups of workers and consumers, to consider any and all aspects of planning for the next ten years.

2) Argued that sustainability of implementation required devolution of decision-making to the units and to departments. Once the Vision has been agreed, and overall annual budgets set, let units and departments make all the decisions of implementation themselves. This is not as wild as it sounds.

3) Open up an Online Forum for wider and continuing discussion. A template already exists. It was created back in 2008.

If any part of these suggestions makes any sense to any fellow workers of The Weave (and Panzanella), then go ahead and raise them at your own meetings. Or. Sit back. And wait for diktat …

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The NY Times 'Ethicist': Social Media and Harassment

As chance would have it, a letter on 'The Ethicist' page of 'The New York Times' this past Sunday deals with the ethics of an employer seeking to regulate employees' postings on social media sites.

The letter posits an extreme example. But the principles that I have been arguing remain the same:

1) Postings by employees must be shown significantly and unavoidably to be impacting the workplace and co-workers, before an employer gets involved.

2) If harassment is alleged, then it must be objectively demonstrable that the employee feels harassed in the workplace, before an employer get involved. It's not enough for an employee simply to say, I feel harassed. Not if the harassment is not taking place in the workplace.

3) The fullest opportunity should be given to the allegedly offending employee to cease and desist before any disciplinary action is taken.

And yes, this little gem is winging its way to the WSM corporate office management team as well ...

Call To Arms: Stop Weaver Street Market Censorship - Research and Advice

The opening line of the Weaver Street Market Co-operative Worker-Owner Mission Statement demands that all "worker-owners demonstrate co-operative principles ... in the workplace and the community." How can we do that when the WSM corporate office seek to muzzle our advocacy of co-operative principles in the workplace and the community?

That is the essence of my opposition to the changes that the WSM corporate office management team are proposing to the clauses in WSM Employee Policy dealing with 'Confidentiality of Information' and 'Social Media Policy.' And it is why I have now renewed my own worker-ownership.

It is also one of the many items of interest upon which I came while engaging in further research upon these subjects, and seeking some advice from one or two institutions. All of which I forwarded to the WSM corporate office management team:

"Dear Ruffin, Deborah, Board and Community Stakeholders of Weaver Street Market Co-operative,

I write further to my first e-mail concerning the proposed changes to Employee Policy, put forward this past week by the Weaver Street Market Co-operative Corporate Office Management Team. This after further research and taking advice from certain legal bodies with respect to civil rights.

My concern in essence is this: we are not merely a conventional business, able therefore only to employ conventional business language. We are also a co-operative enterprise, and should therefore qualify the conventional business language with caveats that incorporate the sensitivities of co-operative principles, to which we claim to subscribe.

Just as an example, but an important one (certainly it is what has inspired and guided all of my public advocacy about WSM these past seven years), the opening line of the Weaver Street Market Co-operative Worker-Owner Mission Statement demands that all "worker-owners demonstrate co-operative principles ... in the workplace and the community." How can we do that when the WSM corporate office seek to muzzle our advocacy of co-operative principles in the workplace and the community?

Let me begin, therefore, by enunciating the important co-operative provisions which WSM say they support, but which are glaringly absent from the proposed changes. So, the Values of Co-operation, as defined by the International Co-operative Alliance, and to which WSM say they subscribe, state the following:

Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

The Weaver Street Market Co-operative primary Mission Statement has the following provisions:

·  Fair - mutually beneficial and non-exploitative
·  Inclusive - accessible to the whole community
·  Interactive - creates opportunity for community interaction
·  Empowering - enables fulfilling work and customer experiences
·  Educational - develops an informed community

The Weaver Street Market Co-operative Worker-Owner Mission Statement (in full) demands the following:

As worker owners we demonstrate the co-operative principles through our actions in the workplace and the community. Our mission is to create opportunities for all workers to take responsibility for the business, participate in decision making, contribute to the community, and benefit from their involvement

These three excerpts represent co-op policy in WSM that is superior to Employee Policy, which can not therefore be in conflict with the superior co-op policy. You can not, therefore, introduce changes to Employee Policy which seek to curtail democracy, openness, accessibility by the community, community interaction, fulfilling work experiences, an informed community, or the ability of worker-owners freely to demonstrate co-operative principles in the workplace and the community.

