Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Father's 90th Birthday Celebration

I’m at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. And it’s a beautiful sunrise. No better time to reflect on life, death, and what the heck is going on in my life. Half a world away, at another seaside resort in England, my family gathers to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. I’m not there, because I was not invited.

No. This is not going to be a rant. It is just a reflection. I read on my Facebook feed of sisters traveling, cousins sharing breakfast in seaside hotels I remember all too well from the political games I used to play there, when attending conference back in the Eighties.

All is well with my life. I have few regrets. Much lies before me. And right now, with a huge orange sun rising in the sky, my only feeling is one of gentle happiness that members of my far-flung family are gathering in a group that will likely never repeat. Not least because, as the sun rises here, we all know these are my father’s final, sunset years.

I hardly know my father. He spent much of my youth traveling for his job with American Express. Which is an irony, since it was that traveling that had me born and raised in England in the first place.

As kids, we all of us form very definitive views about our parents. Almost all of which are tossed aside, as we become older, and realize that parenthood and childhood are a combined crapshoot. They were never trained. And we had no court of appeal.

All too often, emotional dynamics are set in motion, which then become ingrained, long before we are able to prevent them distorting our own growth, careers and relationships, not least with our own children.

If we are lucky, some of us are blessed with accidental discovery, which sets the world in new perspective. When my mother died, my sister and I found mementoes, which cast a new light on my father.

He wasn’t the cold, barren patriarch, who dedicated his life to career rather than family. For whom children were a fun past time when we were young. But all too difficult to cope with once we developed into thinking adolescents.

His mother, wife to his father the Bishop, made him give his favorite toy to the poor when he was nine. He crafted a hand-written newspaper at much the same age, declaring to the world his deeply held desire to be a scientist. A rocket scientist. He wanted to be an astronaut.

At the tender age of 18, and my father was a very tender, young man, he flew bombing missions over Japan, with his B-29 squadron. Somehow, between that newsletter, the upbringing within a missionary family, the demands of Boston Brahmin expectation, the cruel rite of passage in the USAF, and my arrival, with my twin sister, in 1956, on another USAF air base, just outside of London, the fire of earlier ambition had been doused.

He had become the bureaucratic functionary, within the sprawling American financial empire, where he remained for the rest of his working life, until 1990.

His parents made him. He made me. He was never a bad person. I realize now. Just repressed. Maybe this is why he left my mother after 30 years of marriage? And then a second wife and two young children, a few years later?

And yet, even though he may not have been able to pursue the vocation he dreamed of, he was not a casual or a bitter man. Not overtly. His dedication may not have helped me emotionally. But it supported two families and eight children. And led to a third marriage, which itself has lasted for 28 years.

My father does not believe he failed anyone. Not his wives. Not his children. Not himself. He does not like to be told that maybe he could have done better. Which is why I am here. And he is there. Or maybe we were never meant to gel. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, as I discovered only two years ago, he has never believed me to be his son. My mother was a saint, but no angel.

So. How do I feel? Right now.

I love the man who raised me. I love him for his dedication. I miss him. I missed him growing up. And I would like to spend a moment, in real time, thanking him now. But, even if invited, I could not be at his 90th party. To praise him. Whatever made him. Whatever passed between him and my mother. He did not treat her well after the divorce. And loyalty is the value I hold most important.

I have been blessed. With tragedy. For each moment of set-back in my life has brought with it the opportunity to learn and grow. The curse of boarding school made me strong. The lack of a father made me sensitive. The death of my closest friend in formative years gave me breadth and a willingness to understand flaw, in me and in others. Alcoholism, and especially its recovery, allowed me, finally, after years of self-hate, allowed me to be at peace with myself.

It is from that peace, this past week or so, that I have found myself able to talk with one or two of my sisters attending this week, to help them come to terms with what the trip means for them. What it should mean. And what they should leave behind. By and large, my father has meant well. Celebrate that. For myself, I wish him only the best. What was done, is done.

I sit here, with the sun now ascendant in the eastern sky. Calm. As I celebrate my own good fortune and good friends. So many of whom have helped me in the past few years to let go of the past, to look up from the fears and anger of daily drudge, and to envision and discover that part of me which so often in others becomes repressed in a childhood of parental mistakes, and youthful hurt.

I like my life. I like myself. My publisher likes my book. And my mates like my music. At the age of 58, the life I had, the relationship with the man who raised and molded me, gently morphs from regrettable nightmare, into a humorous, awkward, Robin William’s monologue of mishap and hilarity.

