Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Democratization of Decision-Making

What does it all mean, Geoff? What do you keep bleating on about? Well, what I want, in a nutshell, is for my very favorite co-op to comply with the precepts of co-operation and, indeed, with its own stated policy, and make decision-making in our co-op more democratic by involving owners and workers in the making of the important decisions.

And here’s the thing. As this linked article from the London Guardian newspaper makes clear (in 2008), this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky weirdo hippy freak utopia; even corporatist businesses are beginning to understand that, if you engage owners and workers in important decision-making, this makes them more invested in the successful implementation of the decisions. Kind of makes curious sense, doesn’t it?

But in a co-op, democratization of decision-making isn’t just some cute idea to make us more productive. It is the very essence of our business model. What sets us apart from corporatist commercial entities. It is the bedrock of the International Co-operative Alliance definition of co-operation (which WSM merrily quotes all over our co-op web-site), namely that we are only a co-op if we are democratically-controlled by our owners, both worker-owners and consumer-owners.

And here’s the thing. The definition doesn’t stop at ‘democratically-owned.’ It says ‘democratically-controlled.’ And not democratically controlled by just a few owners (say, the ones in our corporate office management team). No. All owners. And not just the Board. It doesn’t say ‘democratically-controlled by representatives.’ It says. Sigh. ‘Democratically-controlled.’

But there’s more. In the case of workers, we actually have an Employee Policy which states very clearly that we get to be democratically involved as the decisions are being made.

There has been some confusion about this. Let me clear it up. Find a copy of the Employee Policy Handbook. First page. At the bottom. Board Policy: ‘Treatment of Staff.’ It states:

“With respect to treatment of paid and volunteer staff, the general manager … may not:

4) For paid staff, cause or allow a decision-making standard that is not transparent or does not allow for opportunity to participate in decisions and shape the guidelines for decisions.”

That’s it. It’s as simple as that. We workers are supposed to be involved in decision-making. Not told about it afterwards, not asked for our comments, but involved in the making of the decisions themselves.

That’s what makes us Weaver Street Market Co-operative, half-owned by its workers, who are supposed to be directly involved in decision-making.

And not WalMart Corporation, owned by a few, who make the decisions without any reference to their workers at all.

Yeah, yeah. Ok. Big deal. So, I get to choose the color of Ruffin’s drapes. But who cares? Why should I want to?

Well, it’s a bit more than choosing the curtains. We are supposed to be directly involved in making decisions, for example, about where we are heading. How projects are undertaken. What we do when they go wrong. In fact, the whole point of being involved is to try to prevent them going wrong.

Like that happens. Er. Yes, it does. It is happening right now. Did you feel involved in the decision-making that set our goals for the next ten years (‘Vision 2020’)? Were you involved in the decision to raise our department margins by 50%? Do you even know why that happened? Who made the decision about Panzanella? You?

And here’s the one that’s most relevant. First, a quick caveat. I am beyond delighted that my mates in Carrboro are finally getting their long-overdue store refit. If there had been an opportunity to have a vote on that project, my hand would have been the one highest in the air.

But. It became obvious that, as the project was underway, things were not going as the few in the corporate office had planned (on their own – yes, I’m making the point). How did we know? Well, not because we were told (heaven forbid). But because some of us ain’t stupid, and we saw the signs.

I made some … um … gentle yet insistent enquiries (hey, I’m a pussycat!). And the answer was that nothing was wrong. The last employee Market Messenger makes clear this is not the case at all. There were two huge matters that had been completely overlooked. And which will now involve more work, more expense, and likely more interference with normal store operations.

This is not the first time this has happened. It happens all the time. It happened with the last exercise in capital projects, back in 2008, when we built the Hillsborough store and the Food House. And the miscalculations by a few put us $10 million in debt – a debt which is still $7 million, and which costs us $500,000 in bank interest payments each year.

WSM and the money that we workers make with the sweat of our brow is not some convenient piggy bank for a few somewhere to spend or misspend on whatever takes their fancy.

We are a co-operative, where all are equal, where we choose to entrust a few with making decisions that are supposed wisely to husband our funds. And. The policy that demands that we workers be involved in the decision-making that spends our money, that rectifies mistakes and holds accountable those who made the mistakes. That policy is our safeguard that the entrusted few behave themselves.

When we, each one of us, not just me, when we insist on compliance with that policy, we act to ensure that these cock-ups do not occur. That is why I keep bleating on about the democratization of decision-making. It involves us. And it protects us.

Oh, and when you check up on Employee Policy, in that same section ‘Treatment of Staff,’ you will find the policy statement that we workers are allowed (without retaliation) to report to the Board of Directors whenever management are not in compliance with the policy that demands they include us in decision-making. Which policy (reporting management - you can find the specifics of how in Section 5.J) I have been merrily employing these past few months – http://tinyurl.com/kpwo4cn and http://tinyurl.com/mpclsxx.

And you know, I don’t have to be the only one. You can do this too. At the very least, why not vote for a candidate in the autumn election for a Worker-Owner Board Director who actually states baldly that he or she will enforce democratization of decision-making in our co-op?

In the meantime, after some more gentle head-bangi … I’m sorry, I misspoke, after some more gentle encouragement, I have been told that in the next few weeks we will see the figures for the end of the Third Quarter. I have specifically asked that those figures address the true financial situation within our co-op, including that relating to the Carrboro Refit overrun.

And again, let me make this clear. I want the very best for my Carrboro friends. But I want US to be making the decisions about how we deal with the overrun. Not just the few who made the errors of judgment in the first place.

In which regard, I have also asked that, if there are decisions that need to be made arising out of our current financial situation, we workers start to be involved in the making of them. We’ll see.

Oh. And two final heads-up:

1) You won’t see that Carrboro Refit overrun in the 3Q figures. Nor in the 2014 Annual Report. All further Refit overrun work has been postponed until after June. June is the end of the 2014 Financial Year. So, the overrun has been postponed until the 2015 Financial Year. Clever, eh?

2) If 3Q reports a truly healthy profit on the way, remember this, the Employee Policy on inclusion in decision-making specifically states that workers should be involved in the decisions about what WSM does with its profit.

Bet you didn’t know that, did ya … ?