Monday, October 19, 2015
Meet The New Boss, Same as the Old Boss? The Debate Over Membership at Honest Weight Food Corporation
A little historical backstory first. In the 1970s many if not most cooperatives that arose as part of the healthy food movement of the sixties counterculture were coops in which only members could buy and members could buy from the coop only if they worked. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s as America experienced a conservative or neoliberal revival and coops bureaucratised and professionalised, many if not most "cooperatives" increasingly opened their doors to non-working members and non-members. At the same time that this was happening, foods, like meat, sugar, and potato chips, foods that would not be found on the shelves of worker cooperatives in the early years. started to appear on "cooperative" store shelves. During these years the member worker programmes at coops, something that once upon a time was seen as central to their countercultural cooperative mission, disappeared at the same time as junk food appeared on the shelves of consumer coops. Today worker cooperatives like Park Slope in Brooklyn and coops with member workers like Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana, Green Star in Ithaca, New York, and Honest Weight are increasingly a rarity and an anomaly in the world of American cooperatives.
As journalist O'Brien's article points out there has been a smoldering debate on what to do about the membership worker programme at Honest Weight Food Corporation this year. As O'Brien notes the Honest Weight Board, the power center at the Corporation, and many of whom share an ideological culture with members of the Leadership Team, another power centre at Honest Weight, have increasingly questioned whether the membership programme can exist in the form that it exits today or whether it even should exist. What O'Brien's article fails to mention is that a minority of the Board apparently disagrees with the majority on whether the membership programme in its present form should be eliminated. Some members of the Board, the ruling clique of William Fry (no longer president of the Board but still a member of the Board), Roman Kuchera, Leif Hartmark, bureaucrats all raised in the neoliberal ideologies of growth and top down power, and their fellow travelers want to eliminate the member worker programme as it is presently constituted and replace it with god knows what.
So how are those Board members and their fellow travellers, including members of Honest Weight's management team trying to do this? Primarily through that tried and sadly oh so true rhetoric of fear. Some Board members and their allies claim that the member worker system is illegal according to American labour law. There are even hints that Honest Weight might be fined or forced to pay back wages if it doesn't eliminate the member worker programme as presently constituted. Four years ago this rhetoric of fear was tied to Whole Foods which was at the time planning to move into the Albany market. Whole Foods, rumour had it, had mounted campaigns in California and Texas against member worker coops claiming that they gave cooperatives an unfair labour advantage and they were about to launch one against Honest Weight so we had to consider eliminating the member programme.
I actually decided to do some empirical research on the validity of these claims. When I googled Whole Foods and Coops in various permutations to find any information on Whole Food's campaign against unfair cooperative member worker programmes I found nothing. I was able to confirm that La Montañita Cooperative in Albuquerque New Mexico was told by the Department of Labor to cease and desist its member worker programme but it never took the case to court so no case law emerged from this action. When I asked Board member Fry whether there was any empirical evidence in the form of case law that coop member worker programmes were illegal he said there wasn't but hastened to add that there was no case law declaring it legal either. Yes, dear readers, nothing plus nothing leaves nothing.
So what is a member worker coop to do? Give up without a fight and declare defeat as so many have already? Do the obvious thing and ask state and particularly federal labour departments for a ruling which when made could then be challenged in the courts? Take seriously Park Slope's claim that the discourse that the member worker programme is illegal and is a red herring or a Hitchcockian mcguffin? Or should we ask if their are any ulterior motives in those who propose to rid themselves of inefficient and gabbing workers? Ulterior motives such as Honest Weight relationship to a business association that has long opposed coops with member workers? Ulterior motives such as the member worker programme is cumbersome even in a bureaucracy like Honest Weight. Ulterior motives like the fact that cooperative forms just don't jibe with the top down bureaucratic and managerial ideologies or theologies that dominate the mental worlds of Honest Weight's ruling clique, American business school, and American culture at large these day? Stay tuned.
Postscript: I received a letter from the HWFC Board of Directors, love the bureaucratic ka-ching of that phrase, by the way, the very day the article in the Times-Union came out. The letter, this symphony of image reconstruction, was apparently composed by various members of the Board of Directors via the technological wonder of email.
Yet another postscript: When I got to work at the Corporation this evening, 24 October, I discovered a missive on the Board of Directors board indicating that the Board of Directors had unilaterally decided to eliminate member workers from the floor of the Corporation and from "administration" of the Corporation by 1 January. The Board of Directors, in other words, like the Bolsheviks some 100 years ago, is engaged in a very uncooperative coup whose purpose to take over all operations of the Corporation. Those elected Board members who voted to end the membership programme include banker William Frye, Roman Kuchera, bureaucrat Leif Hartmark, Deb Dennis, yes the same Deb Dennis who has no clue about the history of coops, appointed Board member John Serio, Erin Walsh, who seems to finally have actually taken a position, and Rossana Coto-Bates. Ned Depew opposed the diktat. Daniel Morrissey abstained. "Consensus" at Honest Weight Food Corporation, in other words, is fake consensus. Consensus at Honest Weight means majority rule not, as in Quaker meetings, a process where a decision cannot be made if one member is opposed to the proposal under discussion.