I hold no grudge against a decent man, doing his best to cope with his own demons, and find a tortured path through complexities for which no-one prepared him. I sigh. And thank life for allowing him to see his 90th year. A life which now permits me to be the rocket scientist he so wanted to be. Maybe the cycle has been broken?

Monday, August 25, 2014

I Voted For Byron Wall

In the 2014 Election for a Worker-Owner Board Director of the Weaver Street Market Co-operative (voting taking place now; voting papers in your workplace mailbox), there is a vividly stark choice between the two candidates, summed up by two short excerpts from their election messages:

Byron Wall (video - "I am dedicated to representing workers' perspectives on the operation of our co-op to the board at large - and believe this would be my primary responsibility as a worker-owner representative to the Board of Directors."

Jon McDonald: " ... it's such a privilege to work for a company that invites us to the decision-making table."

Jon is one of the nicest people working in WSM. But Jon, we are officially a worker-consumer co-op. Even our General Manager, Ruffin Slater, publicly declares that we are a unique institution, precisely because we are half-owned by our workers.

Being at the decision-making table is not a privilege, for which we should await invitation. It is our right.

This is not merely hot air. It is decided co-op policy. The Board Policy 'Treatment of Staff' baldly states that all workers should be involved in major-decision-making. At the moment we are not. As you are about to find out at the much-dissipated annual unit meetings.

If we workers want that to change, we will not achieve it by voting for the nicest person in the co-op, who is waiting to be invited for his input. It will be accomplished by the candidate who states that he's going to have a suggestions box for workers in every unit, and he's then going to every Board Meeting to tell 'em what workers want.

And that's why I voted for Byron Wall last Friday.

If you are not yet a worker-owner, and you want to become one, and vote for Byron too, write to Brenda Camp, WSM Owner Services Co-ordinator, (, or talk with your manager.

[I know Byron will taunt me mercilessly for the pic of him I lifted from Facebook. But I prefer it!]

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Divide and Conquer?

Major bloody sigh. It’s Weaver Street Market Co-operative Annual Report, Annual Meeting of Owners, Annual Employee Store Meetings time again. And, once again, I’m driving myself nuts trying to work out what the heck is the actual financial situation with our co-op. So. Letter to General Manager. Major bloody sigh:

Dear Ruffin,

I wrote to you at the beginning of August giving you notice that I wanted on the agenda of the Southern Village annual employee store meeting an item where you would present your proposals for a process this coming year to allow employees to design the mechanism by which we are included in major decision-making within Weaver Street Market, in compliance with co-op policy. This item also to include a meaningful opportunity to discuss your presentation.

I now read on my breakroom noticeboard that you have decided this year, for the very first time, to divide the store meeting into several smaller meetings, all on the same day.

I would be grateful if I could attend each of the smaller Southern Village employee store meetings, in order to be present for the presentation I have requested. And to be present on the clock. For your information, the day on which these meetings are taking place is one of my days off. To be honest, I am not happy to be using my or the co-op’s time in this fashion. But this is an important matter. You are still not in compliance with co-op policy. I asked for an item to be on the agenda of a meeting. And you, not I, turned that one meeting into several.

I’m not going to re-run all the points about the co-op policy in question. It exists. It was fully discussed by the workforce in the co-op in 2007. We determined which sorts of decisions should be included. The policy demands that we employees also be included in determining the manner in which we are included. And in all respects, you are in breach of this policy. Not least with respect to the setting of the size of this year’s worker-owner dividend. Which is why I asked for the item on the agenda.

I also give you notice that I will be asking some fairly searching questions about our finances in the past year, and their current state. I think you have been and are being less than forthcoming. And again, this is why I think it more important than ever that you begin to comply with the co-op policy on worker inclusion in decision-making.

If that policy were being properly implemented, then I wouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to read the runes when its comes to our finances. Because we employees would have been involved in all the important financial decisions. As co-op policy demands.

I look forward to engaging with you at the Southern Village employee store meeting. All of them.

All the best,

Ok. So. Why, Geoff? Why, bloody why? What is so important about this infernal co-op policy that demands that employees be included in major decision-making?

You know. If everything was going swimmingly. Dividend big. Pay raises nice. Occasional meeting or two, where we got to blow off steam. No silly demands in the workplace. Well, I wouldn’t mind. But let’s take a quick glance at the last year.

A year ago, we were told our co-op was in the best of financial health. Barely two weeks after the Annual Meeting of Owners, it was announced that our long-time restaurant was being closed.

