Wednesday, September 4, 2013

2013 WSM Annual Report: Fact -vs- Faction

Look. If I didn’t think there was much to love about Weaver Street Market Co-operative, I wouldn’t still be working here after eight years. All I ask is that we be honest about who we are, what we’re not, and whether or not this is contributing to the New Economic Democracy about which the guest speaker (Gar Alperovitz) at our forthcoming Annual Meeting (September 9) writes so eloquently.

So. Let’s take a wander through the WSM Annual Report for 2013 and engage in another of those recently hip processes: the fact check. Not just to see what’s wrong. But to see if what is wrong, and indeed, what is right, actually makes a difference.

And I set that phrase ‘making a difference’ in the context of if and how we are helping to avoid the mistakes that were made across this nation and around the world leading up to, through and pursuant to the Great Recession.

In sum, what were those mistakes? Well, for 30 years, we allowed small groups of people to control our corporations, large and small, and including banks, such that they made unwise decisions, based solely on earning money on the back of risky economic gambles, able to do so due to the lack of accountability to the public.

The primary consequence was that personal, corporate and governmental debt went through the ceiling. The financial system collapsed. And then all the same corporations scurried around trying to put matters right, primarily by squeezing consumers and workers, so that the only target that mattered (financial profitability) was once more secured.

Well. You might say. Thank goodness WSM wasn’t part of that awful paradigm. Um. Wrong.

For as long as I’ve been here (joined in 2005), WSM has not been controlled by its owners. It has been controlled by a small group of self-appointed folks in the corporate office management team.

Say it ain’t so. Sorry. We have a Board of Directors comprised of seven people. The General Manager. Two elected Consumer-Owner Directors. Two supposedly elected Worker-Owner Directors (the election has been uncontested for three years now; the Candidates selected are essentially management stooges; and before that, all contested elections – in which I stood four times – were won by the management bloc vote); and two appointed Directors (appointed three to two by the GM and his two Worker-Owner disciples). That equates to control by the General Manager.

Ok. But does that matter? I mean, we still make all the right decisions, right? Er. No. In 2007/2008, since WSM essentially had no accountability to its community, the small controlling group within the corporate office engaged in a massive expansion exercise, which put the co-op $10 million into debt. We were in such dire financial straits, we had to be bailed out by the national co-operative movement. Why? Because we had become the co-op too big to fail. Sound familiar?

Well, thank goodness that is all over. It isn’t. That exercise leaves us still some $6 million in debt. Costing us over $1 million each year in interest and depreciation. Blimey. What does that mean? It means $1 million each year which is not in your Consumer-Owner dividend. And $1 million each year your overworked workers have to sweat extra to find. Oh. And set that figure off against our local economic impact. Because not a penny of that interest goes to local banks.

Fine. But past history is past history, surely? No, it ain’t. Not when the same small group of self-appointed individuals is planning a new expensive program of store building [2020 Goal 3; Page 6 of 2013 Annual Report].

The 2013 Annual Report does not accurately reflect what the owner discussions had to say about new store building. I know. I was there. What we agreed was that we wanted no new store building until we had paid off the existing debt, and until we were certain that the Food House could cope with the extra food production.

But that’s what happens when decision-making and communication within our co-op are not controlled by the community. Fact reporting becomes Fox News faction.

Oh. And another thing which happens is that you are misled about what your co-op is doing to address “the pressing societal imperative” of “the livelihood of the people who produce our food.” Namely, your workers.

Contrary to the impression given in the Annual Report, your workers are not overwhelmingly happy. That much became abundantly clear from the now-suppressed WSM Employee Survey of 2011. Try and get a copy. I dare you.

That survey contained 72 closely-typed pages of complaint about the work conditions at WSM - I was able to read the results, only under the watchful eye of our Human Resources Director, and I was not allowed to have a copy.

Bottom line? In the continuing response to the Great Recession, the focus at WSM is almost entirely on productivity. We are each year worked harder for less. And we are different to the conventional capitalist grocery store, how again?

There is next to no opportunity for worker input to strategic decision-making, not least, what happens to the profits we earn for the co-op. And when we are asked, our opinions are ignored. In a co-op which the corporate office management team proudly declares is half-owned by its workers.

Our wage increases dramatically trail the annual increase in the sales we generate. And WSM still does not offer what North Carolina recognizes as a living wage.

Now the immediate answer to all of this would seem to be: support Candidates in WSM Director elections who talk about once more introducing true democratic control into our co-op.

Oh goody. Which ones would those be this year? Well. In the case of the Worker-Owner election, no-one. Because the election is uncontested. And the one Candidate on offer works in the corporate office Finance Department. Hardly someone who is going to act as counterbalance to the corporate office.

As for the two Candidates in the Consumer-Owner election. Er. Again. Neither. One thinks we’re a good co-op because we sell natural food. And the other likes WSM because she gets to dance on the Carrboro Lawn. In fact, I read through the plaudits at the front of the Annual Report, celebrating our 25 years of existence, and all the chitchat is along much the same lines.

