Can a Co-op be Better than This?

I love “The Weave.” I love working here. I love the support I receive.

So much has been accomplished in the past 20 years. There is much of which we can all feel proud.

The big changes underway promise even better, even more.

But, should we be content with this? Are we all that we can be? Can we be a better co-op? Should we be? Is everything as well with our “Weave” as the publicity machine would have us believe?

I picked up a pamplet in our Carrboro store today. It explained why our Salad Bar prices were rising. And I suddenly realized that the pamphlet was a perfect metaphor for where our “Weave” is at the moment.

I double-checked by perusing our web-site. It’s pretty. It’s catching. It uses all the right buzz phrases. And it makes me feel good about myself and my “Weave.” At least on the surface. Just like the pamphlet did.

Compared with your average conventional grocery store, the icon we claim not to be, “The Weave” is doing pretty well at being socially and environmentally conscious.

But if we look below the surface, can we claim that we are performing as well as we would like – as a co-operative food store?

Let’s take a gentle stroll through some of the claims in that pamphlet and on our web-site – you know, those claims that are regularly held up as proof that we are being all that we can be as a co-op…

“We pay our employees a living wage.”

Do we? A Living Wage in North Carolina is pegged at about $13.32. I’m at the lowest level of grunt. I’ve been with “The Weave” three years. I entered at $9. I now get paid $10.25. And I’ve never been disciplined. Entry-level at Lowe’s Food Store is $10 for a cashier.

The General Manager announced two years ago that worker wages would rise by an average of 20% over the following three years. What he forgot to mention was the fact that this would not be a straight cost-of-living raise. It would include upgrades triggered by our own increased sweat.

On current course, I will indeed receive a 20% increase over the three years – entirely the consequence of my own productivity improvement. And I’m by no means the hardest worker in my little universe!

Surely, we can be better than this?

“We are a co-op because we have a vibrant social bottom line.”

Do we? A social bottom line is not merely an extension of the financial bottom line into the community.

Bully for us for buying local and for making community donations. Wal-Mart makes community donations. Would anyone mistake them for a co-op?

So, what is a ‘vibrant social bottom line’?

Primarily, a social bottom line should be inward-looking. In a co-op, it should be a blueprint for a social business model that is distinct from the ‘dollar-is-all’ attitude, the ‘hey fella, look busy’ approach to workers that one finds in most conventional grocery stores.

In order to pay for all the changes currently in progress in “The Weave”, changes which perhaps you laud, our social business model is slipping dangerously close to that of Wal-Mart.

The relentless pursuit of productivity is becoming more like intimidation for our workers, rather than a nurturing social business model.

Workers are becoming more used to barking than asking.

And our only vehicle for worker input to policy – the worker-owner program – was de-funded in 2005.

Now, lest you think I’ve gone major league mushy on the prerequisites for business success, please know that modern ‘conventional’ business wisdom says that it is happy workers and happy consumers who make a happy and successful business – not, as in our case, an unending drive for more outlets, better product packaging, and clever, ‘authentic’ marketing.

Once we are truly seeking the former, then we can claim we have a social bottom line.

For the time being, and while we are obsessed with the latter, we are merely Harris Teeter with a recycling bin.

Surely, we can be better than this?

“Co-operative businesses are honest, open and fair, behave with integrity, and remain accountable for their actions.”

Does this really describe us?

Were we open about all of the changes currently underway – and their full consequences?

If we don’t like what’s happening, as workers or consumers, just how exactly do we enforce accountability in our “Weave”? I’ve tried for three years, without success. And I’ve had some experience at this!

And I mean immediate accountability. Of course, one can stand for the Board. And that’s what I’m doing. But what about everyday, touchy-feely accountability. The sort where you get to debate with the guy who moved the fish?

More to the point, did we ever get a vote? Do we ever? Shouldn’t we, if we’re a co-op, if we want to distinguish ourselves from conventional capitalist corporations?

Doesn’t true accountability require ‘vibrant, sustainable’ democracy in big decision-making before the fact, rather than a complaints box after?

Surely, we can be better than this?

If any part of this rings bells with you; if you also feel that all is not as well with the “The Weave” as it should be; if you feel that, as a co-op, we should be better than this; then do something about it. Get involved. Take action.

If you’re not already an owner, become one. Vote in the 2008 Board elections. Choose a ‘Tasty’ candidate who believes that, as a co-op, our “Weave” can be better than this.

I raise these concerns only because I care. Because I truly love our “Weave.” Because I believe we have lost our way as a co-op. And because I believe that the only way that “The Weave” can return to full financial success, social ‘health’ and genuine co-operation is properly to ‘be the co-op!’ – and to have someone on the Board who champions this.

But remember, this is not just about me. Or any other individual. This is about all of us. Acting together.

All I want to do with my campaign and possible election is to create channels so that we can all have a say in what happens with our “Weave.”

After that, it’s up to all of us then to make use of those channels to ensure that we are the best co-op that we can be.

My candidacy is about giving power to the workers and the owners – where it should properly be. Because we can be better than this!

Now. Philosophizing aside, feel free to pop over and say ‘hello’ anytime. I’m a friendly guy. I work on the Hot Bar in Southern Village. I’m usually the one wearing the crazy t-shirt- whether at work, or hanging out at “The Weave” after hours!

Published in: on June 19, 2008 at 7:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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