Saturday, February 28, 2015
So I hung around SUNY studying and working. Because I did I began to accumulate hours toward my retirement. So from 1987 to 1989 and from 1994 to 1999 I worked at SUNY Albany and from 2006 to today I worked at SUNY Albany, SUNY IT-Utica, and SUNY Oneonta. In 2012 I officially joined the SUNY retirement system paying over $10,000 dollars in back service. I would have joined earlier if I had known a little trick SUNY uses: though my service allows me to include service back to what the SUNY bureaucracy calls tier three, I was classified as tier five because while the SUNY system allows you to grandfather back service in it doesn't allow you to grandfather the tier in. Sweet trick for them.
When I joined the retirement system and paid for back service I received a letter from the New York State Retirement System saying my retirement would be vested in April of 2014. I thought sweet, I will have an adjunct to my social security retirement when I retire, so I stopped even thinking about other jobs outside the SUNY system (not that any other university or college would have me; experience has left me jaded by academic reality). Then I learned that my retirement would not include the state health insurance unless I worked until the fall semester of 2015. Then I was told I was told my health retirement would be vested in the fall of 2016. Needless to say all this was frustrating since as a part-timer working term by term or year doesn't make it easy to reach SUNY retirement benchmarks.
Recently I decided to contact the Oneonta person at SUNY Comptroller Central to inquire about my retirement since almost a year had passed since the date my retirement was supposed to be vested and I had heard nothing from this supposedly efficient bureaucracy. The Oneonta retirement agent informed me that despite the letter listing April of 2014 as my vestment date I had not yet reached my vestment date. Was the date in the letter a mistake based on the assumption I was full time? Even a SUNY bureaucrat doesn't seem to know. To me playing the SUNY retirement system seems like a game of football in which the SUNY team keeps moving the goal posts further away from its opponents, those simply seeking a decent life after retirement. Bureaucracy's paradox.
Needless to say I was once again frustrated with SUNY, something that happens again and again. As of this writing I am requesting every bit of information including correspondence the retirement system has had with me as I contemplate what I am going to do next. Should I go to the union? Why should I since the union is largely ineffective and when push comes to shove it doesn't really care about adjuncts. In fact, the union advised adjuncts not to walk out on the national adjunct walk out day saying we would be fired if we did. Should I file a lawsuit against SUNY? Perhaps. But that is expensive and usually those with money and power prevail over those with neither like me. Isn't life for the marginal, those who don't have the work luxuries their parents had, wonderful? Welcome to modern America generation nexts. Good luck making a living in the United States of Koch. You are going to need it.
I received notification recently from the bureaucracy indicating that I will have the requisite amount of service in April of 2015 (the 2015 was missing but the context suggests this year) to have my back service credited to my account and I will be vested. In other words, the letter saying this would happen in April of 2014 was inaccurate. Presumably, the bureaucrat who wrote it mistook me for a full-time cap. Who pays for the mistakes of the bureaucracy? Me, of course. Such is life.
Friday, February 27, 2015
I recently gave students a pop quiz asking them to note one difference and one similarity between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Student answers to this straightforward question, something we talked extensively about in class, fall into what we might call several genres, most of them irrelevant to the question.
First, there are the students who not knowing much substantive about the subject spout platitudes. Americans were happy the country was progressing, say those who play in this genre, the US strived to make everyone equal, they claim. Apparently, they not only did not take much away from their high school history class, the discussions in my class, but they fail to recognise that terms like happy and progressing are ideologically loaded terms rather than empirical ones and are more appropriate to a theology or civics class rather than a history class.
Then there are those who play in generalities. America, they write, was changing, both eras, they say, wanted to better the economy. They say something, in other words, without saying anything hoping that you will feel sorry for them and give them partial credit for at least trying. I don't give them credit for speaking in irrelevant generalities.
Finally, there are those who actually answer the question correctly. "Unlike the laissez-faire approach of the Gilded Age the Progressive Era sought to reform society", to choose one example. Sadly, this is an extreme minority of the class.
One day I asked students why they were wearing slippers to class thinking they might be dedicated followers of celebrity fashion. One student, however, revealed the truth about slippers in public. We wear them, she said, because we are lazy. This is what we teachers have to work with, lazy students who think they deserve a passing grade simply because like Mount Everest they are there. Welcome to my surreal Monty Python world. And you expect miracles from us? Get real. God I will be so happy when I don't have to teach GenEd classes anymore.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Additionally, membership has given oversight away by allowing the Board (and the management team since the Board generally rubber stamps management decisions) to make unilateral decisions about the satellite cafe at the Plaza perhaps establishing a precedent in the process, something else management has longed for. They did this, so I am told, without any knowledge of what the monthly, quarterly, or yearly earnings (if any) from the Plaza satellite store are. The management team apparently, or so sources report, couldn't supply specific numbers despite requests from one member and despite the fact that they supposedly had the loss numbers at hand that new meat was supposed to reverse. All they could say was that it was successful, whatever that means. How most of the membership present at the meeting could vote yes on such a proposal without this critical data is beyond me. The fact that they did certainly doesn't restore my faith in humanity, the same humanity that elects people like Walker and Brownback to political office.