Then margins were dramatically increased. In my department alone, the margin went up by 50%. This is not a paper exercise. I am harried regularly to improve, improve, improve. Why, I shoot back? We’re making a handsome profit. What’s it all about? We are not told.

We clearly and quite heavily overran the budget on renovating the Carrboro store. I was told we didn’t. A month later, the figures come out, proving that we did, by several hundred thousand dollars. With a whole bunch more being dumped into the 2015 Financial Year.

I attend a Board Meeting, where there is this strange Paperhand Puppet conversation among Directors about how we need sales increases, year on year, of 10%, if we are to pay for all the Vision 2020 goals. But we’re only making an average of 5%. Huh? No mention of this among we mere minions on the shopfloor. Just managers increasingly poking us in the back saying work harder.

We were never properly included in the setting of the 2020 goals. And we are now not being included in the decisions being made to fund those Goals. In breach of co-op policy.

At the end of the Third Quarter, our rolling profit was down about $400,000 on last year, at about $100,000.

During this Third Quarter, we began this weird marketing exercise, called WOW, where we literally gave away stuff at the weekend. I’m not making this up. We were actually told that prices had been reduced so much that, even though weekly sales were up by $100,000, from $500,000 to $600,000, we were making next-to-no profit on the extra sales.

I’m not an idiot. Companies that engage in fire sales to raise cash are not companies in the glow of financial good health.

WOW continued into and through the Fourth Quarter. At the end of which we were told that, miraculously, our profit had increased to $500,000.

What I love about those in charge is that they really think we’re dumb enough not to know that this is a make-believe profit, likely created by dumping the cost of goods for WOW for the last month of the financial year into the 2015 Financial Year.

In the past few weeks, prices around the stores have gone up dramatically. About 40 cents on a cup of coffee.

In the meantime, I’m not convinced that this new wheeze to divide our annual employee store meetings is a gesture towards more intimate democracy. I think it has much more to do with not losing sales by having to close stores.

And so on. And so on.

You don’t have to be Einstein (and I used to a be a six figure management and marketing consultant) to know that something is not quite right in the state of Denmark.

I write letters. I get no answer. I attend Board Meetings. I can’t make head nor tail of what is going on. And the last time a Worker-Owner Board Director turned up in one of our stores to chat with workers about the state of the nation was the last time he wanted my vote.

Hence my preoccupation with the co-op policy demanding that workers be involved in the major decision-making within the co-op, and also in the design of the mechanism that facilitates such inclusion.

If we are involved, then we don’t each have to have a degree in astrology to work out what is going on. Plus, we can, as we are permitted to do, we can turn around and say, hang on, why, followed by no.

Look at it another way. I’m pretty sure some manager or another will come tapping on my shoulder saying, Geoff, you’ve got it all wrong. Guess what? I wouldn’t be getting it all wrong if senior management complied with co-op policy, and included us in all of these important decisions. Because we would then all be privy to the same information, wouldn’t we?

Weaver Street Market is not the personal fiefdom of the few who attend the senior managers’ meetings each week. It is a co-operative. Which has policy. Which applies to everyone.

I get we’ve got bigger. I get that it is difficult to implement this policy. Which is why it is time to have a full consultation about designing mechanisms which will allow for rolling and regular inclusion of employees in major decision-making. Which is why I asked for the item on my store meeting agenda.

And I’m getting antsy about it because – and I’m sure there is no connection – as soon as I asked for the agenda item, the store meeting got sub-divided. Let’s see if the response to my letter is inclusion or exclusion.

[Oh. And one more thing. In my last letter to Ruffin, I asked what had happened to $1.5 million in profit, beyond the $500,000 announced, which was clearly evident in the figures he had released for the end of the Fourth Quarter?

Along comes the Annual Report. Another miracle. Cost of Goods has gone up by – wait for it – $2 million. And the gross profit down by – you guessed it – $1.5 million. I mean, major bloody sigh …

In the meantime, my usual caveat about these being my thoughts, and not reflecting anything official from WSM.]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Democratic Decision-Making - Victory #4

On the subject of democratic inclusion of employees in decision-making within Weaver Street Market Co-operative; using the system, rather than just whining; and even small victories being worthy of celebration ... I would like to direct all WSM employees to the post in the bottom right-hand corner of this week's employee Market Messenger, which I know few of you ever actually read (!).

Last year, I began a general campaign, which still continues, to 'encourage' management within WSM to comply with the co-op policy which demands that workers be involved in major decisions which affect their workplace within WSM.

One of the specific targets was the decision which had been taken, without worker inclusion, to end paper paychecks. I wrote to the HR Manager requesting that there be proper process, inviting feedback. And she complied.

