The Board: ‘Authentic’ and ‘Sustainable’?

[What follows is a commentary by my sister, Maggi Gilson, still resident in the UK, and a long-time co-operator and left-of-center activist in that country. Maggi met some of you when she came to our Christmas Party, while visiting with me at Christmas. She has been closely following events with “The Weave” and its Board.

Here Maggi sets out the case that the Board has lost its way, not so much because it doesn’t consult properly with owners, but more so, because it has acted contrary to its own Board Policies and Mission Statement), when it has so readily supported store management in its expansion plans, seemingly without question, and certainly without seeking the consent of owners.]

Carver says that the Board is there to determine and voice the values and vision of the owners. This word values is like the words co-operative or interaction or partnership or community: no-one ever really questions it and everyone assumes they understand it and, more, that they all mean the same thing by it. Consequently it hardly ever gets examined. We all know what we’re talking about here, right? We all know what we mean by the word sky, right? Why bother stopping to take a look?

I did take a look. A really good look. At everything the Board has says it does, and how it does it. And there is absolutely nothing in there that can elucidate for me what their values are. It’s all broad brush, in exactly the same way the word values is broad brush. No-one can nail them on it, because they haven’t nailed it themselves.

I knew what I was hunting for. Some answer to help me be guided to see what the Board’s stance is towards the issues people have been raising all year, the ones they are really upset by. I knew about the ‘Food House’. I knew about how upset people were about it. I know people have been expressing the problem as ‘we weren’t consulted’. But that isn’t the real problem (except that in almost every case, it is a big aspect of anything people don’t like there – always is.)

The real problem is: what value is being expressed by the Board when they move employees whose activities are being seen, recognised, enjoyed, loved by their fellow workers and shoppers; whose work is contributing significantly to the creation of an ambience of intimacy, dedication, commitment, quality, fab food; whose presence is part of the collective pride in the high quality and service and face-to-face interaction the Board says it stands for; whose skills are being demonstrated and shared with and educating the community they serve and are (so the Board says) a vital part of, and stick them in a box on the other side of town, away from the community, away from all their fellow employees, away from the team (‘the family’) they are a part of, away from all the people they have been educating and pleasing and being rewarded by with looks of frank appreciation and smacked lips?

What kind of value is this?

We know what kind of value this is. It’s called restructuring in the pursuit of efficiency (read ‘costing less’) and increased profits (read ‘making more money’).

If the Board is saying that it has solicited and listened to the views, the values and the vision of its owners and decided that the owners’ highest value, their number one priority, is to make more money and get bigger, then by all means, go ahead.

If this is their case, then they will have to change their Articles, their Mission Statement, and their Board policies to reflect this, so that in all cases, the entire community can be absolutely clear that what has been co-operatively decided, and what the organisation’s operational choices will be guided by, is that increasing profit and efficiency will always take precedence over any other value expressed by the community in the organisation’s documention.

Because on my reading of these, despite their absolute lack of specificity as to real behaviours and real activities, what those documents tell me is the following.

The co-op’s purposes, as expressed in their By-Laws, Article 2, are:

1. To engage in the business of selling high quality food and other products in a co-operative manner that promotes goodwill among the community.

Please tell me this. ‘In a co-operative manner’ means ‘having sought and considered the views of the community’, does it not? If the Board has chosen to ignore this statement about their purposes, how do they see this side-stepping promoting the goodwill of the community?

The worker-owners are members of the community. Does this move promote their goodwill? Is it an action designed to raise their enthusiasm, their eagerness to participate, their general sense of joie-de-vivre, their heartfelt desire to communicate their happiness to the rest of the community? Does it increase or decrease the total sum of human happiness in the co-operative, since that is what ‘goodwill’ is?

The consumer-owners, and general shoppers, who are both member groups of the community: is their goodwill promoted by taking away the bakers, and the smell of the bread, and sending them off to the other side of town? How are we doing with this value?

2. To develop an attractive and successful model for community- and worker-ownership in food retailing and local economic development.

How’ve we done? Does the Board think the community will run towards a model that has decided that profit, expansion and efficiency or of higher value than, say, community values of participation, direct contact, democratic decision-making?

Do they think they’ve made it attractive by putting profit ahead of, say, the interactive, collaborative, service-inspired working practices of their bakers, their pastry people, their kitchen staff, et al? Not to mention how attractive and successful we all know it can be to work for or shop with an organisation that fails to consult us, even on its own terms.

3. To create jobs that are secure and educational and that support the dignity of all workers.

Aha. Perhaps the bakers were so slobby and bad at their jobs that the Board felt it was in the interests of their dignity to put them out of sight? Or perhaps they just didn’t notice that bakers baking in front of their community actually educates everyone? Perhaps they don’t think dignity has anything to do with being recognised every day by your customers for the wonderful work you do?

Perhaps the Board thinks that what their work colleagues have to learn from the bakers, and what the bakers learn from their work colleagues, and what all the workers have to learn from their customers and the community that they see and talk to every day, and vice versa, is not educational enough, provides no room for personal or community development, that standing beside an oven in a factory couldn’t do better?

