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.