Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why Are We Hiding Our Mission As A Co-op?

You may have noticed that just recently I’ve become all kinds of energetic about my Weaver Street Market Co-operative advocacy.

At first I thought it might be the advent of spring or male menopause. But then I double-checked. Nope. All of a sudden, the senior management at WSM have themselves become all kinds of frisky about making a sh**load of decisions. All of them having the cumulative and rolling effect of subverting the mission of WSM as a co-op.

Now, I know I don’t really need to remind you that the mission of any co-op is to meet the needs of its owners, and that it does this through democratic control of the co-op by its owners.

In the case of WSM, which is a hybrid consumer-worker co-op, what that means is that, in an ideal situation, our consumers decide what we do, our workers determine how to do it, and the paid staff (acting as staff, not owners, and including managers) then implement the wishes of their owners.

However, over a period of time, but more noticeably lately, senior management within WSM seems to have got caught up in the notion that they and they alone make all the decisions. And those decisions, again just lately, seem to be designed specifically to exclude consumers and workers entirely from any decision-making role at all.

Hence my over-activity.  Nothing to do with any exceptionally large Moon, or Mercury Retrograde.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will also have noticed the progress with my Formal Complaint about lack of employee inclusion in decision-making, and my e-mail to the Merchandising Manager about leapfrogging consumers in his decision-making.

My next concern is that senior management seem to be removing from all of the shopfloors any reference to the fact that WSM is a co-op, what that stands for, and how folks may become owners and democratically control decision-making.

So. Time for another e-mail. This time to the WSM General Manager:

“Dear Ruffin,

You will notice I’m writing a lot of e-mails at the moment. This is because senior WSM management are making a lot of important decisions at the moment. Without properly including owners and employees. Which decisions are having a dramatic effect on our mission as a co-op democratically controlled by its owners.

My latest concern is that WSM senior management seem to have engaged in a series of decisions the net effect of which appears to be the considered and incremental removal from the shopfloor of every one of our units of all reference to our mission as a co-op, democratic control by owners, and why they should and how they can become involved as co-op owners.

It’s kind of difficult to know how exactly and formally to raise this. It involves a number of different decisions. None of which on their own is of moment. And it concerns different managers.

I have decided therefore just to address the concern generally, flag a possible future Formal Complaint about one decision where employees were not included, and copy this e-mail to other managers and the Board, so that all are aware of my concerns.

The matters which have resulted in my immediate concern are these: 

1)      The incremental conversion of the printed store newsletter to coupon leaflet, and now its total abandonment. That printed newspaper was the primary source of hand-held reading material explaining to all shoppers why we are a co-op, and what that means. Every issue set out the Principles of Co-operation, and included articles about the impact of our mission as a co-op. The various decisions which have now apparently led to its discontinuance were all taken without the involvement of consumers or employees, in contravention of co-op policy. 

2)      What we now have is a two-sided sales leaflet. Until last week it was called 'Co-op Deals.' But someone in the admin office decided that was confusing to co-op owners, and so now it is to be called 'Store Specials.' There are reasons we are a co-op. If you want us to stop being one, then call a General Meeting, and ask the ownership to change the Articles of Incorporation. Otherwise, could we please call things what they are? These are deals negotiated on our behalf by the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association. To call them something different makes us no different to Food Lion. I like being different to Food Lion. So do our 18,000 owners.

Mention has been made of consumer confusion. You know, Ruffin, aside from the fact that it is consumers who should be making this decision, not senior managers, since our mission as a co-op is to meet the common needs of our owners, not the overriding desires of senior management, leaving all that on one side, what is the worst that can happen with confusion? A consumer goes to one of our very able worker-owners and says, which is which? We say, co-op deals are for everyone, and owner deals are for co-op owners – would you like to become one? Ergo. We’ve engaged. We’ve mentioned we’re a co-op. And we’ve started a conversation about it. The only reason for not wanting this confusion is you don’t want conversations with consumers about our being a co-op. Why? 

3)      I know this one may seem small. But, taken with the other points, it becomes more than decorative. We have just replaced those of our trays which spelt out our impact on the community, through being a co-op, with trays with only our name (omitting the word ‘co-operative’), and including only a tree.

Let me suggest remedies. If they are found to be agreeable, I may not have to make this a Formal Complaint. Which if it were to become one, would likely be that employees were not involved in the decisions to remove from their stores the printed co-op newspaper.

