Thursday, January 9, 2014

This Is What A Worker Co-op Should Look Like ...

Weaver Street Market Co-op, the US food co-op I love, and where I have worked for nine years now, is a worker co-op. It may describe itself formally as a worker-consumer hybrid. But it is still a worker co-op.

Read this article about UK food co-op, Suma, to discover how WSM ought to be behaving. Both co-ops have much the same financial profile: WSM last year had a turnover of about $38 million and a profit of $750,000. But that is where the similarities end.

Suma is not some communist pipedream. They make it clear one of the primary reasons they are successful is that they do not ignore the need to make a profit and pay their staff well.

But they also make it abundantly clear that they still believe in the triple bottom line, or as they put it: people, planet and profit. WSM abandoned its triple bottom line at some point in the unholy mess following the unsuccessful vanity expansion of 2008 and the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2009.

But perhaps the most unusual thing with Suma is the fact that there is an entirely flat management structure. Everyone is paid the same. And, as I argue should be the case with WSM, management is seen as a role, not a status. Let them put it in their own words:

'Richard Hizzard, 46, who works in sales and is also a qualified HGV driver, says that outsiders often find this hard to fathom. "People, when they start, come looking for a boss. They say, where is the director? But we are all self-managed and we inspire each other. We have had people who have been barristers, doctors," he says. "It is a strange concept, but clearly it works and the growth is phenomenal." '

The role of managers is that of fellow workers, tasked with putting into effect decisions made by workers in consensus. Managers are not viewed as masters, tucked away in the countryside somewhere, hidden behind a combination lock.

Again, quoting from the article itself: 'Put simply, Suma is an organisation that is run on ethical lines, which values its customers (mainly small independent retailers) and its members first, rather than faceless shareholders or a small number of rich owners.'

WSM is an organisation that has forgotten its co-operative ethic, and values a small self-appointed group of managers in the corporate office, rather than its workers, its consumers and its owners.

Actually, I'm wrong. I said WSM is a workers' co-op. What I should have said is it is supposed to be one. It is, in fact, the largest manager co-op in the South-Eastern United States.

Folks occasionally wonder why I bother continuing to bear witness at WSM. Um. They sometimes even query whether I have the right. Hmm. My answer is Suma. And what we at WSM could be if more were prepared to advocate for it.