Friday, January 10, 2014

Honest Weight Food Coop I Hardly Know Ye

I have long been a coop kind of guy. I grew up in a family in which we were members of a rural electric coop in Indiana. When I arrived in Bloomington, Indiana for undergraduate studies in the late 1970s I joined Bloomingfoods, Bloomington's Food Coop, when it was still an institution in which all members had to work. In the 1990s I became a member of the camping store coop REI. In the 2000s I joined the Honest Weight Food Coop. Over the years I developed a healthy respect for the massive Mondragon cooperative in the Basque region of Spain. I have long believed that cooperatives were a viable and necessary democratic, real democratic, alternative and antidote to the shark tank casino capitalism that dominates and governs most of the West these days, particularly the United States.

Recently I have grown concerned about what is happening at the Honest Weight Food Cooperative. According to members I have talked to what I am concerned about goes back about five years, four years before I became heavilly involved in the coop and four years before the coop moved from its location on Central Avenue in Albany to its brand spanking new location at 100 Watervliet Avenue in Albany. All I can talk about, however, are the things the Leadership Team, the LT, and other powers that be have done, presumably with the support of the board, in the last few months that I find troubling. First there was the decision to keep the store open until 10 pm rather than 9 pm. Then there was the decision to allow chicken broth on the shelves contrary to a membership vote. The LT apparently claimed it was alright to do this since a national coop advertisement that Honest Weight no longer used had the product advertised in its pages. Then there was the decision to open a satellite café in the Empire State Plaza. Finally, there was the decision to subscribe to Sirius Radio and pipe retro music into the store over a really bad sound system. All of these occurred, to my knowledge, without any consultation with the membership of the coop.

I have been able to discuss these issues with several members of the board and the LT. They assert that such actions are fully within their purview and note again and again that we need customers, we need loyal customers, and that we need profits in the face of a Whole Foods store that will be moving into the Colonie Centre mall in spring and with which we will have to compete with and the multi-million dollar deficit that we took out in order to build the new store. Additionally, some of the LT appear to think that the satellite café at the Plaza is not a satellite store since it is, at least potentially, a short-term gig and it involves only one department of the coop, the deli. Beyond the semantics--I don't buy the notion that this is not a satellite store and neither apparently do some other members of the LT. The Albany Business Review quotes Duke Bouchard, the Coop's chief financial officer, as saying that the café at the Plaza is the Coop's "first taste running a satellite location [which] could pave the way for more expansion."

I am concerned about all of this because the membership, to my knowledge, has not been involved in any of these decisions and because these LT decisions, particularly the LT decision to establish a satellite café at the Plaza, establish a kind of HWFC common law precedent that would allow the LT and the board to take further unilateral decisions of a similar nature should it meet the same criteria that they enunciated to justify the Empire State Plaza store. I am concerned about all of this because it seems like the Coop is apparently becoming less of the alternative democracy I believed and hoped it was. Moreover, the argument that the powers that be had to act quickly and not consult the membership when it came to the satellite store boils down to an argument that members can't act and thus must not be consulted in such circumstances. This in itself is an argument against coop democracy.

Ironically, I share the LT's and board's concern with the need to establish customer loyalty and to increase profits before Whole Food's enters the Albany natural food supermarket market and I would have supported all of the above decisions of the LT and board save that of pumping music into the store--the sound system is too awful--if all of these had been brought before the membership. I have no problem supporting keeping the store open until 10 pm, no problem allowing chicken broth to be put on the shelves if it meets the HWFC guidelines, and no problem supporting the establishment of a satellite store and more satellite stores in the future. Now I am not so sure I will be voting in favour of any of these proposals should they come up for membership approval. In fact, I will probably vote against them simply to make a point about the problematic nature of the process in which these decisions were made. All these things, in my opinion, and particularly the satellite store issue, should have been brought before the membership.

Speaking of membership meeting, I think there are three things that could and should be passed by membership that could improve the functioning of the Coop. First, I think that those in the back offices should work on the store floor at least three hours a month. Second, I think that those in the back should have a starting pay that is no more than 30% of the starting pay of those who work on the store floor. Finally, I think that those doing hiring in the back should recuse themselves when their friends or acquaintances are the ones being considered for an open position. Judges recuse themselves, or should recuse themselves, in such circumstances. Classical musicians are often hired after they perform anonymously so that their skills not who they are, are of central importance. Honest Weight can and should learn from both honourable judges and the hiring strategies of the great orchestras of the world.

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