Can’t undo the tray decision. But please note my ongoing concern that senior management are taking way too many decisions without involving consumers or workers. As far as the latter are concerned, you will know that it is WSM Employee Policy that we be involved in decision-making.

I have mentioned elsewhere that the problem may be that a lot of decisions need to be made at the moment, and what may be required is a more formal, rolling structure and process to ensure that employees are involved.

This current situation underlines that suggestion. How do we address a situation which is the product of a number of different and disparate decisions? Maybe by having a more formal process which involves workers, and into which those decisions can be fed seamlessly?

Can’t really undo the newspaper to leaflet decision. But we can, immediately, undo the ghastly decision to pretend we are not a co-op, and revert to calling the specials exactly what they are: 'Co-op Specials.'

As to the removal of our co-op mission from the stores generally, may I suggest the following? Let’s attach below the two holders for the specials a further holder for printed copies of the Owner’s e-Newsletter? And ensure that the Newsletter includes, from time to time, the Principles of Co-operation?

Could we also create a sign for each store (could go on the Salad Bar, or with the door display, not unlike the signs we produce for Elections and the Annual Meeting), setting out the Principles of Co-operation?

I know this may not be the most important matter on your desk at the moment, Ruffin, but as an interested worker-owner, I just want to be sure that with all the activity going on, we are not inadvertently moving away from that which should be central to our purpose, namely our mission as a co-op, democratically controlled by its ownership.

All the best,

[Oh. Usual caveat about these being my views only. Plus, I would like to apologize for the fact that Larry Page appears to be on holiday (Google now own Blogger), and he has let the formatting of posts go all to crap.]

Thursday, February 20, 2014

First Response To My Formal Complaint About Lack Of Employee Inclusion In WSM Decision-Making

The formal response of the WSM Human Resources Manager to my Formal Complaint that management of Weaver Street Market Co-operative are in breach of co-op policy in not including employees in decision-making gets an Olympic Bronze for my efforts so far. It’s a qualified success.

It amounts to: well, you’re sort of right; we’re never going to admit to that; but we’ll try harder in the future.

I have filed a Formal Appeal to the General Manager, not so much to have another whine, but to see about converting that technical Bronze to at least a Silver, by getting the General Manager to elaborate on what trying harder looks like. And I get the ball rolling by setting out some suggestions.

I have learned from past experience that platitudes from the WSM corporate office management team rarely amount to much unless they are pursued.

I set out later the long version of the Response and the Appeal. But upfront, let’s examine the short version of what this is all about.

First, what the heck am I doing? Leaving on one side all the philosophy about what it means to be a co-operative, we have a thing called WSM Employee Policy.

That would be the booklet sitting in your break room, the one that you push to one side when you’re having lunch and playing on your Nintendo 3ds.

Slap bang on the front inside page is a passage headed ‘Board Policy – Treatment of Staff.’ It sets out how WSM as a co-op is supposed to behave towards its workers. It is co-op policy, and has the same force as any policy that gets you written up as a WSM worker.

It states: “The General Manager may not … for paid staff, cause or allow a decision-making standard that is not transparent or does not allow for opportunity [for paid WSM employees] to participate in decisions or shape the guidelines for decisions.”

In 2007, a consultation exercise was undertaken which defined those areas where WSM management are duty bound to conduct a process that includes employees in the making of a major decision. Those areas are: Personnel Policy, Workplace Environment, Pay and Benefits, and Department Strategy/Focus. You can find the full document with the details on the site, open to all employees, when you log onto the web at work, in the Human Resources folder.

Section 5.J of the same WSM Employee Policy sets out how any employee can complain that management have made a decision without including them in the decision-making process.

I realize that, at about this point, I may have lost large numbers of my fellow workers back to their 3ds. That’s up to you. But if you are one of those who complains about the direction in which our co-op is heading, and the fact that you feel left out, then put the bloody 3ds down, and pay attention.

This is your co-op, too. There are processes that allow you to reclaim it. But anything worth fighting for takes time and effort. And this is a real fight. Not a virtual one with Mario the Xena Warrior.

So. We are permitted to complain that decisions are being made without our inclusion. And that is what I am doing at the moment.