Your proposed changes to 'Confidentiality of Information' and 'Social Media Policy' do just that.

There is no language in your proposed changes seeking balance between the imperatives of business and co-operation. No safeguards for those honestly pursuing the demand to demonstrate co-operative principles in the workplace and the community. No objective definition or examples offered of what is meant by 'legitimate business interest' or 'adverse effect.' Rather, we are left with the impression that such will be defined, at whim, by the WSM Corporate Office Management Team.

Finally, there is no mention of North Carolina's Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, specifically NC General Statute 95-241, which prohibits disciplinary action for acknowledged public whistle blowing.

Most very restrictive clauses dealing with 'Confidentiality of Information' are to be found in companies which create intellectual property as their primary enterprise. That is not the case with WSM.

Bearing that in mind, and what I say above, I would be happier to see a less restrictive clause on 'Confidentiality of Information,' much along the more specific lines of the one I suggested in my previous e-mail, together with caveats protecting employees who disseminate information in pursuit of the superior co-op policy iterated above, and where discipline is not to be considered if there has been no malice, no monetary gain, and no substantive damage to customers, employees or more precisely defined legitimate commercial concerns.

Please also bear in mind this point. All worker-owners are proprietors of WSM. So we are all, equally, proprietors of information to which WSM is privy. Subject to rules of disclosure relating to personnel and customer records, all proprietors have an equal right to disclose or not disclose information which is proprietary to WSM's proprietors.

In the same fashion, I would be much happier to see no 'Social Media Policy' at all. I think we should be treated as adults, who know how to protect the interest of the co-op we all love. A slight modification of that view would be to have 'Social Media Policy' included in 'Communications with Media,' by the simple remedy of including Social Media with other forms of Media to be contacted. So that the only restriction would be making clear that posts are personal, not corporate.

If it was truly felt necessary to enunciate more control over Social Media interaction than this, then I would suggest a more comprehensive 'Social Media Policy,' one offering exactly the same caveats as I propose above, for 'Confidentiality of Information,' and also setting control within the context of a generous understanding of the popularity of Social Media, and the desire of WSM not to interfere with employees' freedom of belief and expression away from the legitimate workplace.

Examples can be found on the following web-site (in addition, I set out in full at the end of this e-mail one of the better examples I've come across):

Plus, I link to a web-site which sets out some of the pitfalls for employers in trying to draft Social Media Policies that are too restrictive, especially those that seek to curtail commentary about work when off the clock:

On a final and personal note, I would like confirmation that my writings of the past seven years will not fall foul of the proposed changes, if I continue with them. And, if there is any suggestion that they might, I would like specific clarification as to why.

All the best,

Example of Social Media Policy

A. Policy Statement

Whether or not a employee chooses to create or participate in a blog, wiki, online social network or any other form of online publishing or discussion is his or her own decision. However, recognizes that emerging online collaboration platforms are fundamentally changing the way individuals and organizations communicate, and this policy is designed to offer practical guidance for responsible, constructive communications via social media channels for employees.

The same principles and guidelines that apply to the activities of employees in general, as found in the and ’s Professional Conduct Policy, apply to employee activities in social media channels and any other form of online publishing.

Our organization fully respects the legal rights of our employees in all countries in which we operate, including their rights under the National Labor Relations Board to engage in concerted and protected activities, and any part of this policy which interferes with or "chills" the legal rights of our employees will not be enforced. In general, what you do on your own time is your affair. However, activities in or outside of work that affect your job performance, the performance of others, or 's business interests are a proper focus for company policy.

B. Definitions

1. Social Media Channels - Blogs, micro-blogs, wikis, social networks, social bookmarking services, user rating services and any other online collaboration, sharing or publishing platform, whether accessed through the web, a mobile device, text messaging, email or any other existing or emerging communications platform.

2. Social Media Account – A personalized presence inside a social networking channel, initiated at will by an individual. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking channels allow users to sign-up for their own social media account, which they can use to collaborate, interact and share content and status updates. When a user communicates through a social media account, their disclosures are attributed to their User Profile.

3. Social Media Disclosures - Blog posts, blog comments, status updates, text messages, posts via email, images, audio recordings, video recordings or any other information made available through a social media channel. Social media disclosures are the actual communications a user distributes through a social media channel, usually by means of their social media account.

