Weaver Street Market : '2022 Vision' : My Version : "Small is Beautiful"

All owners of Weaver Street Market Co-operative (both worker and consumer) will shortly be receiving an Owners’ News talking about the future of WSM, and inviting folks to stand for the Board of Directors.

I strongly urge folks to stand for the Board. If you are less than happy with what is happening with WSM, it is no good merely standing on the sidelines. If you do nothing, then nothing is what you will get. Take a stand, and stand for the Board.

The Owner News also has an Address from Ruffin Slater, WSM General Manager, in which he suggests that WSM should increase its impact in our community by becoming bigger. I disagree. I think WSM has, over the past 24 years, become too bloated, unwieldy and unresponsive. I believe that WSM can achieve more (and better quality) impact by becoming smaller. Sort of.

My alternative to WSM’s corporate office ‘2022 Vision’ would be one that emphasizes a co-operative future based on collective, consensual, collaborative and intimate alliance, rather than the patronizing remoteness of continued, trickle-down, enforced, corporate empire-building.

In accordance with the definition of co-operation preferred by the International Co-operative Alliance, the making of strategy (including ‘2022 Vision’) in the somewhat unique worker-consumer hybrid of WSM should involve two stages: first, consumers deciding what are their common needs; and secondly, workers deciding how they would prefer to meet those common needs.

However, some 24 years ago, our current General Manager, Ruffin Slater, and a few chums (this according to him) decided they wanted to superimpose their own ‘common needs’ onto WSM’s consumers and workers, and build a grand farm-to-fork program in our region. The idea was to underpin small local farmers by guaranteeing them consistency of destination for their produce with a chain of professionally-run outlet stores, supported by a community commissary.

Nothing wrong with that vision. If given the opportunity, I would have voted for it vigorously. If I had been given the opportunity. The problem is that then and now Ruffin and his chums in the WSM corporate office management team, although talking the language of co-operation, have never trusted the communities in which they have operated to support that vision democratically. Instead, time and again, they have sought to enforce their own strategy and tactics with top-down decision-making and implementation.

Again, I suppose, nothing wrong with that. If you’re honest about it. There are plenty of organizations doing good work around our community, in our nation and across the globe, which are not democratically run. But why then make such a big deal of WSM being co-operative?

The answer is both simple and controversial: capital. Putting philosophy to one side for a moment, if you want to build an empire (and that is what WSM is, and was always supposed to be), you need capital, public or private. The problem is that at the end of the day you have to be accountable in some form to that capital.

But Ruffin and his mates don’t like being accountable. They want, and have always wanted, to be free to forge their empire without interference, including from those providing the capital. And they have created a very clever construct to avoid that interference.

WSM is incorporated as a co-operative. That means our profits are not taxed, provided they are distributed as a patronage dividend (which device is only to be found in co-operatives). Most of that dividend is, in fact, retained as rolling capital. The dues you first pay when you become an owner are also classed as capital.

WSM can borrow against that capital on a ratio of three parts debt to one part capital, although it is more like five parts to one part. That’s how the WSM corporate office management team managed to borrow $10 million for the last expansion project in 2007/2008, pretty much with no-one knowing.

Ok. But surely the WSM corporate office management team, through Ruffin as General Manager, still has to be accountable to the capital and its original owners, right? Wrong. Not when you set up a Board of Directors which you control. You think I jest? Let me take you through that, step by step.

The Board of WSM has seven serving Directors: two consumer-owner Directors, two worker-owner Directors, two appointed Directors and Ruffin.

The two consumer-owner Directors. Not much room for control there. The two worker-owners Directors, however, are a very different story.

You set the price for worker-ownership so high ($500) that only a few long-term workers and, primarily, managers can afford it. You then make sure you put up a management candidate each election, and use your management payroll vote to elect them. So, two of those seven Directors are automatically management Directors, and are directly under your control as General Manager.

The remaining two Directors are appointed. Essentially by Ruffin. You think I overstate. In 2008, a consumer-owner who was not a Ruffin stoolie put forward her name to be an appointed Director. Ruffin forced the Board to sit through three secret sessions until he got his own man appointed.