People. I’m delighted we sell local food. Although, fact check. We have no clue what other grocery stores are doing. We are making up those figures. And. We don’t sell as much local food as we claim. Not when we include in our figures every last item of food produced in our Food House. It ain’t ‘local’ because I stick my sticky fingers into it. On that basis, the “pre-packaged gummy sweet sliced stuff” which Owner 156 decries is also ‘local.’

And do not for one moment think I am taking a swipe at those of my fellow workers who work long, hard and diligently in our Food House. I am not. They perform magnificently, in the same difficult conditions plaguing all of our workers. Namely, sub-standard conditions the consequence of the vainglorious primacy given to empire-building by the small group of self-appointed decision-makers in our corporate office management team. Vainglory made possible because democratic accountability does not properly exist in our co-op.

If we think protection against control of our lives by non-accountable corporations making daft financial decisions is assured by our co-op selling local food (and I don’t; and neither do Ralph Nader or Gar Alperovitz), then at least let’s be honest about just how much support we give to genuinely local food.

I have nothing but the deepest admiration for the job performed by my fellow workers in our Food House. But we do them and our co-op no favors by claiming that the product of their excellent endeavors is ‘local,’ if it isn’t.

Ok. So. What’s all this about Ralph and Gar? Well. Actually read their books. Don’t just open the flyleaf long enough to get an autograph at the Annual Meeting.

They both say that, if we are to provide a new economic system that is a true bulwark against bad decision-making of the type which led to the Great Recession, then it is not enough that our enterprises are community-owned. They must also be community-controlled.

We can have a gazillion owners. Win all sorts of prizes for being the best grocery store on the best Main Street in the universe. Be a vibrant meeting place. Environmentally conscious. Donate to local schools up the wazoo. Ensure that every last one of the gummy bears we sell is local.

But, none of this makes a hoot of difference to our contribution to the New Economic Democracy, if we ain’t democratically-controlled. And if, as a consequence, we are not accountable to our community, and we are setting ourselves up, once more, to be making potentially unwise, unsupported and likely risky financial decisions, and ones that do not support all of the pressing societal imperatives which guard against economic implosion.

It is democratic control, and only democratic control, which is the guardian against corporate mischief in the brave new world of Economic Democracy which Ralph and Gar champion. It is democratic control, and only democratic control, which makes us a co-op.

That is why democratic control by owners is the cornerstone of the official definition of a co-operative enunciated by the International Co-operative Alliance.

All of the pretty, sparkly matters for which we congratulate ourselves in our Annual Report are precisely that. Pretty and sparkly. Being fun and vibrant and local and natural may be wonderful achievements in their own right. But they do not make us democratic or accountable. They do not make us a co-op. They do not make us a truly democratic community enterprise. And they do not afford us membership of the new economic system to which Ralph and Gar refer in such urgent terms, however many times we invite the latter to address our Annual Meeting.

And here’s a chilling commentary. I have checked and double-checked the Annual Report. From cover to cover. Nowhere. Not once. Not anywhere. Do we mention the words ‘democracy’ or ‘accountability.’

In the Annual Report.

Of a co-op.

Our co-op.

Gar talks about them. So does Ralph. But not WSM.

Ok. So. We have an uncontested Worker-Owner election this year, and no Candidates in the Consumer-Owner election talking about the importance to a co-op of Economic Democracy. What then do we do?

At the risk of sounding impertinent. The first thing is, we have to give a damn. I grant you, this is difficult. If you happen to think that we’re a co-op simply because you like the bread, the music, the lady on the cash register, and the only partially correct claims we make in our Annual Report about worker conditions, local impact and so on, then I’m not going to win you over. Go back to your first date.

If, however, you agree with me that protection against corporate imprudence is important, and that it needs to be exercised even at the level of our co-op, then let the stirring begin.

Turn up to meetings. To the Annual Meeting. To meetings of the Board. And start to ask questions about the way strategic decisions in our co-op are made. How it is the four goals for 2020 are being set and monitored. Why it is that not one of these goals refers to Economic Democracy? And why it is that the Board never entrusts important strategic decision-making to a vote of the ownership, e.g. can we afford new stores at the moment?

Stand as a Board Candidate. Who says there is anyone else out there better qualified than you? If you agree with what I’m saying, you’ve read the Annual Report and you actually read the book Gar just signed for you, and you’re now fired up and ready to re-introduce living democracy into our co-op, then, with respect to our sitting Board members, you just became better qualified than most of them.

I love what our co-op has achieved over 25 years. But I am disappointed that, over the same period of time, those who generate the vision at the top have become so fearful of including others in the vision-building, they now essentially exclude the community from democratically controlling that vision.

It is not enough to invite contribution. That is not democratic control. It did not protect against the bad decisions made in 2007 and 2008. It does not allow our co-op to avoid the same corporate mindset that almost destroyed the American economy and our co-op in 2008 and 2009. And it does not ensure sensible consensual decision-making going forward.

All of which said, we could merely bury our heads in the proverbial sand. In which event, I’ll continue to be here, merrily reminding you how I think we could be better. And in the meantime, I’ll be one of those playing music on the Carrboro Lawn. I’ll be helping to make that ‘local’ food. And I’ll be trying to arrange day dates with your sister!

[As always, I am admonished by our new Employee Policy to declare that what I am saying here in no way represents anything other than my own personal views.]