Sunday, 15 November 2015

We're So Special... Not!: Corporatisation and Coop Non-Exceptionalism

One of the things I have learned while I have been a member worker and an employee at the Honest Weight Food Corporation is just how unexceptional it and other "coops" like it are. As someone who was a member of a workers cooperative in the 1970s I came of intellectual age in a coop that was worker run, a coop in which members had to work, and a coop that only member workers could buy at. I was thus surprised when I started working at Honest Weight and as a result learning a lot about its ideology and its operations how what was once a countercultural institution that was meant to be distinct from conformist capitalist culture had come to mimic the neoliberal and social liberal world that they initially reacted against.

This mimicking works on a number of different levels at contemporary "consumer" "coops". Many "coops" including Honest Weight in Albany, New York, are members of the Iowa City headquartered National Cooperative Grocers Association, aka, National Cooperative Grocers, an organization founded in 1999, the organization that has copyrighted the c+op logo that appears on their website and on their coupon books which are found at many "coops" across the US including Honest Weight (see above). The goal of this organization, as noted on its website, is to unify coops in the United States (a "cooperative" IGA ), help them operationalise their resources, help them strengthen their purchasing power, help them establish competitive pricing, help them with operational and merchandising training, and help them with expansion. Needless to say, Honest Weight's powers that be have availed themselves of all of these services. The NCGA with its emphasis on operationalization, strengthening purchasing power, training, centralization, routinisation, and growth (amen) makes the goals of the NCGA very similar if not fully similar to any other capitalist enterprise in the US. So much for "coop" exceptionalism. See you later counterculture.

One way that the NCGA "helps" its members or branch coops, as one member of the Leadership Team at Honest Weight, referred to NCGA "coops" including Honest Weight, is with product. To "help" with product distribution the NCGA signed agreements with United Natural Foods Inc which makes UNFI the primary distributor of its some 80,000 products to what the NCGA calls its 143 retail food "coops" with their $1.8 billion dollars in sales per year. UNFI, which arose out of the merger of regional distribution networks in the US and Canada in 1996 defines itself in a registered public relations phrase as "America's premier certified organic distributor" and distributes, according to its website, natural, organic, and specialty goods not only to NCCA "coops" but to Safeway thanks to an agreement signed in 2011 with that mainstream grocery store. Not getting your product on this monopoly is likely hazardous to the health of small scale organic businesses. UNFI, which is not a cooperative and is traded on Wall Street (NASDAQ), which describes its goals as ones of unity, evolving, carrying, doing, focusing, and connecting, also offers retail, financial, marketing, and store design services to its clients like Honest Weight. One source told me that Honest Weight has adapted some but not all of suggestions that have been made to us by the NCGA and UNFI. Another source told me that vendors and UNFI came into the new Honest Weight store and advised on how and where to put product. Needless to say all of this is no different from how capitalism has worked since the Gilded Age. So much for "coop" exceptionalism. See you later counterculture.

There are, by the way, several "coop" consulting firms out there in corporate land including CDS Consulting Co-ops which says on its website that "[o]ur consultants help clients develop the insight, skills and resources they need to adapt to market challenges and be models of teamwork and cooperation in their communities." "Through experienced assessment, coaching and planning assistance", the CDS website says, "our team works with clients to strengthen internal and external business systems and relationships that result in profitability and greater capacity to fulfill their mission." Honest Weight is a member of CDS and has, according to one source, availed themselves of CDS. Several CDS member "coops"--they are also members of the NCGA--have recently ended their member programmes including the East End Food Coop in Pittsburgh and the Putney Food Cooperative in Vermont because, they were told by "advisors" that it was illegal. Honest Weight, which according to one source has availed itself of the "advise" of CDS, is just the latest "coop" to get this member programmes are illegal treatment. Speaking of consultants, one source told me that the person from Syracuse who was at the lawyers meeting on Saturday and who spoke about the transition from member worker to non-member work at the Syracuse Coop was none other than Thayne Joyall, a consultant for CDS who has long advised coops across the US to get rid of their member worker programme. I am told Ms. Joyall didn't divulge her work with CDS at the meeting. Can you say suspicious? Anyway, Ms. Joyal lists her specialities as board perpetuation, elite maintenance of power, in other words, coaching board members, coaching board members in corporate speak, corporate propaganda, and corporate demagoguery, in other words, and building relationships between management and the Board, the development of a coop aristocracy, in other words. Some, by the way, might find Ms. Joyall's articles interesting and revealing particularly the one on throwing out the old by-laws and bringing in the new. Consulting, of course, has long been a central aspect of modern corporate capitalism. So much for "coop" exceptionalism. See you later counterculture.

