WSM Co-operative Debt (B)

[What follows is my e-mail to Ruffin Slater, General Manager of Weaver Street Market Co-operative, in response to his e-mail to me, seeking to allay my fears about the level of WSM Co-operative Debt – $6 million. To date, Ruffin hasn’t provided an answer…]

“Hey Ruffin,

First, let me apologize for running out on your birthday celebration last evening. It wasn’t personal!

I still find it a little uncomfortable to sit for long periods [I’d just had an operation on a hernia!]. You may have noticed me popping out a couple of times during the meeting. After two hours, I was ready to find a more comfortable position for ‘downstairs’!

There’s not too many of us who want to bandy about the milestone of 50, but you have achieved it with style and elegance!

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my concerns about the co-operative debt in such detail.

I know that these matters are not lightly entered into, and I’m sure that you, Operations and the Board have thought long and hard about taking out the loans, and the reasons for so doing.

I can’t say that, at this stage, my concerns are all that ordered. They are visceral as much as anything else. And they reflect what could be seen as a very selfish and narrow base: the people who are workers and worker-owners in Southern Village and Carrboro, who express their concerns to me.

But, you know, I’m not sure their anxieties are all that narrow and selfish.

After all, it is the central account of worker-owner money that is used in main part as collateral for these loans.

It is the sweat of the workers that goes to paying back these loans.

And it is the dividends of worker-owners which get cut to make room for the interest payments on the loans each year (the discount to consumer-owners isn’t affected…).

I’ve heard much about how these loans are buying a future which will eventually reap dividends in…well…increasing the dividends!

Frankly, I think I’d be more impressed if there were more evidence that workers and worker-owners had had their consent sought for the loans, and for the reasons behind the loans in the first place.

This isn’t just some artificial, intellectual discourse. As we write, workers are being asked to work ever harder, and be ever more productive. And the gripe at the ‘shopfloor‘ level is ‘why’?

Workers see managers (and I will use these words) haranguing and harassing workers daily to outreach more, to respond better, to be more productive.

Yet, they wonder why their breakroom has only one computer, when two were offered. They wonder why this much vaunted 20% raise over three years is not the clear-cut cost-of-living increase they thought it would be. But instead includes their own increased productivity.

There’s a lot of talk about the philosophy of ‘what is a co-operative?’ But the people I talk to, particularly the new employees, say (and I’m being frank), ‘hey I joined ‘cos co-ops are more relaxing places to work – it ain’t all about the dollar – and I get to have a say in where we’re going.’

Well, what they’re saying now is, ‘what the heck is the deal, did we become Food Lion overnight? And, just when do I get to vote on something? Speak out? What, and risk my pay raise or my promotion…?’

I’ll be blunt, if WSM were boldly to state to its workers that we had debt of about $6 million (?); that they weren’t going to be given a chance to discuss it; that it was having a major impact on their dividend; that it meant they were having to work to find about $300,000 in interest a year (?); and that no, they couldn’t vote on future plans, or have a worker-owner program to channel their concerns; then frankly, I think there would be a storm that would make the Food House issue look like a tickling contest.

I’m not being negative. I’m all for planning and future and growth. But when, in such great part, it is built upon the sweat and the finances of our workers and our worker-owners, then is it not right that we should have more say in the decision-making – before we are asked to pick up the tab?

Isn’t it fair, at least, that we should be better informed of what is happening? With perhaps more information accompanying the Dividend Statement each year – along lines I have already suggested, and which are contained in the Elections Task Force Summary?

Isn’t it fair that we should be given a regular opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion with those making these decisions, through a revived worker-owner program, more open forums (which are themselves staged in a fashion which overcomes workers’ fears about speaking up)?

I know there is a point of view that puts all of this down to ‘just Geoff.’ But the fact is that there is a depth of feeling at the shopfloor level that is concerned that decisions are being made without proper worker input; that is worried about what these decisions mean for co-operative values as they affect workers; that doesn’t like the lack of quid pro quo when it comes to asking us to work harder; that doesn’t understand what happens to worker-owner money; and frankly doesn’t trust what operations is doing with that money.

And then I and they discover that all of this expansion, which has been presented in such glowing terms, actually means we have to work harder and receive less. And all the while, no-one asked or asks us anything meaningful to do with the expansion and our money and sweat which is being used to finance it.

It is happy employees who make for a happy and profitable co-operative, not expansion and loans, that do not have the consent of the workers.

I say again: what is done is done. But if you really want a more productive co-operative, to help see this expansion through to the greatest possible success, isn’t it time to make a real effort to bring the workers on board, and let them share in the process – as it is being made – and in its rewards?”

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

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