Specifically, about the decisions to close Panzanella; set and implement these 2020 Goals we hear about from time to time; change our paychecks to direct deposit; and increase our departmental profit margins dramatically.

You can see the substance of my complaints here.

First step was for the WSM Human Resources Manager to have a shot at responding, which she did yesterday.

Bottom line: she said, meh, not so much, but we’ll do better. I have now taken it to the next level, the General Manager, to get him to flesh out what doing better will look like.

Essentially, compliance by management with the policy that requires them to include us in decision-making is an honor system. They do if they want to.

At the moment, not least because of the 2020 Goals, and the desire to build three more stores (which, by the way, management can only do if we workers agree), there are a lot of decisions being made – and we workers are being included in none of them. Which is in breach of this co-op policy.

I think it is time to have a more formal structure for including employees, and I set out some ideas in my Formal Appeal to the General Manager.

Oh, another ‘by the way.’ This isn’t all pie-in-the-sky nonsense. This is co-op policy. If management are in breach, and if they don’t mend their ways, I am entitled (you are entitled, too) to Appeal all the way to the WSM Board of Directors, and to have managers disciplined for breaching co-op policy. We are all equal in this co-op. Do not ever forget that.

So, here is the text of my Formal Appeal. I’ll keep you in touch. NOW you can go back to Mario and the Spiders from Stargate …

[Please note: the text may be a little wonky. That would be because Google does not like Microsoft, and their text algorithms are not compatible. Aren't boys silly?]

"Hey Deborah,

Thank you for your response to my Formal Complaint about lack of employee inclusion in decision-making with respect to certain decisions over the past year.

Let me deal with them by issue:

1) Panzanella - I have read Ruffin's statement. I do not disagree with it, save to say this. I understand that WSM has never before faced a situation where it has had to close a part of its business. All the more reason to be extra careful about attending to co-op policy and employee inclusion in the making of the decision.

Ruffin says that the co-op policy in question was not designed with this situation in mind. No policy is ever designed with every contingency in mind. Unless he is now saying that the policy needs to be re-designed to take account of a situation like this in the future, then, with respect, the reason offered is specious.

All of that said, the statement offered is generous. The policy covers two matters: inclusion and transparency, and does, in fact, include language to deal with situations for maximum transparency especially where inclusion is not possible. I would suggest (in a wider context, which I come to later) that, perhaps, what might now meet the rigors of transparency could be publication of this statement in an issue of the Market Messenger?

2) Paycheck - I made my complaint. You very kindly invited feedback in the following Market Messenger. You got some. You are acting on it. Complaint remedied. And thank you.

3) 2020 - I made some general points, which were not as clear as they could have been. Not least because the situation itself is fuzzy.

I could (and do) argue heartily that there has been nothing resembling proper inclusion of employees in the decisions allegedly establishing the four 2020 goals. Ruffin would claim the opposite.

There was a mish-mash of a store meeting in Southern Village in 2012. With lots of generalizations. Few facts. Generalized commentary in response - and very limited at that.

What there was, however, was a clear undertaking that there would be ongoing discussion with employees, specifically on the setting of the goals. Not merely on their implementation. I wrote to senior management at the time about this. My approach was: wait and see.

What happened is what so often happens. I waited. And I saw. Nothing. There was some limited discussion with owners. Again with the caveat that there would be more discussion. Which there has not been. What I do see is that Ruffin is now claiming that all of this 'is it-isn't' it is being classified as sufficient inclusion in decision-making, so the Goals are set.

Looking back, I can now say that the 2012 Store Meeting was confused, at best. It turns out that it represented what was the only opportunity for employees to have input on 2020.

There was no information provided beforehand to this effect. Precious little by way of facts and figures. We had a dog and pony presentation by managers on generalizations. And were then offered a limited amount of time to comment.

I made the point (as I did again in my subsequent letter) that I could not work out if the meeting represented an opportunity to discuss Goals, or their implementation. I was told the former, but then we were set targets for implementation.

The bottom line is this: we were told the Goals were not set. There would be more inclusion in the setting of the Goals. There has not been. Period. As I say in my letter, if there had been proper process, truly allowing workers the opportunity to participate in the decision before it was made, I would have suggested other Goals, and the exclusion of at least one of the ones being offered by management.