Then there is the National Cooperative Business Association. The NCBA, among other things, sponsors the Consumer Cooperative Management Association Conferences. The CCMA, as the 2013 conference website notes, has been helping managers of corps since 1956 "learn how to develop a marketing strategy and market your food co-op for growth, [d]iscover how to differentiate a food co-op in an ever-changing competitive landscape, [s]hare best practices and strategies with food co-op leaders, [d]iscuss governance, management and the role of a board of directors in food co-ops, [d]iscover the latest products and services available in the food cooperative community" at hotels across the country. The conference was held in 2013 at the Downtown Marriott in Philadelphia. Translation: the CCMA brings together coop managers from across the US, including those at Honest Weight, and inscribes them in a corporate culture and inculcates within them the ideologies at the heart of cooperative corporate culture. Can you say a kind of counter corporate culture Bohemian Grove?

There is, by the way, as other have noted, suggestive evidence of a revolving door between the promoters of corporatisation in the coop world. CDS Store Planner Nicole Klimek used to work for UNFI as her Linkedin profile page makes clear. National Cooperative Grocers Association Business Development Director used to work for UNFI as his Linkedin profile page makes clear. The Board of Directors of the National Cooperative Business Association includes the Director of Membership and Cooperative Relations of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, an attorney from the Minneapolis firm of Dorsey and Whitney, the Chief Regulatory, Legislative, and Compliance Officer of CoBank, and the Vice President of Cooperative Affairs, Organic Valley Family of Farms. Once again the contemporary cooperative world with its revolving political and economic doors and its bankers and other elites who show up again and again on Boards of Directors mirrors the corporate capitalist world at large.

Another way the Honest Weight is far from exceptional is in its crisis discourse. The powers that be, the Leadership Team and their allies on the Board (Frye, Kuchera, Daniels, Hartmark) and their fellow travelers, have been playing the fear card to try to "convince" members to do away with the membership progamme. First they used the fear that Whole Foods was going to take us to court and claim that our member programme was an unfair labour practise. I could find no instance of anything like this happening. Then it was that the claim that coop member worker programmes which have been around since the 1970s if not earlier was illegal according to labour laws. I could find no legal precedent making member working programmes illegal. Then it was that Honest Weight could be fined thousands if not millions and forced to pay back wages to member workers for this unfair practise. I could find no legal precedent for this and wonder about such an argument since Honest Weight is a corporation with limited liability. Then it was that members would be liable for any violation of labour law back pay, this despite the fact that corporations have limited liability. Again there is no legal precedent here. Then it was that the banks Honest Weight owes monies to don't like change. Whether the banks care anything other than getting their money back has yet to be proven, however. Fear at Honest Weight just like it is in the US at large is the powers that bes best friend. Don't believe me, just think back to fears used by elite to manipulate US public opinion during World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq II...You know the drill.

There are other "coop" consulting service beyond CDS. Another is Co-operative Business Consultants who describe their mission as "helping democratic enterprises to start up, grow and thrive. For over a decade, its website trumpets, it has delivered high quality advice, mentoring, training and research on business development and financial planning, governance, legal structures, human resources and other key issues crucial to co-ops."

Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Mimi Yahn, "Losing Our Principles", Brattleboro Commons
Mimi Yahn, "Searching for Democracy at the Putney Co-op", VTDigger, 4 February 2015

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