Thursday, December 3, 2015

Worker Rights -- The Checklist, So Far

I’m addressing this post to my fellow workers in Weaver Street Market Co-operative. I set out below my very dry and formal response to the 2nd Draft of the proposed changes to the WSM Board Policy ‘Treatment of Staff.’

But I want to say this. Even if we do not end up with the wording we might all want, in the past few months, workers within WSM have seriously raised the profile of a whole raft of rights that we have, and which we, management and the WSM Board might not even have known about, or worse, might have wanted to keep quiet about or remove.

I mean, think back two months. Just two months. How many of us knew that there was a 20-some year history of workers, consumers and owners, associated with our co-op, fighting to have enshrined in policy protections which guaranteed workers the right to a fulfilling work experience, to ethical dissent, to participate in decision-making, to fight back against our at-will status, and to take grievances about these rights to the Board itself?

Well. We do now. Now, if someone is complaining, for example, about conditions, about consistency of management, about not being included in decision-making, whatever, they know that managers cannot retaliate against them. And they know that they can go to the Board if managers do. Managers know it. And managers know we know it. The Board has been made aware. And they, the Board, now know they are supposed to guarantee us these rights, by keeping an eagle eye on our General Manager.

There was, to be blunt, a lot of rubbish in the six page document sent to each of us this past week about the 2nd Draft of the proposed changes to Board Policy ‘Treatment of Staff.’

Not least all the nonsense that someone made up about the rationale for the proposed changes. Folks, don’t fall for this waffle posing as pseudo-history/fact. I set out in my e-mail below the real history of ‘Treatment of Staff.’ What someone has spent five and a half pages constructing in that document is no more than their personal opinion. And whereas I have to add the caveat that what I say here is my personal opinion, they apparently do not.

And here’s the danger. It’s twofold. The first danger is that you believe what they say. The second danger is that you believe that much of the sweet-sounding candy being promised is being guaranteed to us as a right.

Someone once said, a right is only guaranteed if it is enforceable. The only rights in WSM that are enforceable are those that we may take grievance about to the Board. And that means, clearly enunciated Board Policy.

If it ain’t Board Policy, it ain’t a right. When that someone tells us, oh yes, we’ve taken away your right to a fulfilling work experience, but it is still guaranteed by the words ‘shared wi-fi’ (or whatever), it isn’t. Repeat. It isn’t.

Somebody saying pretty, sparkly things about ‘shared cupcakes’ is not something you or I can enforce in an appeal to the Board. Go through this document very carefully. If a line is not a Board Policy, cross it out. It’s mere wishful thinking. You end up with about one paragraph. Pay attention only to that.

That’s the garbage. But, back to the good.

As a result of all that we have done together these past two months, we have now had restored our rights to ethical dissent, and to take grievance to the Board. Yay. We are now having a discussion about the dichotomy between claiming we have rights that protect the employment of our workers, and management’s declaration that we remain a right-to-fire corporation. I am pursuing restitution of the clause that guarantees us all a fulfilling work experience – an issue brought to my attention indirectly by another much-unsung heroine of the longstanding battle for worker rights (someone I will not mention so as not to get her into trouble). And we have, at the very least, brought to the attention of workers, management and the Board the fact that we workers are supposed to be consulted before important decisions are taken.

With respect to the latter, I prefer the wording I set out in my e-mail. But, it matters not. Everyone now knows decisions may no longer be made in secret. Decisions which spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of the money we earn on capital projects we are told about only after the event. Decisions like the one to double the size of the Hot Bar.

More than this, in order to ‘buy us off,’ management have had to set out (on Page 6 of the most recent document) all sorts of goodies to ensure that we are kept happy, informed and consulted over (at least) the next year.

None of this means that we celebrate and walk away. We must all remain vigilant.