The truth is, management set the Goals before the 2012 Store Meetings, without allowing employees to participate. You then got caught out because I published the draft. You scurried around and produced the presentation, pretending that discussion on Goals was still open. When, in fact, you had moved onto implementation. That was and remains a breach of co-op policy on inclusion of employees in decision-making. You then promised us further discussion on the Goals, and none occurred. The breach continues.

The next character of 2020 is the suggestion floated in your document that somehow the setting of very generalized Goals precludes the need for any further formal inclusion of employees in decision-making down the line.

There is nothing in the co-op policy in question that suggests that simply because there has been some sort of inclusion in a decision in the past, there is no need for further inclusion in new and different decisions in the future, just because the separate decisions are somehow associated. Not the case.

Each and every major decision requires employee inclusion in the process. Either that, or propose changes to the policy.

The next point raised is that 2020 has been discussed hither and thither, and that is enough. I could argue all sorts of interesting points about whether your average employee is able to attend Board Meetings, ever reads the Annual Report, and so on. I do not have to. The co-op policy in question does not waive the need for a specific exercise to include employees in the making of a decision simply because the matter the subject of the decision was raised in a meeting or document somewhere else.

I turn to the specific statement in your document about 2020. To be honest, your general line is: well, at all times we were thinking about employees; they knew about 2020 (er, not least because I, not you, published the draft); and they had a chance to say something; so they were consulted.

Chance does not represent compliance with a co-op policy which states (including the 2007 document) that there must be clear communication a decision is going to be made, what will be the process, how employees may be involved, the involvement and then clear publication of the results of input.

On this last every specific point, there was publication of some of the comments made at the 2012 Store Meetings. I emphasize 'some.' I complained to senior management at the time that those comments omitted several of the more important comments made at the Southern Village Store Meeting. In particular, the energetic opposition to Goal 3, and the specific suggestions about holding further discussions for employees.

To the specifics:

The process to develop 2020 stretched over several years. So what? It is a process that only 'included' employees after the Goals had been set, and were then presented at the 2012 Store Meetings.

Included input from many sources. Who cares? Doesn't meet the specific co-op policy in question for a specific process to include employees.

Opinions were heard and considered. Not relevant to Employee Co-op Policy.

Each of the four goals is rooted in WSM's historic mission. Not so much new ones as implementation of old ones.Ah. Now we're getting to the meat of it. I heard this one run in a Board Meeting.

The policy is the policy. It requires inclusion of employees in the making of decisions. Nowhere in the policy does it allow for waiver of the co-op policy because of history, normality, the fact that decisions look like others, or are an extension of others.

Frankly, this is not the first time these excuses have been run as a way of circumventing compliance by management with co-op policy. I wish it would stop.

The fact is there should have been a process for fully including employees in the setting of these Goals long before they were presented. Employees were not so included. Management is in breach of co-op policy. Talk of history, tradition, normality and the like is merely distraction.

This process seems to have been successful as it produced goals with broad agreement among stakeholders. What stakeholders may or may not have agreed to has nothing to do with whether or not there should be a stand-alone process for including employees in the setting of the Goals, and whether or not there was one.

There should have been. There wasn't. The first and the last employees knew of 2020, and were allowed input, was the 2012 Store Meeting. And it is now clear, notwithstanding the assurances given, that the Goals had, in the view of management, already been set when they were presented to the 2012 Store Meeting.

Management is in breach. And it is now a tad embarrassed. And is backtracking.

Moreover, I was at the only meeting at which owners were allowed proper opportunity to offer input on Goals 2, 3 and 4.

At the Goal 3 discussion, there was nothing but overwhelming objection to the notion of new stores. So much so that Consumer-Owner Director Lisa Best remarked that she had no idea that there was any objection to new stores. Further, she was one of the Directors to suggest there needed to be further discussion before Goals were set. There has been  none.

There will continue to be opportunities for input and discussion as the organization moves forward with the specifics of achieving the 2020 Goals.

Ah. The olive branch. And a way forward. Once again, an assurance is given. This time, I will hold management to it.

You see, Ruffin, you and I could argue about whether or not there was enough or any inclusion in decision-making over the 2020 Goals. But what difference does it make?

If I really want a Goal abandoned, or changed, or a new one set, it's not like I'm incapable of jumping up and down, and getting some attention on the subject. So. What do I want?

Exactly what you offer. If you stick to it.