4. External vs. Internal Social Media Channels – External social media channels are social media services that do not reside at a domain. Internal social media channels are located at a company- owned domain, require a password to access and are only visible to employees and other approved individuals.

5. User Profile – Social Media Account holders customize their User Profile within a Social Media Channel with specific information about themselves which can be made available others users.

6. Copyrights – Copyrights protect the right of an author to control the reproduction and use of any creative expression that has been fixed in tangible form, such as literary works, graphical works, photographic works, audiovisual works, electronic works and musical works. It is illegal to reproduce and use copyrighted material through social media channels without the permission of the copyright owner.

7. Hosted Content – Text, pictures, audio, video or other information in digital form that is uploaded and resides in the social media account of the author of a social media disclosure. If you download content off of the Internet, and then upload it to your social media account, you are hosting that content. This distinction is important because it is generally illegal to host copyrighted content publicly on the Internet without first obtaining the permission of the copyright owner.

8. Embed Codes – Unique codes that are provided to entice others to share online content without requiring the sharer to host that content. By means of an embed code, it is possible to display a YouTube user’s video in someone else’s social media account without requiring that person to host the source video file. This distinction is important because embed codes are often used by copyright owners to encourage others to share their content via social media channels.

9. Controversial Issues – Issues that form the basis of heated debate, often identified in political campaigns as wedge issues, since they provoke a strong emotional response. Examples include political views, health care reform, gun control and abortion. Religious beliefs may also be controversial, particularly to those intolerant of beliefs different from their own.

10. Official Content – Publicly available online content created and made public by our company, verified by virtue of the fact that it is accessible through our corporate website .

11. Inbound Links – An inbound link is a hyperlink that transits from one domain to another. A hyperlink that transits from an external domain to your own domain is referred to as inbound link. Inbound links are important because they play a role in how search engines rank pages and domains in search results.

12. Link Bartering Exchanges – Trading or purchasing inbound links from other domains exclusively for the purposes of lifting your domain in search engine page results.

13. Tweets and Retweets – A tweet is a 140 character social media disclosure distributed on the Twitter micro-blogging service. Retweets are tweets from one Twitter user that are redistributed by another Twitter user. Retweets are how information propagates on Twitter.

C. Objectives

1. Establish practical, reasonable and enforceable guidelines by which our employees can conduct responsible, constructive social media engagement in both official and unofficial capacities.

2. Promote a safe environment for employees to share subject matter expertise that is not proprietary and earn management's recognition for the outstanding use of social media for business.

3. Prepare our company and employees to utilize social media channels to help each other and the communities serves, particularly in the event of a crisis, disaster or emergency.

4. Protect our company and employees from violating Municipal, State or Federal rules, regulations or laws through social media channels.

D. Guiding Principles

1. Our organizations trusts and expects employees to exercise personal responsibility whenever they use social media, which includes not violating the trust of those with whom they are engaging. Employees should never use social media for covert advocacy, marketing or public relations. If and when employees use social media to communicate on behalf of , they should clearly identify themselves as employees.

2. Only those officially designated can use social media to speak on behalf of our company in an official capacity, though employees may use social media to speak for themselves individually or to exercise their legal rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

3. When you see misrepresentations made about by media, analyst, bloggers or other social media users, you may certainly use your blog, social networking account, or someone else's to point that out. But you may only do so in an official capacity if you follow the terms of this policy.

4. Different social media channels have proper and improper business uses. For example, members of social networks are expected to read, and when appropriate respond, to questions asked of them from another member of their social network. It is important for employees to understand what is recommended, expected and required when they discuss or -related topics, whether at work or on their own time.

5. Employees are responsible for ensuring that all contractors, vendors and agencies that the company has a formal relationship with have received and agreed to abide by these guidelines in writing.

6. Employees are responsible for making sure that their online activities do not interfere with their ability to fulfill their job requirements or their commitments to their managers, co-workers or customers."

Saturday, August 4, 2012

I Answer My Own Call To Arms ...

Today, I become a Worker-Owner with Weaver Street Market Co-operative. Again. Because, sometimes, personal integrity requires that you put right a mistake that you have made in the past.

