Return to "Informal Intimacy" (I)

[What follows is the first of a series of e-mails sent by me to Jacob Myers (one of our two incumbent Worker-Owner Directors, and Board Chair of Weaver Street Market Co-operative these past 4 years), following the Board Election of 2007. The e-mails accompanied publication of “Informal Intimacy,” my perspectives on the business and co-operative future of Weaver Street.]

“Dear Jacob,

Thank you for finding the time to respond to my request of October 20 [2007], and to provide at least a partial answer to my request. I set out the initial request and my answer below.

I have, as you know, already circulated some positive thoughts as to how I think Weaver Street Market might improve as both a grocery store and as a co-operative over the next few years (“Informal Intimacy”).

That document was put together in the main quite a time before the recent election process. During the election, a number of things occurred which made me wonder if, perhaps, there are matters that could usefully be addressed immediately, to ensure that WSM is operating now as it believes it already should be – let alone where it may want to go in the next twenty years.

I was in a position to raise these matters immediately after the election, but I wanted to leave some time to let the air clear, and also to receive from you the figures to which I believe I am entitled, to see if those figures in any way support my observations. They do.

Let me say four things straight away, before I turn to those observations:-

1) My desire is only to make positive contributions, with the aim of helping WSM to achieve its own Mission Statement.

2) It is important to me that this discussion takes place within the family that is WSM, so far as that is possible. I take the view that you only consider taking something outside the family when all the reasonable avenues for internal conversation, democratic involvement and resolution – whichever is appropriate – have been exhausted.

3) In this latter regard, it is crucial, in my opinion, that discussions and conversations take place as widely as possible, and are fully open and transparent. I make no secret of the fact that my views receive wide distribution. This is a positive and healthy demonstration of active democracy and accountability.
4) Nothing that I say in any way is intended to undermine my view as to the legitimacy of the recent election results. Both James and Lori have my fullest, most active support. I am discussing process here, not personalities.

To my observations: I take my cue from your opening remarks [at the last WSM Annual Meeting]. You said that WSM is not a grocery store. It is a co-op that has decided, for the time being, that it wishes to be a grocery store.

It has been my feedback during this recent election process that our ownership has become confused. It is confused as to what WSM is – right now. Not twenty years from now. Is it first and foremost a grocery store? Or is it first and foremost a co-op?

If, as you say, it is first and foremost a co-op, then who is in charge? Is the grocery store running the co-op? Or, as it should be, is the co-op running the grocery store? There is a deep sense that the distinction is not clear enough, and neither are the lines of authority.

There is strong feeling that a situation should exist where the following is true, undeniable and patently transparent:-

A) The grocery store is accountable to the co-op.

B) The co-op should be run by the Board.

C) The Board should have the proper tools to ensure the grocery store is accountable, and that it can run its own affairs.

D) The grocery store should not, in any way, interfere with the affairs of the Board.

With this e-mail, and as a Worker-Owner, I make formal request of the Board that, at its next Meeting, it vote on a motion immediately to set up a task force to consider the purpose, function, responsibilities, structure and operations of the Board. That the task force report to the Board no later than its meeting in June of 2008. That the task force use this e-mail as its starting point, taking particular note of items (A) – (D), and the following specific request:

Worker-Owners be classified into two new categories: Management-Owners and Worker-Owners. The respective supporting Programs be re-named Management-Owner Program and Worker-Owner Program.

The terms of Ownership, in each case, be the same. Management-Ownership will be open to grades including Specialist and above. Worker-Owners will be Lead Clerks and below.

Management-Owners will have two representatives on the Board: the General Manager and one elected representative, to be chosen from the ranks of Management-Owners every two years, and to be voted upon by fellow Management-Owners. The first such election to take place in 2008.

Worker-Owners will keep their two elected representatives, with alternating elections, the next being in 2008. Candidates will be be forthcoming from the ranks of Worker-Owners, but may be voted upon by all Workers (of Lead Clerk rank and below) producing a valid employee number.