Namely, accept that just because Goals exist does not mean that management is not still bound by the terms of the co-op policy requiring employee inclusion in each and every decision that flows from 2020, provided that decision falls within the categories enunciated and agreed in 2007.

So. My concerns about 2020 will be met if, going forward, and in compliance with co-op policy, management includes employees in the making of decisions which address the specifics of achieving the 2020 Goals, provided those decisions fall within the categories enunciated and agreed in 2007. 

I think I require, whether as answer to this e-mail, or by way of Formal Response to Appeal, a written agreement from the General Manager to my last paragraph.

4) Margins - I thank Ruffin for the long statement setting out the desire to be efficient, and to want to keep an eye on margins. The margin in question had been raised from 22% to 30%. I'm not saying there wasn't a reason. Even a good one. I'm saying that it was a decision which affected my Workplace Environment and my Department Strategy, and as such, I should have been included in its making. I wasn't. Management is in breach of co-op policy.

It does no good to say it flows from 2020 Goals. We just dealt with that. It's a separate decision.

It's no good saying it was discussed at an Annual Meeting or in an Annual Report. Dealt with that, too.

It's no good saying it's good business. Maybe so. It still requires employee inclusion.

It's no good saying it's normal business. Ditto.

I wrote to you and specifically stated that I would not be raising this Complaint at our Department Meeting (the first in over a year). I did not feel it would be appropriate. It is, with respect, a nonsense to suggest that, simply because we quite properly discussed ways to implement a policy I say was agreed in breach of co-op policy, this somehow represents general employee acquiescence in the decision. Otherwise next time I won't be so appropriate and accommodating.

Further, general discussion in a Department Meeting, aimed at improving efficiency generally, does not preclude the need to apply co-op policy for employee inclusion when a specific decision of magnitude is made concerning efficiency.

Deborah, we're just hopping around on a hot tin roof here. A major decision was taken. To increase my margin from 22% to 30%. That is huge. It affected Department Strategy.

The Department Meeting in question was not some regularly-scheduled Meeting to discuss efficiency, which just happened, oops, to coincide with this major decision. Zack made it clear more than once that the purpose of the Meeting was to address this major decision.

Co-op policy demands that I be included in the making of that decision. I was not. Management is in breach.

There is reference in Ruffin's statement on this issue to discussion over the years, annual reports mentioning margins, the Market Messenger asking whether we like the new marketing (can't see that this is relevant).

I do not comment on these specifics because they have nothing to do with the responsibility of management to conduct a stand-alone process to allow employees to participate in a decision that has major impact on their Workplace Environment and Department Strategy. 

Further, none of Ruffin's proffered excuses are included in the co-op policy in question as being acceptable waivers to the need for the co-op policy to be applied.

On this issue, there can be no compromise. The most recent margin adjustment, which I understand has been co-op wide, and which has had the effect of making margins uniform across the co-op, must now be put on hold. A process must be established and communicated for including employees in the making of this decision to adjust margins and to make them uniform. Full reasons must be published. Full opportunity afforded to employees to offer input. And the results of that input should be published.

Otherwise, you have failed at the very first hurdle in your stated aim of offering opportunity for input and discussion on the specifics of achieving the 2020 Goals.

To summarize, treating this e-mail as my Formal Appeal to the General Manager, I would wish for his Statement on Panzanella to be published; I regard the Paycheck matter as dealt with; I will keep a watching brief on 2020, on the basis that full opportunity will be offered to employees to be included in the specifics of achieving 2020; but I require that the most recent major decision about margin adjustment be regarded as undone, and a proper process for including employees in the making of that decision in compliance with co-op policy be commenced.

Now, I have a general point to make, along with some suggestions.

The co-op policy in question was designed when we were a smaller co-op. Along with this, at the moment, we are considering all sorts of matters under the four Goals which necessarily involve a lot of decisions. I am not the only one who has noticed that there are far more Managers' Retreats than there used to be.

Before now, this policy has operated under a form of honor system. We trust management to know when to use it, and then to use it. Maybe there are so many decisions that need to be made, it is difficult to operate that honor system, er, honorably?

Maybe we need a review of the policy to incorporate structures and processes to offer a rolling system for employees to be included?

I would suggest some or all of the following:

A) All inter-unit manager meetings to be minuted and the minutes to be published on the web-site or on Storecentral. Frankly, there is nothing managers are discussing which employees should not know. This would act as a passive safeguard for employees to ensure they are being included in decision-making.