The Mission Statement on the Worker-Owner Application Form, the one to which we all (including the WSM corporate office management team) subscribe when we sign that Application Form, states this:

As worker owners we demonstrate the co-operative principles through our actions in the workplace and the community. Our mission is to create opportunities for all workers to take responsibility for the business, participate in decision making, contribute to the community, and benefit from their involvement.

It is this same Mission Statement that inspired me to become a proprietor of WSM back in 2006. The notion that I should become responsible for an enterprise, not just of the economy, but of the human spirit, on an equal basis with all others in the enterprise, equally responsible for safeguarding our combined destinies and the soul of the enterprise itself. This turned me on.

Along with the concept that our combined destinies were to be shaped by the declaration that success of our joint enterprise would not be determined by stale financial parameters alone, but by tending to the stated common needs of the equal participants.

What a simple but joyous idea. We all decide what we want, what we need. We then decide, together, how best to meet those needs. Including, but not limited to, financial comfort. And finally, we apportion to the participants roles that define job alone, not status, since our status is that we are all equal. That’s what co-operation demands. And what the Mission Statement confirms. That we are all equal proprietors, equally responsible for the success of our joint enterprise.

My experience to that point, in the field of political economy, had been only with the stale, depressing, soul-crushing macroeconomic model of: Growth is all. Expansion the key. During good times, get bigger. During bad times, improve productivity (aka screw the worker harder). ‘Return’ meant only financial dividend.

Yet here in co-operation was a system which bypassed the sterility and the inhumanity, and treated participants as intelligent human beings, able to determine for themselves what they needed to do to provide for themselves. And to do so without trampling all over workers, the community and the environment.

Excellent. So, I signed up. And went looking for the conversation about common needs. And I’ve been looking ever since. It doesn’t exist. So. I began one of my own. This blog. Sometimes serious. Often impertinent. Occasionally silly. But always about bearing witness, both in our co-operative and in our community (as our Mission Statement demands), to actions of a few in our co-operative which adversely affect and denigrate our co-operative mission.

I guess the WSM corporate office management team grew tired of the witness. In the Fall of 2010, they engineered against me a case of Emotional Harassment involving a member of the corporate office, and brought, dubiously, under Employee Policy.

The case was a nonsense. As I told the WSM Human Resources Manager at the time. But, on that day, all notion of joint enterprise was ignored. Equality forgotten. Common need set aside. Instead, the conventional capitalist model of arbitrary authority, abrogated by a few to themselves, interpreted by them alone, and wielded without accountability, ruled the moment.

I was disciplined. I was also warned, quite bluntly, that the corporate office management team had had enough of my ‘witness,’ and that, if I wrote any more with which they found disfavor, they would find ways further to discipline me. I didn’t believe the Human Resources Manager. How could I? It went against all the precepts of cooperation, and was counter to the same Worker-Owner Mission Statement that we had both signed.

Yet, half a year later, the axe fell. I found myself being dragged into disciplinary meetings for the most ridiculous of infractions. Eventually, I refused to answer the charges, and merely asked why I alone was being brought up on these fanciful charges. At which point, I was told (I think in a moment of unguarded exasperation (oops)) that I was the only employee being monitored by the corporate office.

Which is when I made my mistake.

Leaving aside the obvious possibility that such a statement amounted to illegal practice on the part of the corporate office management team (harassment, retaliation, bias, et al), the beauty of arbitrary authority is that it is … well … arbitrary. The very nature of cooperation leaves itself open to folks to abuse the loose communal structure, and slip away into the dark corners, and wield influence without check or balance.

Sometimes, I believed, personal integrity was not just about winning the good fight. It was about personal survival. And this was a personal fight that would only lead to blemish of my reputation. A blemish which, again, I believed, would affect all else that I wished to accomplish, both within WSM and elsewhere.

I resigned my Worker-Ownership, so that the corporate office management team would no longer feel threatened. I continued with my writing. But I sensed that my ‘witness’ would not cause the insecurity that the possibility of election to the Board of Directors might engender.

When I explained this reasoning to a fellow Worker-Owner colleague, who asked why I had resigned my Worker-Ownership, her answer was blunt and, I’ll be honest, painful: “That’s not a good enough reason.”