So, Ruffin controls five of the seven Board Directors. And has done from day one. All because he does not trust other well-meaning folk to support his vision of farm-to-fork

With that control, he has changed the system so that only the Board can change By-Laws. So that Special Meetings of owners can be called only with 30% of the ownership in support (currently, about 6,000 owners). So that he can raise capital, borrow funds and make strategic decisions without having to be accountable to the ownership, the consumers or the workers of WSM. However much he pretends to invite our input to ‘his’ conversation.

I’d stand at applaud at the sheer tyranny of it all, if it wasn’t so … tyrannical.

And so it is we come to Ruffin’s ‘2022 Vision,’ which proposes that we build three more stores, and effectively work our workers ever harder to pay for the new stores.

So what?, you might say. We hear you, Geoff. But what’s the point of making a fuss, even if we don’t agree? What’s the point of responding to this consultation exercise, if it’s all a fake? If the WSM corporate office management team don’t have to listen? If they will end up making all the decisions on their own, anyway?

Because, if we do nothing, then nothing is what we will get. If we decide at the very beginning that we have no power in the co-op Ruffin himself tells us is half-owned by workers and half-owned by consumers, then we, not Ruffin, we have rendered ourselves powerless. And we are not powerless. Not so long as we have voices. And remain the folk who keep this co-op running and in profit. It isn’t Ruffin and the WSM corporate office management team who make 25% of our produce, sell it and buy it. It’s you and me.

So, find your voice. Gather your thoughts. And engage in this consultation exercise, which Ruffin has commenced with this summer’s edition of Owners’ News. And let’s ensure that we are heard by the power of our numbers.

What say we come up with a Vision that takes the structure that Ruffin has already undemocratically created (much of which has essentially good purpose). Employ truly co-operative and democratic principles going forward. To engage. To inspire. To enroll the very best elements of the communities in which we operate. To create a collaboration of co-operation that expands Ruffin’s farm-to-fork experiment in a genuinely sustainable and accountable fashion?

It is my opinion that requires replacing top-down, remote empire-building with trickle-up, intimate, responsive consensus. Ok. What does that look like?

Go and stand for about ten minutes in Chatham Marketplace, in Pittsboro (a co-op that WSM helped to create, without it having to be a part of the WSM empire). Look around. See. Feel. Breathe. Then, go and stand in like manner in one of the branches of the WSM empire.

Now. Close your eyes. Imagine this branch has become its own stand-alone co-op. Where the Unit Manager has become the General Manager. Whose answer to penetrating questions is not, I’ll have to check with corporate. But is, let me go and ask Jack, the Board Chair. He’s right over there, working on the gluten-free demo.

Imagine inventory. Where we don’t all rush off, leaving a hapless manager to cope on his or her own. But we all stay after work, crack a couple of beers, and pitch in together. Where decisions about strategy aren’t taken behind a combination lock, fifteen miles way. But are made by the water cooler, because a quorum is always on hand, either working or shopping.

That is the intimacy of co-operation in action. It’s why it is called ‘co-operation.’ And not ‘hang-on-I’ve-got-to-call-corporate-and-get-ignored-for-two-months-and-then-wait-for-someone-I-do-not-know-and-never-meet-to-make-the-decision-for-me-without-my-input-ation.’ It is immediate, not remote. It is communal, not condescending. It is consensual, not enforced.

And we can create it in this WSM empire right now. By simply deciding that Item #1 of ‘2022 Vision’ will be that WSM becomes a collaboration of separate, stand-alone unit-based co-op’s, rather than this unwieldy, unyielding, uncaring, unresponsive monolith that we are at the moment.

And you don’t have to lose what WSM’s ‘2022 Vision’ endearingly calls the ‘economy of scale.’ You set up an alliance network of the newly-independent WSM units. A collaborative association of the stores, the Food House and Panzanella.

What’s more is, by setting the Food House free, you give it the opportunity to sort out its own capital problems, perhaps raise more capital, form collaborative partnerships with other food-producing entities (such as the new Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center), and explore new opportunities for commercial sales. Thereby placing it on a much sounder and more sustainable financial footing, than one which is based on fiddling the books, to pretend that inter-unit transfers are profit.