B) A policy requiring every Department to hold two Department Meetings a year. One-third of all such Meetings to be set aside to discuss Department, Store and Co-op Strategy for meeting Ends (the Mission Statement).

C) One-third of all Store Meetings to be set aside to discuss Store and Co-op Strategy for meeting Ends.

D) A full meeting of all Co-op Employees to be held at least once every two years, 50% of such a meeting to be set aside for discussing Co-op Strategy for meeting Ends.

E) Publication in the Market Messenger of the General Manager's annual report to the Board on compliance with the Board Policy on Treatment of Staff. Such publication to be for the purpose of inviting feedback from employees. Publication to include details of the Board Meeting at which the report is to be presented, and of the Board Policy on Treatment of Staff, and Section 5.J of Employee Policy, setting out the rights of employees to complain about non-compliance of management with Board and co-op policy. Publication also to include contact details for the two Worker-Owner Directors.

F) Display in each Unit of the full text of the Board Policy on Treatment of Staff and Section 5.J of Employee Policy, setting out the rights of employees to complain about non-compliance of management with Board and co-op policy. Display also of contact details for the two Worker-Owner Directors.

G) With regards to 2020, consideration of my proposals at the Goal 2 owner's discussion. Namely the establishment of a Board Committee of Owners, with the remit to monitor 2020, ensure compliance with the Goals, and with co-op policy in their implementation. I wrote to the Board at the time with some further proposals about overcoming objections to Goal 3. They form no part of this Complaint Process, but they might serve to alleviate concerns nevertheless.

None of the above would preclude the existing terms of co-op policy on employee inclusion in decision-making and transparency of decisions. But they might make compliance by management easier.

At this point, I offer two options for taking this specific Complaint further. I have already set out in summary what I believe should be addressed by Formal Appeal to Ruffin.

As a less formal alternative, I would suggest this. Ruffin and I could meet to discuss this e-mail. Consideration could be given to the proposals for establishing a more formal structure for employee inclusion in decision-making going forward. Plus, some sort of statement could be forthcoming consequent upon this Complaint. There is no need for the statement to mention this Complaint. And it could look something like this:

  • A two-page statement delivered to all employees about decision-making in the co-op.
  • An introduction reminding employees of the co-op policy including employees in decision-making and requiring transparency.
  • A general statement about the difficulties now experienced with the co-op becoming bigger, but the desire to meet new contingencies.
  • The statement about Panzanella, citing the need for transparency about the way the decision was made.
  • Reference to 2020. Reminding employees of the Goals. And making the statement that was enunciated above, namely that employees will be invited to participate in the specifics of implementing those Goals.
  • A statement that management are considering adjustments to gross margins. Setting out the reasons (along the lines in your response). Mentioning that some adjustments have been posted as a trial. And inviting feedback.
  • A statement raising the possibility of a more formal structure and process for employee inclusion in decision-making, and inviting suggestions and comments. Perhaps raising some of the ideas above.
  • Ending with details of the two Worker-Owner Directors, for employees to be able to contact to discuss any matter further.
This might be a bit much for one statement. It might be better spread out over an immediate statement and subsequent Market Messengers.

Dependent on a positive response from you and/or Ruffin to this suggested collective alternative, I might then be prepared to waive any further Formal Appeal to Ruffin and/or to the Board of these specific Complaints.

Once more, thank you for taking the time to put so much effort into the response to my Formal Complaint.

All the best,

[As is now required by another section of WSM Employee Policy, I make the point that these are my views alone, not those of WSM. Not yet. I also make the point that I am publishing this e-mail because I believe in total transparency. There is nothing here which the community which owns and supports our co-op should not know. The Human Resources Manager's response to my Formal Complaint was delivered to me in hard copy. I presume so that I could not publish it electronically ... ]

Monday, February 17, 2014

We're Co-operative Owners, Not Marks

The Weaver Street Market Co-operative employee Market Messenger this past week offers more disheartening evidence that some on the WSM corporate office management team would prefer to forget that we are a co-op. It inspired a letter from me to the WSM Merchandising Manager, James Watts, which letter I think is self-explanatory.