I felt it was. And, since we are being so honest, I felt more. Where, I wondered to myself (but not aloud), where have you and the other Worker-Owners been, when I have been bearing this witness, seemingly on my own? Who are you to criticize me, when I have never seen you standing by my side, when confronting the arbitrary authority that our corporate office management team has become?

Not exactly the most gracious of thoughts. But then, we tend not to be at our most gracious when we are being invited to own up to the basic truth we are merrily denying. Er. Kind of my point with the WSM corporate office management team.

Well. In any event. That’s where matters lay. For a while. The writing continued. But, I couldn’t help feeling that it was more out of compensation, than with any real prospect of attaining any result. Until this year.

First, I came across disturbing information about who might actually own the assets of WSM; assets which, in accordance with normal practice, and our catchy little come-on, “Community-owned Grocery,” ought to be owned by the wider membership of WSM.

Then, I became aware that the same self-appointed few in the corporate office management team, who were so happily abrogating arbitrary authority to themselves left, right and center, were now claiming to themselves the sole right to draft a vision for the co-op for the next ten years.

I bore witness to both. And all hell broke loose. And so it was, this past Thursday, the corporate office management team posted proposed changes to Employee Policy, effectively to put an end to any and all further co-operative witness - by anyone - upon threat of dismissal.

I do not know when exactly the corporate office management team sold out. I do not know precisely why they abandoned all pretense of supporting co-operation. But I can guess.

At heart, the wider mission of WSM, to provide a self-sustaining, farm-to-fork local food system, is an admirable one. But it is one which depends for its success upon the open and democratic support of the membership of WSM. Simply put, this is because the producers are the ones being supported. But they have no money. That has to come from the consumers and workers. And that support has to be willing. That requires transparent, democratic, accountable and voluntary co-operation.

Somewhere along the line, the corporate office management team lost faith in the human spirit. Believed that they and they alone could be trusted to be the guardians of this vision. That alternative ideas were not to be trucked. That criticism would be an unwarranted interference. And that democracy and accountability needed to be curbed, if not completely eliminated.

And as their primary weapon, they began to employ fear. In place of democracy. Fear that a recession would kill WSM, unless we followed the dictates of the corporate office management team. Fear that dividends would dry up. Fear that we would lose homes and livelihoods, our retirement plans, our children’s college educations, if we strayed from the path of their financial rectitude, and listened to those ridiculous siren voices demanding that co-operation be what it is supposed to be: a living social statement – an alternative, sustainable way of engaging in morally, socially and environmentally acceptable business.

And then the corporate office management team began to employ more pointed fear, against workers directly – and individually. Fear that jobs would be lost, discipline enacted, promotions sidelined, pay raises suspended, if any spoke out against the central diktat.

Annual Store Meetings, the only venues left for the democratic conversation which co-operation requires, became sterile dog-and-pony presentations by the corporate office management team, where arbitrary demands by that same team, for workers to work ever harder for less, were to be accepted, without comment, in order to finance a vision that the corporate office management team now designed, on their own, behind a combination lock in Hillsborough, all the while dishonestly dressing up those demands as ‘Standard Financial Goals,’ and pretending that the Annual Store Meetings were democratic imprint by workers on consensually-determined future plans.

And I fell victim to that fear. Ignoring the lesson of history: when you back down, in what you think is a gesture of compromise, arbitrary authority does not respond in kind; it merely continues its advance forward. And so, the corporate office management team now seeks to eliminate any future possibility that the workers of WSM will engage in open discussion of the aims, ambitions and plans of WSM, by introducing the muzzle.

Effectively, the proposed changes to Employee Policy come down to this: workers may not disseminate information the corporate office management team deem proprietary to them; and if workers discuss publicly (especially online) any matters pertaining to WSM with which the corporate office management team finds disfavor, it will count as adverse work performance.

Which is the primary reason I determined to undo my mistake, and become, for the second time, a Worker-Owner with WSM. As an owner, and therefore a proprietor, of WSM, it is not for another equal proprietor of WSM to tell me what I can or cannot do with information that is proprietary to me, too.