In fact, this alliance of collaboration (let’s call it the Local Food Alliance – LFA) could be expanded to create a much more powerful regional farm-to-fork system by including entities such as Chatham Marketplace, Burlington’s Company Shop Markets, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, North Carolina Co-operative Extension, the Sustainable Agricultural program at Central Carolina Community College, Pittsboro’s Abundance Foundation, local Farmers’ Markets, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Ruffin and his mates in the WSM corporate office management team might see this as diluting the vision. I see it as an overwhelming expansion and enrichment of that vision. It’s not beyond the realm of imagination.

Ruffin sits on the Board of the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association, which works along exactly these lines – through voluntary collaboration. And succeeds in economy of scale without the need for NCGA to be a uniform, top-down empire.

All of those special Co-op Deals you see in the stores, all those printed cups, they come from that NCGA collaboration. And an economy of purchasing power, determined by separate co-op’s around the country deciding voluntary to create a joint vision, working together consensually. Ruffin is one vote on that NCGA Board. He ain’t the Boss. He knows voluntary collaboration between co-op’s works.

We have intimate, immediate and successful responsiveness at the sharp end. And regional strategy determined by a collaborative, consensual, energized and democratic co-operative of decision-makers at the top end.

Now, when WSM’s ‘2022 Vision’ talks of new stores, we can say, ok. But they have to be stand-alone units. They have to be wanted by the communities in which they will be established. And they have to be financed by those communities themselves, without imposing undemocratic burden on other communities. And once established, they can join the LFA.

If the WSM corporate office management team insist on setting up more stores under the WSM brand, then we should insist that only happens once the community in question has raised the finance to do so. No borrowing. And no imposing the burden on WSM workers by the backdoor, by making them work ever harder to raise the funds instead. And absolutely no investment in new stores until the debt from the 2007/2008 expansion has been paid off.

[Mind you, if the WSM corporate office management team simply plough ahead, ignore our input and toss financial caution to the wind, I would like it to be known that I’d be happy to work on the Hot Bar of the new WSM store planned for Barbados. But. I digress … ]

All of which brings me neatly to my next proposed alternative to the WSM corporate office management team’s version of ‘2022 Vision’: the future for WSM workers over the next ten years.

Unlike the WSM corporate office management team, I do not think that our co-op (either as empire or loose collaboration of stand-alone co-operative units) should be looking for yet more value from workers. I believe that workers should be looking for more value from the WSM, which our General Manager keeps insisting we half own.

We workers made huge sacrifices in the past few years of recession to keep our beloved co-op afloat – not just worker-owners; ALL workers. We should ALL now reap the rewards.

There should be no new productivity demands of workers unless those demands are agreed in advance by the workers in the Departments affected.

The entry level wage should be brought in line with the true living wage appropriate foe central north Carolina – something closer to $11/$12.

There should be an immediate across the board unmerit-related ‘thank you’ pay increase of $1 an hour for all staff. Followed by annual pay increases, which, at least in part, are related not only to individual merit, but also to sales increases within the individual Departments.

The cost of worker-ownership should be reduced to no more than $200, the cost to be spread over as much as five years, with all of the benefits (dividend and voting) applicable upon payment of the first installment.

And some form of bonus scheme should be initiated for those workers unable or unwilling to subscribe to the worker-ownership program. You shouldn’t have to pay to be rewarded for your labor. Not in a co-op. And you should not have to pay to be a part of the decision-making process in a co-op that describes itself as a worker-consumer hybrid.

WSM Employee Policy already demands that workers be involved meaningfully in all processes that make major decisions affecting their workplace. But that demand has been increasingly ignored by the WSM corporate office management team over recent years.

If we are to set out on a ten year path to becoming a more responsive co-operative – more responsive to the common needs of both of our consumers and our workers – then it follows that it is not enough merely to change the structure. We need to change the mindset.

Frankly, I could spend another ten pages setting out the proposals I have already made over the past seven years to improve accountability and democracy within our co-operative, so as to make it a stronger business and a better co-operative. Check out my co-op blog to get an idea of what those proposals are.

But, whether WSM remains a widely-spread and remotely-managed empire, or becomes a more intimate collaboration of stand-alone democratic units, it will become more responsive only if management decides it wants to be responsive. Beginning with this consultation. Over to you, Ruffin …



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