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.