I do not know what other feedback there was. But I do know that I wrote vehemently opposing such a move. I have and had no problem with folks choosing to go paperless - if that is their voluntary choice. I do and did mind the choice being made for me and for us.

The post in today's MM announces that, although you may opt for paperless if you wish, paper checks will remain an available alternative. Yay for democracy. Yay for the system working. Yay for managers understanding that co-op policy applies to them, as much as it does to shopfloor workers.

There is still a long way to go before management are fully and properly in compliance with the totality of this co-op policy. For example, I will be battling away at the Southern Village store meeting and beyond for workers to be involved in the setting of the worker-owner dividend. But a victory is still a victory.

If you want to see more democratic inclusion of employees in WSM decision-making, then be sure to vote for Byron Wall in the 2014 Election of a WSM Worker-Owner Director, ballot papers in your mailbox as of August 22 (next Friday).

If you want to vote for more democratic inclusion of employees in WSM decision-making, but are not yet a WSM worker-owner, there is still time. Contact Brenda Camp, WSM Owner Services Co-ordinator at,
 or talk with your manager.

It's really easy to become a worker-owner right now, and then you too can be a part of a democratic system that works - if you use it! And you can use it right away, by voting in this year's Worker-Owner Director Election.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, RIP

Well. I've now had 24 hours to come up with something a little more loquacious about Robin Williams than my explosion yesterday.

But you know, I don't want to post memorable scenes. This is a man who took his life through depression. I don't want to hide my feelings. Any more than he did with that same humor.

I don't want to compare myself to him. Yes, for the record, I am diagnosed hyperactive, bi-polar, manic depressive, and I have tailored my life so that I am able (for the moment) to avoid medication by removing stress from my life.

It's why (and I know many of you think this is funny, that's ok) I don't wear a watch, or have a smartphone in my back pocket, or own a calendar. If there is something going on I cannot immediately remember, then my life is too cluttered and stressed. That is my safeguard.

But I do not compare. He is dead. I am alive. There, but for the grace, go I. I just thank life and the universe that I have what Robin did not, in order to see the reason to live, another day.

For all my pretensions of wanting to be loquacious about his death. I don't. I want still to feel the raw emotion I did yesterday. Unfiltered. Untrammeled. No hiding behind clever words. Stale memorable moments. Just the raw feeling.

Why him? Why did you have to take him? Why did you have to go? I am sorry. I wish I had known you. I wish I could have held your hand. For a moment. To let you know. It's ok. Damn.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

When Is A Profit Not A Profit?

Sometimes, it's not easy to discern a victory as a victory. Even a partial one. You have to look really hard. But this week's WSM employee Market Messenger publishes the financial figures for the end of Financial Year 2014, and sort of invites feedback from workers as to what should be done about the worker-owner dividend.

Now, those of you paying attention will know that I've been running a mini-campaign to get the senior management of Weaver Street Market Co-operative to comply with co-op policy, and include employees in the making of important decisions, not least with respect to setting the size of the worker-owner dividend.

To be fair, asking we workers for some feedback is not exactly including us in the making of the important decisions. But it's a start. And for that, we should be grateful. Pause. Now. Let's move on to actually being involved in the decision-making, in order fully to comply with co-op policy.

Yup. A letter to the WSM General Manager:

"Hey Ruffin,

Thank you for putting a box into the WSM employee Market Messenger inviting workers to offer feedback on what the Board should decide about the worker-owner dividend. It is more than we have been offered in the past. So, thank you.

I note that, since our chat earlier this year, you have more than once included sections in the MM allowing workers to offer feedback. This is a start in complying with the WSM co-op policy which demands that employees be involved in the major decisions in our co-op which affect them. But I'm wondering, now that this small step has been achieved, is it really including workers in decision-making merely to ask for their feedback, sometimes after a decision has been taken?

Let's look at one of the most important decisions in which workers are supposed to be involved. One so important that it is specifically mentioned in that co-op policy. Namely, the setting of the size of the worker-owner dividend.

In this week's MM, you pretty much limit involvement to asking workers if we want to stick with the existing Board Policy about apportioning 50% of something you call profit to the worker-owner dividend. But co-op policy does not limit involvement merely to that aspect of setting the size of the worker-owner dividend. And I think you know that.

What is much more important is workers being involved in the decisions that determine the size of the pot from which that 50% is taken. Those are the decisions which truly define the notion of setting the size of the worker-owner dividend.