I will continue to attempt to stem the tide, with about as much luck, I dare say, as we are having in the US and the UK avoiding the consequences of the weather. But where stemming does not work, I will at least continue to bear witness:

"Dear James,

The front page of the employee ‘Market Messenger’ this past week has an article headlined “Have you noticed some new things happening with our Marketing and Merchandising Programs?” The article invites we workers to offer theories for what is working and what is not. I accept the invitation.

So. Yes, I have noticed. And what is happening is likely not a very effective use of resources. And most certainly is in contravention of our purpose as a co-operative.

On the face of it, you seem merely to be announcing changes in the style of leaflets on offer. But it is more than that.

Your article is peppered with phrases like making offers ‘more exciting to owners,’ ‘what motivates our customers,’ ‘product promotions that will bring in new shoppers, or motivate extra purchasing from our established customers.’

James, that is the language of conventional grocery stores, which employ all sorts of expensive marketing gimmickry to entice punters to buy goods they likely would not otherwise buy.

That is not the purpose of a co-operative grocery store. And we shouldn’t be doing it. More than that, we don’t need to.

Co-operatives exist to provide for the common needs of our owners. That is not merely an idealistic slogan. It is the essence of our business model.

We have 18,000 local owners. If you want to know what they want to buy, don’t sit in a remote Hillsborough office scanning impersonal sales figures, don’t play mind games, don’t experiment, don’t motivate, don’t entice – just ask them. It’s the co-operative thing to do. And it doesn’t cost as much.

Old-style marketing and merchandising and the consequent sales figures may have a place in helping us to determine what our owners want. But a limited place. However, if we adhere slavishly to the whole expensive and reactive exercise, treating it as some sort of infallible religion, we risk not only making ourselves more remote to our owners, but also wasting a lot of money.

You cite the example of a recent weekend Wellness promotion, comparing consequent sales with the same weekend last year, noting they were less, and concluding that ‘this promotion wasn’t enticing enough to bring customers into the store.’

Leaving aside my point that this sort of approach is antithetical to the co-operative ethos, it just doesn’t make any kind of commercial sense. You do not have enough information from sales alone to be able to make a sensible comparison.

Was there a more interesting basketball game on this year, which kept people home? Was the weather worse? Has the weather been worse generally this winter, encouraging folks to look after themselves better, hence requiring less Wellness this late in the Winter?

You don’t get this control information from sales figures. You get it from people. And that again is what sets co-operative ownership as a business model apart from conventional and impersonal marketing gimmickry.

The most important lesson that economists, micro and macro, have learned in the past forty years is that they are wrong to base their predictions, comparisons and conclusions on models which treat human beings as identical rational economic agents. People are people, not economic robots. They behave irrationally. And no two of them are the same. If you want to know what they want, ask them. Better still, let them choose.

That is the lesson behind localism, devolution of power and economic democracy. It is the impetus behind the growth in mutualism and co-operation. Well, in most other co-operatives aside from ours, where apparently we still believe that we can best understand our owners and provide for their common needs by pretending they are merely sales figures.

So. Share you figures. But why not place more emphasis instead on an intimate and personal owner-driven merchandising effort, rather than a reactive and remote marketing-driven one?

Why not set up consumer-owner product discussion groups? Why not encourage all marketing and merchandising staff to spend at least a day a week behind a counter, talking one-on-one with owners? Why not have an online forum, to allow owners to talk with each other, and give you regular feedback?

And why not do the asking before you make changes, not after?

I do not believe that relying on a hit-and-miss marketing effort is any more empirical than employing the co-operative option of simply asking our owners what they want. I do, however, believe that in terms of all of the investment required it is more expensive.

I think it only fair to mention that I am placing this letter on my blog. Along with the caveat that these are my views, and not the official views of WSM. You made your changes public. I’m making my suggested alternatives public.

All the best in co-operation,

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Should Economic Democracy Look Like In A Co-op?

OMG, Geoff. Is this going to be a top-heavy scold, when snow is about to hit NC and hurricane force winds are disrupting the UK? No. I think we are all suffering enough from forces of nature at the moment.

No. Think of this as a gentle ramble, compared to my more normal ten-mile forced hike with fifty-pound backpack. Just a slow meander through thoughts, as my formal complaint about lack of employee involvement in economic democracy within Weaver Street Market Co-operative gently meanders its way through the process.