Having laid out the bare bones of this e-mail, let me now flesh out my observations, and indicate where the figures you have given are relevant, in my opinion.

First and foremost, confusion should not be acceptable in a co-operative. At any level, and to any degree. Clearly, there was confusion in the recent co-op election. At least 44 people were disenfranchised. There is only one body that should take responsibility for that confusion. The Board of the co-op. Yet, the Board of the co-op didn’t run the election. The grocery store did.

The confusion arose primarily as a consequence of the Annual Report of the co-op. There is only one body that should take responsibility for the Annual Report, and all other communications of the Board to the co-op’s Owners. The Board of the co-op. But the Board of the co-op didn’t write the Annual Report. It doesn’t communicate directly with the Owners of the co-op. The grocery store did, and the grocery store does.

Confusion might have been avoided if the various Owner Programs had been meeting regularly, and had been able to explain away the confusion during the election process. There is only one body that should take responsibility for the Owners of the co-op not being properly supported by the co-op’s Owner Programs. The Board of the co-op. But the Board doesn’t run the Owner Programs. The grocery store does.

In my opinion, the Board should take back from the grocery store full and active responsibility for the affairs of the co-op. Not the affairs of the grocery store. The grocery store should still be in a position to interpret the means by which policy ends are laid down by the Board for the grocery store. But the affairs of the co-op and its Board should be run by the Board.

That means, among other matters that may be considered by the task force, that the Board should run its own meetings and elections, communicate directly with Owners of the co-op, and run the Owner Programs. It also means that it is the duty of the Board to ensure that senior management of the grocery store does not exert undue influence on the proper process by which Board members are appointed or elected.

What do I mean by the latter? Well, you may not like what I say next, but it is my opinion that it needs to be stated so that we may all feel that we are taking this journey together, in openness and transparency. And I repeat, I am talking process here, not personalities.

On the basis of the figures you have provided, Jacob, it is clear that there is a huge gap between Lori’s votes and the other two votes. I am truly anguished for Lori. What has happened is not fair to her. What happened, happened ‘to’ her, as much as to the remainder of her fellow, bona fide Worker-Owners.
There has been suggestion made to me, from more than one quarter, a suggestion which, if it is any part true, would seem, on the face of it, to question the honorable intentions of the senior management of the grocery store with regards to the proper workings of the co-op. And I’m trying really, really hard to be as even-handed and non-inflammatory as I can. I don’t like to say it, but the figures, and the immediate democratic health of the co-op make it unavoidable.

The suggestion is that senior management of the grocery store may have approached two Worker-Owners (not Emily or me), of whom (it is suggested) Lori was the second, encouraging them to run against Emily and me. It is then suggested that senior management may then have used its voting bloc of some 20-25 votes to choose the candidate it had so recruited.

I want to tread as carefully as I can here. I want to build up, not tear down. But the distinction should be made between tearing down an edifice, and merely opening eyes to a process which is itself doing the tearing down. The exposure then becomes part of the positive exercise of building up. And that’s what I’m attempting to do here.
So, I’ll continue. If there is any small truth to what has been suggested to me, is it fair to ask how can one not view that as a distortion of the spirit of properly electing worker-representatives in a progressive co-op?

This is why I began with just my bald suggestion. I’d just as soon not discuss the possibility of what has been suggested to me. I’d just as soon leave it completely alone. It is simply not the way a co-op is supposed to work. It would not reflect well on anyone if it were true. So, let’s just leave it. Let us instead simply create a situation where it is not likely that it can ever happen. Isn’t that better?

The only reason I raise it is because otherwise the request by me wouldn’t make any sense.

I like Lori. I will support her fully. She is my representative. But if the Board truly does not know why its Ownership is apathetic, then this episode alone should give a clue.

If the Board wants to change that state of affairs, then I beg it to take control of its own affairs.

Only then will there be sufficient clarity to allow all the stakeholders in the co-op to design together the future of WSM the co-op and WSM the grocery store over the next twenty years.

I look forward to an equally positive response from the new Board.”
Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 7:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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