We must all hold each other, our management, our Board, and especially our new Worker-Owner Director, Charles Traitor, to account. We must ensure that all that has been promised is now produced. And, as I say in my e-mail, now that we have established that we have a right to be consulted about decision-making, we must demand a consultation exercise, where we have a hand in designing the processes and structures that allow for our being consulted on decision-making on a regular and consistent basis. So that management are not permitted (by our non-vigilance) only to consult us when it suits them.

The beat goes on …

My e-mail to the WSM HR Manager:

"Dear Deborah,

As I have expressed elsewhere, my insides may be hurting this week, but the brain is still working! I have read the entirety of the 2nd Draft of the proposed changes to the Board Policy 'Treatment of Staff,' and I have the following to say:

1) Board Role In The Grievance Process

Somehow, the wording has become a little convoluted. Might I suggest: "c) Permit staff to take grievance to the Board ... "

2) Language On Participation

This is the big one. I continue to disagree with the wording being proposed. The new wording specifically dilutes the old wording as it currently exists. We were told that the purpose of the new wording was only to clarify protection, not to reduce it.

In the existing wording, the GM is quite specifically prohibited from allowing a decision-making standard that does not allow for opportunity [for paid staff] to participate in decisions and shape the guidelines for decisions.

That could be better worded. Which is what I understand is the purpose of this exercise. But, better wording or no, the impact of the existing wording is still quite clear: paid staff will be allowed the opportunity to participate in decision-making, and to shape the guidelines for decisions.

I challenge anyone in our co-op to present to the workers of this co-op any different interpretation that can be placed on the existing wording.

In other words, what the Board is attempting to do with its new wording is to dilute the import of the existing wording. I give as clear notice as I can that I will advocate as strongly as I can to prevent this dilution. To the extent of going public again, if necessary.

I challenge the Board to present to the workers of this co-op absolutely any authority they feel they may have to dilute the existing wording.

I don't really need to say any more. But I will. Someone has gone to great lengths to prepare what appears, on the face of it, to be a document with supposed rationale for the proposed new wording. But it is rationale posing as fact, when, in fact, it is all mere opinion.

The 'rationale' proffered, including a table about values being met, with the exception of accounts of employee responses received, is all someone's personal opinion. And it is not correct.

It is my understanding that the true purpose of the original language, indeed 'Treatment of Staff' as a whole, is not what is proffered in the document I have read. Rather it goes back to a time before the Policy Governance structure existed. I understand this from my own research conducted over some nine years.

It is my understanding that, when WSM was no more than a fraction of the existing Carrboro store, 'governance' consisted of workers and consumers getting together on an ad hoc basis in the store, discussing how things were going, and then making decisions collectively.

In simple terms, when WSM got bigger, and it was decided that the co-op needed a Board of sorts, protections were put in place to ensure that ordinary workers still had meaningful participation in decision-making. All decision-making. Including operational decision-making. Not least to offer protection for the very considerable investment each worker-owner was making and still makes ($500). Protection both from decisions of non-worker interests on the Board, and from the decisions of management in operations. Hence, the very precise and very broad-ranging language.

The new language does not guarantee ordinary employees the right to be involved in the decision-making itself, and certainly not to shape the guidelines for the decision-making.

All the new wording does is offer employees the opportunity to provide opinion. Which opinion can then be ignored by people to one side actually making the decisions.

One more time, I challenge anyone in our co-op to present to workers a rationale which suggests that the difference I describe is not accurate.

I mean, I can spend time further explaining the difference between being someone who is allowed only to offer an opinion to someone else, and actually being on an equal basis with that someone else, making the decisions with them, and shaping the guidelines by which we are both making the decisions. But do I really need to explain that difference?

Now. If someone, somewhere in our co-op has suddenly decided that this very specific Board Policy is unwelcome, cumbersome, whatever, then come out and say so, and let's have a very public and honest discussion about it. But please stop pretending that the new wording (1st and 2nd Draft) is mere clarity. It is not.