I try not to complain without offering remedy. I have little time for folks who whine, but do not even attempt to use the mechanisms available to effect change. That is what my current formal complaint is all about: this single employee of WSM using the Employee Policies that exist, to encourage compliance by the management of WSM with their own Employee Policies, allowing for employee inclusion in decision-making.

So. What is ‘economic democracy’? As defined by Gar Alperovitz (whom we invited to address our most recent Annual Meeting, because we feel ourselves to be a part of the economic democracy the virtues of which he preaches), it is an enterprise economy where the enterprises are not only democratically-owned by the community but also democratically-controlled.

WSM is democratically-owned by the community. It is not democratically-controlled. How so? Hmm. WSM is a worker-consumer hybrid, owned by both workers and consumers. Forget a long detailed and boring monologue about different forms of democratic control, ask yourself this: is there any recognizable process for democratic accountability of decision-making within WSM to consumers or workers? Either involvement in the making of the decisions or monitoring of them afterwards?

Ooh, ooh, yes. The Board of Directors. Fine. Answer me this: when, since its inception, has the Board of WSM ever overturned a decision of the WSM corporate office management team? I’ll tell you. Never.

We may pretend the Board exercises democratic control. But it does not. It is a fan club. Why? Because its members, good men and women true, have allowed themselves to be conned into accepting the definition of their role by the very people (the WSM corporate office management team) they are supposed to be monitoring.

That same Board can decide to chart its own course any day it wants to. And then start to make strategy, in concert with its owners. Begin properly to monitor implementation of its strategy by the management team. Meet its remit generally to protect the sanctity of the purpose of WSM as a co-op (economic democracy), and specifically to ensure compliance by the operations (management and staff) of WSM with the WSM Mission Statement and Board Policy.

Do all this and maintain integrity with the John Carver model of corporate governance, which WSM states it supports and which model is fully compatible with economic democracy. A model which the Board of WSM believes it is implementing successfully (although it is not), because that Board allows itself to be indoctrinated in the ‘proper’ implementation of John Carver by the WSM corporate office management team, rather than designing its own orientation. Sounds like a long-playing record, doesn’t it?

So. No top-down democratic control by owners. What about bottom-up democratic accountability to workers? Well, the policies exist. I’m using them. Too few employees know about them, or how to use them because they are not told. And their own Worker-Owner Directors never visit them. Why not? Cf. fan club.

I’ve been with WSM about nine years now. I’ve seen a gradual decline in democratic inclusion. And I’ve heard the reasons. They have been offered quite openly. Everything from ‘we didn’t like the outcome of the last democratic exercise’ [I kid you not] to ‘we were elected/appointed to make those decisions’ to ‘geez, it’s awfully time-consuming’ to ‘gosh, only two people offered feedback.’

Hmm. I’m going to assume this post is being read by natural democrats, and I’m going to assume I don’t need to discuss any of those reasons. Just to say, they’re crap. Democracy is democracy. Policy is policy. The policy in WSM is for employee inclusion in decision-making. Period. Don’t like it. Go be a manager in Wal-Mart.

To be fair, some offer a more thoughtful retort to my claims of lack of economic democracy. And that is that co-operation is an ownership model, not a business model. Again, hmm.

I will say this. Co-operation finds many forms. But my bottom line is to invite you to check out the ICA definition of co-operation. It talks about democratic control. That is business model, not just ownership model. Then check out our own WSM Mission Statement. Much like a Constitution, that Statement is the primary source of all policy in our co-op. And it is a social statement of business model, not just ownership model.

Why all the intensity all of a sudden? Do you want a history of my advocacy on the issue of decision-making within WSM? Of course you don’t. Cf. Snow and gales. Ok. Simple answer: we are currently engaged in the exercise of designing our course for the next ten years (Vision 2020), and we seem to have leapt from management vision to management implementation without going through employee discussion, review, adaptation, re-consultation and consensual conclusion – er, as WSM Employee Policy demands.

So. I put together my formal complaint to offer a not-so-gentle nudge to managers to get them to read their own Employee Policy. And have been surprised to date by how few of them have read that Employee Policy. And/or understand what it should entail. I’ll keep you posted.

As for consumers, I leave it to you good folks to attend Board meetings and to start asking your Board to explain exactly what they are doing democratically to control decision-making in your co-op on your behalf – and with your inclusion.