Sunday, July 6, 2014

Worker-Owner Dividend 2014 [Part 3] - The Background

So. If our very favorite grocery co-op is supposed to be so very democratic in its decision-making processes, how come all the major decisions (policy and implementation) are made by its founder and now General Manager, Ruffin Slater?

Hey Geoff, what brought on this question? Ah. The fact that it is the end of the 2014 fiscal year, time to set the size of the 2014 worker-owner dividend, and my discovery that WSM workers are supposed to be involved in setting the size of that worker-owner dividend. You can catch up here.

Right. Back to my opening question. To which the answer is really quite simple: the structures and systems exist to allow Weaver Street Market Co-operative to be democratic; but, over the years, they have been shunted to one side. Here’s how it works:

Policy is supposed to be set by the co-op's owners, both consumer (18,000 in number) and worker (220). The (for the most part) elected WSM Board of Directors is supposed to spend its time connecting with WSM owners, gathering information as to their common needs and then fashioning those needs into coherent policy.

Does this happen? No. Why? In a nutshell? Because the GM has plonked himself on the Board as well.

Policy Governance within WSM is supposed to be modeled after a system called ... well ... 'Policy Governance.' As are most other grocery co-op's in the US.

The model was devised to stop a bunch of democratic-minded owners marching into the grocery store every day and telling the staff what to do - mayhem! And to streamline policy-making, so that said owners and workers were not merrily holding meetings in the toilet every five minutes, making incoherent policy on the hoof.

The model is actually a joy of simplicity. The owners do not interfere directly with the operations of the grocery store. They do their policy-making in their own meetings. And then impart that policy to the GM. Who, in turn, imparts it to operations (i.e. the workforce - managers and workers).

But. And this is the first important point. But. Under the ‘Policy Governance’ model, the GM is not supposed to sit on the co-op Board. He is present merely to accept the owners'/Board's instructions, and report them to operations. But not so in WSM.

Ruffin put himself on the Board in the very first instance. And, over the years, the Board has been reduced to no more than a talking shop, which gathers squat from its owners, and sits there quietly, as it is told what is policy by the GM.

So. The GM sets co-op policy, gets his tame Board to rubber stamp it, and then returns to operations to tell them how to implement it. Which, again, is not how it is supposed to work. The workforce is supposed to decide collectively how to implement Board policy.

There is a WSM Board Policy, called 'Treatment of Staff.' Employees can find it iterated on the very first page of their Employee Policy Handbook. Others can find it on page three of Board Policy to be found on the WSM web-site.

It states that all staff will be allowed the opportunity to participate in decisions and set the guidelines for decisions. In 2007, a consultation exercise was held with all employees to set guidelines for what decisions the workforce should be involved in making. One of these was the setting of the size of the annual worker-owner dividend - hence this current campaign of mine.

Employees can find the document in question by going online on a computer in their breakroom. When '' will immediately show up. Go to 'HR & Training.' In about the middle, you will find a document entitled, 'Decisions that require staff input.' Read it. No. 3 includes setting of the size of the annual WSM worker-owner dividend. Which, as I explain elsewhere, we workers can’t do unless we first set the size of the WSM profit. The two go hand-in-hand.

Blimey. So, why aren't we involved in all of these decisions, if the bloody exercise was actually held in 2007? Short answer: the Great Recession. The longer answer is that the GM doesn't want workers being involved in these decisions. Never did. But the exercise has kept us quiet.

And the GM has developed a wonderful subterfuge to get round the policy in any event. The ‘Policy Governance’ model requires one point of contact between the Board and operations. A point to act merely as a conduit between the two entities.

But our GM has taken that conduit function, and turned it into a fulcrum of power. Not least because he sits on the Board. Which he shouldn't.

So. First, he makes sure that the only information the Board gets about operations is that which he wants them to have. Then, he controls the Board discussion. And finally, he is the sole flow of information back to operations, who believe that the decisions he is imparting to them are those of the Board, when, in fact, they are merely his own.

And this is where it gets really cute. If and when a process is ever engaged in where workers are involved in the making of a decision to implement policy, and the feedback goes against the GM, he overrides it, stating that the ‘Policy Governance’ model demands that he, and he alone, be responsible to the Board for the financial health of the co-op.

Er, not quite, Ruffin.

What the ‘Policy Governance’ model, what Board policy states, is that the GM, in his corporate definition as the collective voice of the workforce, in other words the collegial personification of the GM, not him personally, the collegial personification of the GM, is responsible for ensuring that Board policy is implemented in a way that does not put the co-op in financial jeopardy.

It does not mean that the GM, and the GM alone, is the one who makes the decisions about the co-op's financial health. Those decisions are to be made by operations, namely the workforce, collectively, collegially. And the GM then reports those collegial decisions to the Board, who understand that it is operations collectively which is responsible to the Board for the financially-effective implementation of their policy.

But Ruffin, wielding his influence as a Board member also, has managed over these years past to create the false impression, among Board and workforce alike, that, at the end of the day, he and he alone should be the one making the financial decisions. An incorrect assumption.

So it was that, a few years back, when staff were asked if they agreed to extending opening hours, and said staff replied overwhelmingly 'no,' Ruffin actually wrote a two-page diktat to all employees, baldly stating that he was going to override co-op policy and the expressed democratic wishes of the workforce, and implement an extension of the working hours, in any event. And his stated rationale was that, notwithstanding the consultation exercise, he and he alone was responsible for making financial decisions.

And he will likely use this fallacy again when presented with the demand that he comply with co-op policy, and involve all staff in setting the size of the WSM profit in 2014, and then in setting the size of the worker-owner dividend for 2014.

What can we do?

Well, the immediate response should be for all WSM employees to demand of their unit management that we be involved in these two decisions anyway. And in all decisions covered by the 2007 consultation exercise, going forward. Consumers can pitch in by tackling store managers, when they see them. All of this is happening right now. So, no time like the present.

The longer-term solution is to remove the GM from the WSM Board, and to re-iterate that his role is not that of primary decision-maker within WSM, whether of policy or its implementation. But merely that of conduit between the policy-making body of owners, namely the WSM Board, and the body which makes the decisions as to how policy should be implemented, namely the WSM workforce.

[As always, I state that these are my personal views, and in no way represent the collective opinions of the WSM Board, the WSM General Manager, Eric Cantor or the little old lady who feeds the pigeons in 'Mary Poppins.']