Perhaps it didn’t occur to the Board that, this being a people business after all, a co-operative people business at that, where you might assume that co-operating was a crucial part of the mix, that the bakers chose to work there because of the different kinds of people they get to interact with, not just because they get to learn how to bake or do it with other bakers and cooks?

Does this action promote the dignity of these workers? How are we doing on this value?

These are three out of the four purposes as expressed in the Bylaws. The fourth is ‘we get to do any other thing’. None of them says: our purpose is to expand, to make ourselves bigger, to be the best and most famous co-op in the country. Not one.

I have to surmise from this that the organisation itself agrees on its own terms that its priority is not to maximise efficiency or increase profits. Its priorities, its most important values, are as stated here. These are what they have said they will be guided by. These are what the community has expressly agreed to when they handed decision-making on their behalf to the Board. We’ll let you decide, because these are the terms we know you’re going to be ruled by.

These are the rules that the Board itself has declared will govern EVERY decision they make on the owners’ and community’s behalf. This is where they have declared they will look first to gauge whether their decision has been an appropriate one for the community they serve, and where they will look first to monitor whether what they are doing is successful in terms the community has agreed.

These are the values of the organisation. These are what you get to refer back to when you wonder what the Board is doing, why the Board did it, whether it is allowed. If you don’t agree with them, get them changed. If you do, hold the Board accountable to them.

I’d sack the lot of them. And under the rules, you the ownership are entitled to do just that. Not because they didn’t communicate with you or solicit your views or take your views on board, but because they have failed to do what they said, and you agreed, they would do. That is the basis on which they get to sit. If they ignore the Bylaws, or drive a cart and horses through them, they have to account to you for it. If they cannot, they go.

If you need more, here are extracts from the Mission Statement. Which is not a Mission Statement. It’s complete garbage. But anyway, this is what the organisation says it stands for, and what the Board has agreed to uphold on your behalf, no matter what decision they are making:

“Our mission is a vibrant, sustainable commercial centre for the community of owners …”

Now, does removing all the food prep people and their activities from the store make the store more, or less, vibrant? Gosh, hard one.

“sustainable”

Another one of those words. It all depends on what you are trying to sustain. How do we decide? Are we trying to sustain goodwill and a fun place to work and a homogeneity of skills in one place and the feeling that we’re all in this together, we all matter, we all contribute to how well this place runs, we’re all continually learning, and the interactive experience of shoppers which makes Weaver Street such an interesting and fun place to go and spend your dollars on a repeat basis?

Or are we trying to sustain a vision of a chain of Weaver Streets spreading out through North Carolina, bigger and better and more? Ah, I know. I’ll just go and take another look at our purposes, which are the rules by which I know how I am to interpret the word ‘sustainable’…

Now I have my answer.

… which is:

“co-operative – control and profits stay within the community

That old chestnut. Again. Now, did we make this decision co-operatively? Were we guided rigorously by the views and values of the community, as declared in our charters and to which we have committed as a sacred responsibility of our Board roles? Did the control stay within the community? Or were the community completely ignored so that control could stay within the Board and be delegated straight to the General Manager? Hmmm?

“fair – mutually beneficial and non-exploitative

Dontcha love it. I’m sure someone somewhere will find a way to argue that this decision is beneficial to the bakers’ goodwill, happiness, etc etc. But will the bakers, who are the main party to this mutuality?

Beneficial: how are you going to judge it? Oh, we already have. We’ve described the kinds of benefits we all agree are benefits in our purposes. Goodwill, education, dignity, co-operativity. No driving of profits there, then. At least, not our priority.

The definition of exploitation is that I take my power and I use it to make you do things because you have less power than I do and if you don’t do what I say I’ll just get someone else to do it and you will lose something of value to you, e.g. your job.

How well have we managed to uphold this one? Or do the bakers have the power to say, no, this decreases our benefits, no, we won’t do this – and keep their jobs? And get to stay in the store?

“inclusive – accessible to the whole community

Now it seems to me that if you take the bakers and all the other food prep people and you hide them away in a box somewhere, you actually eradicate the community’s ability to access those people, and you seriously undermine those workers’ access to the rest of the community. I think I’d call it ‘exclusion.’ Oh, I know: we’ll set up ‘away-days’ to the bakery.

“interactive – creates opportunities for community interaction

Ditto.

“empowering – enables fulfilling work and customer experiences

By telepathy, perhaps. There’s a real pattern emerging her, I feel. Let’s do the exact opposite of what we were put here to do.

“educational – develops an informed community

It would be funny, if it weren’t. Now that the bakers are five miles away, their chances of giving and receiving and sharing information are what, exactly? By the community blog, perhaps? By the brilliant already existing WSM mechanisms for flow of information?

I know I have laboured the point. The point is, the point has not been laboured enough.

You do not elect or appoint Board members without nailing down exactly what your terms are, and what they mean.

Those terms are imperfectly but partially formed in the Board Policies. It is the Board’s duty to hammer out exactly what they mean.

As it is, the Policies already exist in a form specific enough to hold the Board accountable for these types of decisions.

And according to their own Policies, this Board is way, way off beam.

The beam is the Policies. And they demonstrate with as much clarity as you could hope for that the Board of Weaver Street Market Co-operative has acted contrary to its own terms.

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Published in: on June 11, 2008 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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