As a proprietor of WSM (indeed, even as an ordinary stakeholder, but being an owner underscores the point magnificently), I have used my blog primarily to bear witness to those moments when the few in WSM have acted in a way that is adverse either to allowing our co-operative to act as a co-operative, or to achieving the ends to which those same few have said they are committed.

I use that language carefully. Since the proposed changes dwell long and hard on potential behavior by employees which is adverse in its effect to our cooperative. I maintain that the ones acting in a fashion, which has adverse effect upon our co-op, are the corporate office management team. Not always. But on those occasions when I have used my blog to point out the same. And now, when they seek to introduce draconian censorship to prevent any future discussion of the adverse effect that they have.

As to discussing that adverse effect in public, it is the God-given right of every American worker, outside of work, off the clock and away from management, to bitch quite heartily about their work and their boss. Whether that bitching takes place in a bar or on Facebook makes no difference. No employer, and certainly not a socially-conscious co-operative, has the right to legislate how we feel outside of work, nor to regulate how we then express that feeling.

Down that path lies totalitarianism.

And that is the second reason for my becoming a Worker-Owner again. Whatever the reason for the corporate office management team losing their belief in democratic co-operation, mine remains as strong as ever.

One does not guard against the arbitrary wield of unsustainable power by accommodation. One protects by speaking out, standing up, and being counted. I intend to be counted in two month’s time, when I vote for a candidate in the Worker-Owner Board Election, and we Worker-Owners elect, perhaps for the first time, a representative who truly speaks for all of we ordinary workers (again, as our Mission Statement demands), who work our hardest every day, because we still believe in an ideal which can once again become Weaver Street Market Co-operative – the one defined in our Worker-Owner Mission Statement.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Call To Arms: Stop Weaver Street Market Censorship

Imagine that. The Corporate Office Management Team of Weaver Street Market Co-operative do not like open discussion of their performance or of the plans they put together in secret.

So, they have proposed changes to Employee Policy that ban such transparency and democracy, under the guise of tightening up ‘Confidentiality of Proprietary Information’ and ‘Communications with Media’ (including ‘Social Media’).

Folks. Enough. We employees can’t fight this on our own. If you are a stakeholder with WSM (consumer, owner or worker), please immediately write to the WSM General Manager, Ruffin Slater (, ask for a copy of the proposed changes, and then demand that these proposed changes be withdrawn.

If you can’t get a hold of a copy of the proposed changes, contact me – I’ll give you a copy. Which, by the way, would render me liable to immediate discharge under the proposed changes.

In the meantime, I have (not surprisingly) got the ball rolling by writing my own letter:

"Dear Ruffin, Deborah, Board and Community Stakeholders of Weaver Street Market Co-operative,

The Proposed Changes to Employee Policy, put forward this past week by the Weaver Street Market Co-operative Corporate Office Management Team, a small minority of our co-op, within which, by definition, all stakeholders (workers, consumers and owners) are equal, represent an egregious breach of so many co-operative and democratic principles, it is hard to know where to start. What I can say immediately is that they are illegal.

I refer specifically to the Changes which seek to ban open disclosure and discussion of information that is essential to any democratic conversation about performance and plans within our co-op.

Let’s deal with philosophy and then move onto law. Somewhere along the line, the Corporate Office Management Team have lost sight of what defines a co-op and the way it is supposed to work, plan and monitor itself.

I would invite that Team to refresh its understanding of the same by re-reading the Definition, Principles and Values of Co-operation, as expounded by the International Co-operative Alliance, and to which WSM repeatedly states it adheres.

A co-operative exists to meet the common needs of its stakeholders. Those needs can only properly and democratically be determined by the stakeholders themselves. Yet, the WSM Corporate Office Management Team now believe that they and they alone should be the ones to decide what are the common needs.

And further, when and if someone seeks to challenge that latter and erroneous assumption publicly, the Corporate Office Management Team assume they have the right arbitrarily to punish that challenge under the guise of executive privilege.

I really think there is little more that I can add to underline the arrant nonsense of this stand of the Corporate Office Management Team, its bold arrogance and its almost complete removal from anything any reasonable person would recognize as underpinning co-operative principles of openness, transparency and democracy.

You can’t do it. And if you try to, legal challenge will be brought. On the following bases:

First, breach of the First Amendment.