And so, I suggest that the wording of #4 on Page 4 of should be:

"(The GM must not:)

Be unresponsive to employee needs or operate without a transparent system for communicating information to paid staff and for allowing paid staff the opportunity to participate in decisions and shape guidelines for decisions."

Now, someone might wonder if implementation of this policy (for which implementation, by the way, I have been actively advocating these past three years) might not bring WSM to a grinding halt. My answer is no.

In 2007, a full consultation exercise with workers was held. As a consequence of which a full document was produced setting out precisely what decisions would be covered by this policy. So we wouldn't have to bring WSM to a standstill every time someone wanted to change the flavor of jam in the condiments section.

That part is done. Whatever wording is finally agreed, it is now time to implement this policy and the findings of the document setting out the categories of decisions affected. And my suggestion to the Board is, as it has been for three years, please instruct the GM, no later than the end of 2016, to conduct a full consultation exercise on how to implement this policy, at department, unit and co-op level. It might even require a Board Task Force.

3) Fulfilling Work Experience

This expression is not currently a part of 'Treatment of Staff.' But I wrote separately to the Board earlier this week, about the exclusion of the clause from the Mission Statement/Ends, and I said I would be referring to it in this missive.

I set out below the e-mail in question. Bottom line. As a worker-owner, I was never told directly that the very important wording that has been in the WSM Mission Statement for years, namely the wording guaranteeing all workers a fulfilling work experience, was being removed from the Mission Statement/Ends.

How important? The document just provided to me states it clearly, and I quote: "Ends policy - the most important Board policy."

I am not going to re-run what I have set out below. This clause was removed from Ends without the permission of worker-owners. I regard it as important as the remainder of the protections afforded in 'Treatment of Staff.' And I will advocate just as hard to have it retained.

I suggest that an easy solution is merely to have it included now in the re-drafted 'Treatment of Staff.'

Again, no-one is suggesting that this protection not be afforded workers in WSM. Indeed, your document (Page 5, the table) very specifically refers to it. So. We are on the same page that it is a guarantee that should be afforded WSM employees.

However, your document spends a lot of time attempting to explain how interpretations here, and work under way there, and initiatives somewhere else, not to mention what someone declares are values underlying policy, how all of these vague entities are the same as specific wording in Board Policy.

They are not.

Someone much cleverer than me once said something to the effect that a right only exists if you can enforce it. In the context of WSM employees, a right only exists if we can go to the Board and make grievance about its breach.

The terms of 'Treatment of Staff' and dispute resolution elsewhere in WSM Employee Policy make very clear that we can only enforce that which is a Board Policy. Not interpretations, values, understandings, initiatives, plans or wishful thinking. Only Board Policies.

So. If we are agreed that a fulfilling work experience should be a right guaranteed to WSM employees, then it needs to be enunciated specifically somewhere in Board Policy. And I nominate 'Treatment of Staff.'

And so, I would suggest that we undo the damage done to worker protections by eliminating fulfilling work experience from the Missions Statement/Ends by including it as a new number 6 (?) in 'Treatment of Staff':

"(The GM must not:)

6) Permit work experience which is not fulfilling for the worker in question."

Thinking about it, this last point, about a right only existing if it is enforceable through Board Policy, it is also true about all of the other issues concerning 'Treatment of Staff.' It is no good detailing at length all the values and interpretations and courses of action being considered to allow employees participation and protection (on Pages 5 and 6 of the document) if not one of these is guaranteed by specific wording in Board Policy. If it is not enunciated in Board Policy, it amounts to no more than hot air. Even if it is well-intentioned hot air.

I have copied this e-mail directly to the Board, and I trust it will be forwarded to all members of the Board, including those recently elected. I look forward to hearing that the above wording has been agreed. And again, I feel strongly about these (now) very limited issues. The Board is seeking to take away guaranteed worker rights. I am not asking for anything new. I am requesting merely that what it is considered be taken away be put back or left in place. And I will advocate as much as is needed and where it is needed to achieve the latter result.

Many thanks,