Now, you might come back, and use narrative which, with respect, has crept into financial presentations within WSM in the past few years, namely that there are financial decisions which are 'standard' and 'normal.' Not really decisions at all. Now, I think you know that is not really the case.

There are certain set financial figures, what we sell, what that cost, rent, bank interest, agreed salaries, and the like. But after that, decisions are made about what to do with the money that remains. What I call profit, whatever technical description you may give it. And those decisions do not operate by default. They are considered. They change. There are options. And, according to co-op policy, we workers should be involved in choosing which options.

Decisions like, how much do we set aside for capital projects, how much for salary increases, and ultimately, how much do we want to have left from which to take 50% for the worker-owner dividend?

These are important decisions. I mean, compare the figures in the MM with what happened last year. Sales of some $33 million this year. Last year, $32 million. Cost of goods for last year some $20 million. For this year, $19 million. Which is weird. Because our 'profit,' instead of going from last year's $826,909, to something in the order of $1.5 million to $2 million, actually decreased to $512, 022.

Wow. What happened to $1.5 million?

Actually, what happened was not a 'normal' or 'standard' default process. What happened was that someone made decisions. Those decisions had the effect of reducing the pot available for the dividends. And therefore, were hugely instrumental in setting the size of the worker-owner dividend. And workers were not involved in those decisions. In breach of co-op policy.

In fact, when one looks more closely, it is obvious that those decisions were not made after the end of this past financial year, but were made during the setting of the budget a year ago.

In other words, if you are to be in compliance with co-op policy, you need to include workers in the decisions that determine what will be done with all of the money after the set costs have been extracted from the earnings (what I call 'profit'), and you need to include workers during the budget-setting process.

Now, I grant, that assertion is arguable. And that is also the point. Co-op policy not only demands that workers be involved in major decisions that affect them, it also requires that we be involved in designing the process that ensures that workers are included in that decision-making. In other words, if my point is arguable, then it needs to be argued, and we workers should be involved in that 'argument.'

I understand that the co-op wide process which determined which decisions should include workers was held in 2007. Before the Great Recession skewed everything and everybody. I understand that, as a consequence of the Recession, we never got around to discussing the structures and processes that would be necessary to implement the policy in question properly and meaningfully. But, the Recession is now behind us. Maybe it is now time to have that co-op wide discussion?

My focus is on big co-op wide decisions. But a couple of work-mates have pointed out to me that the policy is not just limited to co-op wide decisions.

For example.

I had a work-mate say to me the other day, Geoff, if this policy means anything, then the huge decision just made to change a major strategy in our department, should have been made by the workers in the department. Um. Yes. But Ruffin, we have department meetings once in a blue moon. So, how can these decisions be made in compliance with co-op policy?

For example.

You presented at length to a recent Board Meeting how stores will have to start making tough decisions about whether we go on carrying products where we cannot compete with other stores. Big decisions. How can store employees be involved in those decisions, as co-op policy demands, if we have only one store meeting a year, and that meeting is given over mostly to managers making presentations?

In other words, there needs to be a fairly wide-ranging discussion in our co-op about how we now implement this policy in a way that works all the time and covers decisions that affect the co-op, the units and each department.

I think a good place to start such a discussion would be at the forthcoming unit meetings. So, I am now formally asking you to place on the agenda of my store meeting this year (it is up to other units what they want to do) an item where you will present your thoughts on instituting a process this next year, the purpose of which will be to allow workers to determine what structures and processes need to be put in place to give meaningful effect to the co-op policy which requires that all workers be involved in decisions which affect their departments, units and the co-op, in line with the consultation document produced in 2007. I would also be grateful if that item allowed a meaningful amount of time for discussion of your presentation afterwards.

It really is time that as a co-op we were properly and meaningfully in compliance with what is probably the single most important co-op policy affecting employees: their right to help design the future of our co-op. A co-op you keep telling the world we half own.

All the best,

Friday, August 1, 2014

Weavestock 2 -- THANKS !!

Thank you all at Weaver Street Market for making #Weavestock2 [] a huge success, weather notwithstanding.

Thanks to those who let it happen. To the marketing staff for organizing and promoting it. To all the good folk who turned up to support The Weave's employees in their musical acts - I reckon a crowd of about 150. And to all those acts for sharing their magic with us.

I'm sorry the rain finally intervened to prevent #ThreeTorches from performing. But a little birdie tells me that space is being made for them to perform in September.

So. Onto next year. When my biggest wish is that two years of success will encourage more artists from other units within Weaver Street to want to join the bandwagon.

Bottom line? This was and is our co-op acting at its best. Coming together, as a community, to support community. Thank you.