Thursday, July 16, 2015

Co-op Plan Event for Workers - The Attendance

So. I attended the Weaver Street Market ‘Co-op Plan Event’ for WSM employees. Was it worth it? Yes. Could it now be better? Yes.

The Event was much better than I expected. And a huge ‘thank you’ to all of my fellow WSM workers who clearly put in much effort to make the Event as worker-friendly as it could be.

Just to digress from the lovefest for a moment. And likely to cause a teeny amount of controversy, before returning to the group tickle.

This Event was not a stand-alone occurrence. It is the continuing culmination of a process I began about three years ago, with two formal complaints, bringing to the attention of the WSM General Manager that he and WSM management were in breach of the WSM Board Policy requiring that employees be included in decision-making within WSM.

I have been with WSM for ten years now. For nine of those years, I have been openly campaigning for more democratic involvement of owners, workers and consumers in the rather curious hybrid consumer-worker co-op that is WSM.

This Event was the most interactive, useful and interesting opportunity that workers have been given in that time to offer meaningful input to management on how we would like our co-op to go about our business.

However, the fact remains that we still have a side-step/middleman mindset in our co-op about how worker/consumer/owner involvement is supposed to operate.

For whatever reason, senior management believe they should be in control of all that occurs. While obtaining feedback from owners, consumers and workers. In the manner senior management wants. When it wants it. At arm’s length.

Senior management comfort themselves with the notion that WSM is a co-op because it is owned by the community. The definition of co-operation offered by the International Co-operative Alliance, which definition is the norm, and is supported by WSM, is that a co-op is only a co-op if is also democratically controlled by the community. Not just owned. Controlled. Not by senior management. By the community. Which in the case of WSM primarily means its workers and consumers.

In the case of WSM, this need for worker control is enshrined in the aforementioned Board Policy. So, as much of an advance as this Event was, there is still a ways to go. Garnering our feedback in a pleasant, inclusive, comprehensive environment, while welcome, is not the same thing as studiously involving workers in the consequential decision-making itself. It is that sidestep. Senior management remaining the middleman between worker and decision.

Ok. That was the lecture part. Now back to the Event itself. And a slap on the wrist for some fellow workers. Nothing is perfect. The Event and compliance with Board Policy generally can be improved. But when we are offered something, take part. You achieve nothing by archly standing on the sidelines refusing to condone imperfection.

The running theme of the Event was that co-op’s differ from traditional corporatist grocery stores by spending as much time worrying about how we do business, as doing the business itself. No complaints there.

Our General Manager, Ruffin Slater, told us that we should take pride in the fact that we are a co-op because we concern ourselves with our societal impact. No complaints there, either.

Where we differ is on what we regard as important societal impact. What impact it is that makes us a co-op.

Hmm. Ruffin and I spent a deal of time talking with each other. In different snatches. I told him that, as much as he and I might be truly fascinated with the mechanics of governance. And we might take the view that this was the essence of co-operation. Different co-operators have different opinions about what it is that makes WSM a co-op.

For some, it is local food. For others, healthy food. Many focus on environmental impact. No one approach is right. That is the beauty of economic democracy. We are all equal. We are all right. And we have to honor that.

Which said, I make no secret of the fact that it is my belief that the contribution co-operation makes, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, is to offer an alternative to financial profit-driven capitalism with economic democracy. Where the toxic excesses of corporatism are reined in by the insistence that co-op’s be owned and controlled by their communities.

And I took the opportunity to splatter my thoughts in such regard all over the displays inviting feedback on governance.

Main thing happening here is that the WSM Board are considering tweaking the Mission Statement of WSM.

First thing I pointed out is that it is for owners to set the Mission Statement, not the Board. The President of the US does not tweak the Constitution. That is for the People to do.

There were a couple of interesting documents to that end. Ruffin confirmed to me that these documents will be available to all owners on the WSM web site in due course. And that owners will be fully consulted.

Um. I gently gave Ruffin notice that, if this was not the case, Geoff’s trusty smartphone and blog would once again be put to good use.

For myself, I made the further point, by way of Post-It, that the tweaked Mission Statement should more clearly state that it was the ambition of WSM to allow owners the opportunity to control the operations of WSM, not just serve it, as the draft Mission Statement preferred.

Getting back to my chats with Ruffin, I asked him if the Event would be repeated. He indicated that he wanted to move to a situation where involving folks in the conversation was more of a rolling process, and included consumers as well as workers. Again, no complaints there.

I asked him if the input would be made available. Yes, came the response. And just so we all know. This isn’t a case of pushing a big red button. Several fellow workers from the WSM admin office have to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time typing this stuff up by hand. 600 separate pieces of input, at last count. My admiration and sympathy to them. This input will be available online.

Ruffin and I then danced around a bit about the concept of feedback versus being included in decision-making in a way that demonstrates the impact of worker involvement.

I concede and conceded that there is a balance to be struck that is not easy. I gave Ruffin notice that the issue upon which I would be focusing for a while was inclusion of workers in determining the amount of profit to be set aside each year for improvement to pay increases, worker benefits and worker-owner dividend, and the apportionment between the three.

Ruffin made the valid point. Look Geoff, you and I could arbitrarily say, let’s increase pay by 15%. But it owes nothing to context. Agreed.

Management have to be involved as middlemen to the extent of laying the groundwork of identifying the numbers and then offering options. However, there is a thin dividing line between that honest approach to including workers in decision-making. And management skewing the ‘inclusion,’ by offering ‘options’ which are, in fact, fait accompli.

On this specific issue, I raised with Ruffin the fact that we already had a part of the process in place. Each year, our Human Resources Manager conducts a genuine pre-decision consultative exercise to garner from workers their views on what options they would prefer with regards to the provision of worker benefits.

Why not, I asked Ruffin, why not extend that process to providing all the information needed to understand the finances of our co-op, along with options as to what we workers would like by way of pay increases, benefits and dividend, and what we would wish to be the balance between the three?

Workers to be meaningfully included in determining how much of the money we earn be set aside as the ‘worker’s pot,’ and then how it be divvied up.

I’m not entirely sure I got through on this one. We’ll see. But one interesting stat that Ruffin brought to my attention: our turnover rate is 10%. Which is apparently quite low. So, folks seem to like something about working at WSM!

Beyond all this highfalutin interaction, I did take the time to offer some thoughts on the Southern Village mini-redevelopment, the new signature sandwich and energy saving. So, it wasn’t all high tone governance!

Next up. Store meetings in August. When the conversation should continue. Stay involved. Look past the presentation, work out the points that are important to you, and find a way to make them.

And remember this. At any given moment in our co-op of 250 workers. There are 250 people with totally different viewpoints as to what could make our co-op better.

Honor the other opinions. Without forgetting that each of us believes what we believe strongly. We will present it with gusto. Do not let that put you off calmly offering your thoughts. Cos, if you don’t stick your hand up, you will find your livelihood being designed by the person standing next to you. That’s the way of democracy!