Secondly, breach of Whistle Blowing Rights. Far from encouraging a relaxed and socially conscious policy of reasonable whistle blowing, the WSM Corporate Office Management Team seeks to introduce a policy that unequivocally punishes any and all whistle blowing.

Thirdly, Employee Policy specifically protects employees against disciplinary action for ethical dissent. How can dissent have any teeth if it cannot be public? And how can it be public if one is not allowed to refer to that which one is dissenting?

That will do for starters.

Getting to specifics:

1)    I agree with the change to ‘Communications with the Media,’ precisely because it does not ban contact with the media; it merely stipulates that one may not speak on behalf of ‘the company’ (which is a little broad, but it will do).

2)    I do not agree with the proposed change to ‘Confidentiality of Information.’ In a co-op, which is supposed to be dedicated to transparency, and has just spent an awful lot of time and money selling itself as an organization which ‘connects’ with its public, you can not (and legally may not) have a policy which severely limits the information that public may have at its disposal, as it seeks to engage actively with its ‘community-owned grocery.’

It is not enough that the Corporate Office Management Team feel embarrassed by information being made public, wherever that information may have originated. The test must be whether the legal rights of an individual have been trespassed. That, and that alone.

The further test is that the onus on justifying such censorship should be on those seeking to prevent transparency; not on the stakeholder, from revealing and openly discussing the information which that stakeholder deems essential to democratic conversation within a democratic and transparent co-op.

I believe that the ‘Confidentiality of Information’ clause should be restricted solely to the following:

Disclosure of legitimate confidential information, especially relating to customers and personnel, where such disclosure adversely affects a customer or member of personnel or the legitimate commercial interests of the company, is prohibited. Breaches of such confidentiality may be subject to corrective action up to and including immediate discharge.

Anything more than this is unnecessarily burdensome, and illegal.

3)    The proposed addition on ‘Social Media Policy’ should be abandoned. Not least because, in light of (2), it is redundant.

Besides which, any halfwit reading the lengthy whine posing as reasonable safeguard will perceive it as nothing more than brittle over-reaction to honest debate (tinged with the occasional excess of humor at the expense of authority).

Come on. If the Corporate Office Management Team cannot stand a little democratic scrutiny and a couple of belly laughs, then they need a vacation.

You may not, by law, curb legitimate gossip about work, when off-duty. It matters not whether that gossip is with a couple of lads at the bar. Or with 5,000 Friends on Facebook.

Employee Policy may only legislate behavior when at work. Provided nothing said, written or acted out by someone outside of work, off the clock, is presented as being offered on half of the company, then it is none of your business.

As far as such ‘gossip’ adversely affecting the rights of an employee or a customer, if the ‘gossip’ concerned was engaged in outside of work, then redress is available to the customer or employee through the normal legal channels of proceedings in the public courts. It is outside of the jurisdiction of WSM.

The only possible exception is if it could be proven that such ‘gossip’ was engaged in while using company property, on company premises, even off the clock, and the ‘gossip’ was always intended for public consumption. It’s a narrow exception, but just about legal.

But, I repeat, WSM can’t legislate what employees do on their own time.

On this ‘Social Media Policy’ more generally, if not downright hilariously, you cannot ban the dissemination of Company Financial Reports. If ever one needed an example of the fact that these Proposed Changes simply represent unjustified over-compensation by a self-important few for their bruised egos, it is this. How can you ban the dissemination by employees of the Annual Report?

I am happy to meet with the Human Resources Manager further. But if there is any serious attempt to introduce changes which breach First Amendment rights and the specific clause in Employee Policy allowing ethical dissent, then legal challenge will follow.

In any other context, these Proposed Changes to Employee Policy would be seen for what they are: the last desperate and draconian resort of an isolated and authoritarian few attempting illegitimately to hinder full discussion of and accountability for an unsustainable argument they are losing.

Oh. And I regard these Proposed Changes to be so egregious an attack on employee rights and democracy, openness and transparency within my co-op, that I intend fully to disseminate the contents of this letter to as many stakeholders of WSM as possible, as a matter of ethical dissent.

All the best,

[Oh. And if you want to know what it is that the WSM Corporate Office Management Team are pissed about, scan the next eight articles on my this blog. You'll get the idea ... ]