Return to "Informal Intimacy" (II)

[What follows is the second in 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 your time and effort in compiling the second installment of the tally of voting figures for the recent Board election. I set out those figures, together with the first installment, at the end of this e-mail.

I think it is fair to say that the combined figures further underline the points I made in my submitted discussion document, “Informal Intimacy,” and in the first of my e-mails on “The Role of the WSM Board.”

I have some more thoughts to offer. But before I do, let me repeat what I have already said: that I am not attempting to be tendentious. I merely want to engage in an open, honest and ‘co-operative’ conversation about how we might be able to improve the operations of both WSM the grocery store and WSM the co-op.

And I stress ‘open.’ I have made no secret to you that, while I am keeping this conversation within the ‘family’ that is WSM, I am giving my thoughts fairly wide distribution within that family, because I believe that open communication and transparency are the life breath of any democratic institution.

I have also made no secret of the fact that nothing that I am saying should be construed as undermining the legitimacy of the recent Board election results. Both Lori and James know that they have my fullest and most active support. Indeed, I look forward to their participation in this conversation about the future of WSM.

Wondering whether a system can be improved is not to say that the results produced by the system as it is at the moment are other than totally valid.

Some may think that what I am saying is criticism of the management of WSM the grocery store. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Informal Intimacy” makes quite clear that I have nothing but admiration for the excellent job that management do in making WSM the grocery store a success. Indeed, my document goes to some lengths to offer creative ways in which WSM the co-op can support management in their efforts further to improve on that success.

What I wonder, however, is if recognition of and plaudits for that very success are sometimes less than forthcoming, not least from the workforce, because it is perceived, rightly or wrongly, that management, whether by design or by default, exerts an inappropriate influence over the affairs of the co-op, and in particular, over the choice by workers of their representatives on the Board?

Might it not make everyone a winner if we set up an immediate process which would make clear to everyone that we all want the greatest success for the grocery store; but that the grocery store is separate from the co-op; that the Board runs the co-op, and is clear as to what are its functions; and that workers and management are both entitled to representation on the Board, but representation that is separate?

And might the latter not best be achieved by the immediate and visible formation of a transparent Board task force, as I have suggested, rather than some less visible, and more amorphous, ‘review,’ at some undefined point in the future?

My last point by way of preamble (or would that be ramble? Sorry. But I believe these points are important to the democratic health of our co-op). And so, my last point is this: I am no-one special. I’m just a Worker-Owner who cares enough to put his thoughts down for others.

And so, to the figures. If we add all of the figures together, we arrive at the following:

Lori 37 (W/O 31 + C/O 6)

Geoff 32 (W/O 8 + C/O 24)

Emily 20 (W/O 7 + C/O 13)

[One last request, Jacob. Would it be possible to tell me for whom the 4 votes cast by employees not Worker-Owners were cast?]

The first thing to say is that the task force might have an interesting conversation along the lines of: what constitutes a ‘stakeholder’ in WSM, and how ought they to be able to express their preference in future elections, so that none feel they have been disenfranchised?

Viewing these figures, a task force might also want to ask some of the following questions – not in a tendentious spirit, but in an open and searching investigation of why things happened in a particular way, and whether they can be improved in the future:

So, for example, why did 50% of the Worker-Owners not vote; were Annual Reports (and ballot papers) delivered to all Worker-Owners (there has been suggestion this might not have happened); why were votes removed from ballot boxes during the course of the voting period; could this have affected the outcome – in all and genuine good faith and innocence (after all, things happen – that’s why we have process); might more Consumer-Owners have voted for Worker-Owner Candidates if there had been an open invitation so to do – and in the same proportion; what impact did the 20-25 bloc vote of management have; and does any of this matter?

For myself, and this most recent election, I repeat that none of this matters. But I hope that magnanimity will be met by an equally forceful, immediate and meaningful response, that ensures that we never have to ask these questions again.

The next point: 110 out of 230 votes cast, by whoever, for all of the Candidates, were cast for Candidates asking for more communication and for more democratic accountability and shared leadership within WSM the co-op. That is 47% saying that they don’t want continued ‘business-as-usual.’

And in the case of Worker-Owner Candidates, it was 52 out of 89, or 58%, saying ‘things-ain’t-right-the-way-they-are.’

Co-operation is a form of capitalism. Social capitalism to be sure. But capitalism nevertheless. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All capitalist corporations are required to have some form of internal accountability. Co-operation has chosen the exercise of democracy, by its ownership, management, and workers, through the medium of shared leadership on its Board, as its desired form of internal accountability.

All I want is for WSM to demonstrate the sort of democratic accountability and shared leadership that is normally expected of co-operatives – in a fashion that allows for the continued success of WSM the grocery store, and the democratic health of WSM the co-op.

The normal formula for corporations that seek ‘outside’ capital, to allow for growth, is that capital should be fully represented on the Board by individuals chosen only by that capital.

Consumer-Owners and Worker-Owners both contribute to WSM’s capital through their initial dues. Worker-Owners then contribute further capital each year when the bulk of the dividend awarded nominally to Worker-Owners is ‘set aside’ by the management of the grocery store in an account, against which account management then borrows for the grocery store.

It is no secret that more workers do not become Worker-Owners because they do not understand the terms of the ‘set aside,’ and they do not trust what happens to their ‘set aside’ money because they are not asked how it should be used.

It’s all very well saying that Worker-Owners have representatives who can look after those and other worker interests. But that argument is somewhat weakened if workers see that management is using its bloc vote to operate a de facto veto over who should represent the interests of workers and their substantial capital contribution.

This point becomes particularly poignant for workers when they realize that, since they (and not management) represent a majority of the 92 Worker-Owners, and therefore the substantial part of the work hours against which the ‘set aside’ is calculated each year, the bulk of the continuing capital contribution made each year, and which allows for the continued growth of the grocery store, comes from a group of people whom, it could be argued (and I do), are not properly represented on the Board at present.

If we hold that capital contribution should be properly represented on the Board, is it not fair that workers and their capital contribution should be fully represented on the Board of their co-op? And that that representation should be separate to that of management?

I’m not a revolutionary. I’m just a straightforward, ‘up-and-down’ social capitalist, who wants more democratic accountability, better shared leadership, and improved capital representation in WSM, so that both WSM the grocery store and WSM the co-operative may enjoy shared commercial success and democratic health into the future.

On with the conversation!”

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Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 8:44 am  Leave a Comment  

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