Sunday, November 23, 2014

When No Means Yes?

Hello again, dear readers or unreaders. Your intrepid part-time academic, full-time intellectual, full-time gadfly, and part-time token dissident is playing reporter again. It is the holiday season again. American Thanksgiving and Christmas, that most important of secular consumer holidays, is BAAAAACK. Given that it is the holiday season mass capitalists are going all orgasmic again since it is during these secular holidays that American businesses big and small, make fifty percent of their profits if not more.

It is no different at the Honest Weight Food Co-op despite the hope of the first generation of coop builders that coops would offer an alternative to the for profit growth at any cost businesses and industries that dominate America. And truth be told there are twists in holiday shopping season at the Co-op (and presumably other food coops as well) that one would not find in other for profit businesses in the US, mom and pop, small, and big, and that is the controversy over chicken broth. Chicken broth?

Yes chicken broth. Once upon a time Honest Weight and other American coops, including the one I first joined in the 1970s, Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana, were truly alternatives to mainstream grocery stores. Initially in coops members had to work. Only food considered healthy was sold to members. Meat was forbidden given the role in plays in the global food and energy systems. Then coops grew big. No longer did all members have to work. Staff was hired. Foods that might sell to those who weren't attached to the coop ideal were stocked including meat and sugar rich candies. Profits soared at these non-profits. Some began to hope that profits soared more.

Back to Honest Weight. Some members of Honest Weight remembered the "good old days" of the late sixties and early seventies. They have voted--someone correct me if I am wrong out there--four times not to allow a national brand chicken broth which will remain unnamed (the Co-op, by the way, carries a locally made frozen chicken broth that is on the store shelves) on the sales floor. For a time it was on the shelves in the stock room and could be requested by shoppers. Last holiday season, however, the Leadership Team--at Honest Weight the power centre is a trinity of three--with the Board s imprimatur--the same Board that is supposed to represent the membership and act as a check and a balance on the LT--allowed the national brand chicken broth to be brought on the sales floor. Controversy resulted. It was ordered off the shelves by another Co-op committee, then just as suddenly it reappeared fully resurrected. The justification I heard for this was that the bylaws of the Co-op allowed for wiggle room if a product we didn't carry on the shelves was in a national coop advert and the chicken broth was in the national advert flyer.

Well it is a new holiday season and the chicken broth is back on the shelves again despite the protestations of some at the Co-op. Is this because the broth is advertised in a national coop advertisement? Is it, as one member of the Co-op Board claims, because the six membership votes are not specific and would put in jeopardy other meat products sold on the shelves of the Co-op and god forbid that they do because that would mean declining profits. Gee, wouldn't it be nice if there was more transparency at the Co-op, the same Co-op that claims in one of it's ten commandments--or is it eight?--that the membership is the final arbiter of Co-op governance? Might that not help clear up the confusions?

Dear readers and unreaders it is time for me to take off my reporter cap and put on my intellectual--historical, sociological, anthropological, theoretical. Here are my observations: The notion that the Co-op is democratic makes sense only if we define democratic as akin to what Renaissance Florence had under the Medici (sadly the Co-op's artistic culture does not even come close to that of Medici Florence). The Co-op has a political and governing structure that is, objectively speaking, not that different from Albany Medical Centre, the government of Albany, New York, or General Electric. Today's Co-op and today's coops, in other words, are very similar to the forms, the less humane economic and political forms, they hoped to replace. They are hierarchical. They have, as the Willy Street Coop website puts it, "a management structure similar to more traditionally run businesses" (props to Willy for telling it like it is and for not hiding behind the doublespeak discourse of coops being democratic). The national food brands they sell mimic the look and the distribution networks of national mainstream brands. They are hierarchical. They have a national association that parallels that of mainstream mass capitalism (National Cooperative Business Association). They have national advertisement flyers. They have national coupon books full of coupons that look just like those of mainstream mass capitalism. They have a national distribution network that runs on petrol (UNFI, United Natural Foods). They have staff meetings led by representatives of the powers in the back offices that are more symbolic than real. Politics is often symbolic isn't it? They have paid staff some of whom are not even members of the Coop. Some employees like those at Outpost in Milwaukee and Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana have responded to these new hierarchical realities and an increasing sense of powerlessness by unionising just like their worker forebears in the mid-19th to 20th century did. The moral: Meet the new boss much the same as the old boss or almost?

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