Anyway, I am sick and tired of being a member of an organisation that continues to maintain the fiction that it is a cooperative--it is not--so I will be cashing in my "coop" chips as soon as I can. To digress for a moment, let me state that I would be willing to rejoin if Honest Weight made several changes. First, I would like to see a name change from Honest Weight Food Coop to Honest Weight Food Corporation, if the powers that be want to keep the C. Second, I would like to see changes in the the regulations which inhibit the store from becoming what it largely already is, a food market run by a management team. Third, I would like to see a store in which management and department heads stock items which bring profits to the store. Fourth, I would like to see members transformed from member share holders to corporate share holders, corporate share holders who receive a mix of discounts and dividends, the latter depending on the profits the store makes.
I am sure many of you will be happy to know that this will be my last blog posting on the Honest Weight Food Corporation. I will say two things as I bid the coop side of the Corpop adieu (it is mostly a pr fiction and ploy anyway): as a corporation Honest Weight is a good place to work and I will continue working there with the understanding that it is a corporation--I will be a worker and not a member--and HW proves a point made by Weber, Michels, and a number of analysts of communes, namely that the bigger, demographically speaking, a countercultural place gets, the less historical memory it has, the less countercultural it remains, and the greater the tendency there will be by the many to give power to the few. What a long strange trip to knowledge it's been. Charismatic authority, in other words, gives way to bureaucratic I'm a professional authority. I leave these posts as a trial that dispassionate analysts can follow in order to understand how a once countercultural organisation came to mirror the very bureaucratic corporations it once decried, becoming, in the process, a kind of kindler and gentler Sam's Club and BJ's version of Whole Foods.
Before I go let me make one observation. Though the supposed vegan and veggie nazis seem to have compromised on the meat issue several times since 2005 no compromise, apparently, is a good compromise for those who have longed to get their way on the meat issue. And now that they have got it should we expect profits to double to $50 million a year? Little did I know that Jesus was a cold cut.
Gossip Girl reports that several sources told her that they were advised or "told" how to vote on the meat issue.
Gossip Girl reports that at present there is one backroom bureaucrat for every four staff members who work on the store floor. Comparative data shows that middle level bureaucrats, bureaucrats who do duties assigned them by the executive staff, have been on the rise for years. The numbers of middle level bureaucrats is up in colleges and universities by 120% or so just as they are up at Honest Weight. Many want to know how middle level management can keep going up up up up up in times of financial crisis.
Gossip Girl reports that sources tell her that by-laws mandating organic and humanely treated meat products are still on the books at Honest Weight and that, as a result, they are still in force. On the other hand, other sources note that the leadership team and their rubber stamp allies on the Board have been violating these by-laws for at least two years much like George W. Bush issued executive orders essentially overruling the rules Congress set during his reign.
The management team just announced the hiring of another general manager for the store. The first two were, I am told, a disaster. There was no mention of his experience including no mention of any coop experience he might have. I have learned that he has no coop experience and comes to us by way of corporate Price Chopper. Needless to say, this speaks volumes about how the powers that be see Honest Weight. Managerial capitalist bureaucracy on the march. As for power, well that continues to accrue more and more to the management team who now seem untouchable despite the debt and the several problems that have plagued several departments at Honest Weight during the last year.
According to a source the Honest Weight Board is concerned that staff members may, if they get elected to the Board, take revenge on the powers that be for, to take the example this source raised, changing the operating hours of the store. This is an interesting point but it opens a whole host of Pandora's boxes. One of these opened boxes relates to how Board members (and perhaps the Management Team) see staff. Do Board members really perceive the staff as vengeful and petty and totally lacking in professionalism? Is that all we are in their eyes? This is, by the way, reason number god knows how many at this point why the Honest Weight staff should form a union. Speaking of the Board, if staff members must recuse themselves or are banned from the Board doesn't this create a caste system at Honest Weight in which only those members who aren't staff can engage in the full array of potential member activities?
While we are on the subject of conflicts of interest, perceived or real, let's turn the tables a bit. The Board seems to have fixated on what they call "perceived" conflicts of interest, so it needs to be asked whether there are Board members who, because they are too close to the Management Team, are, as a result, unable to act as a check and a balance on the Management Team? Isn't this a perceived and perhaps real conflict of interest? And what about other perceived or real conflicts of interests in the store that aren't on the Board's radar? Are they simply irrelevant and unimportant to the Board? If not, when will they be taking these conflicts of interest on?
The same source claims that the Management Team has not brought the issue of construed conflict of interest to the attention of the Board. So I guess Lynn Leukakis was channeling the will of the Board at the last Board election when she did her are you now or have you ever been a staff member? But wait, haven't relations between the Management Team and the Board developed on both the formal and informal levels at Honest Weight? Am I really supposed to believe that the Management Team and Board members have never discussed this issue in any way, shape, or form whatsoever?
The source I talked to seemed to imply that there is growing contention and dissension on the Board. At present the Board appears to be dominated by those with a more corporate mindset. Corporatish Board members claim to be in favour of a consensus model of decision making up to a point. When that point is reached they favour a majority rules, winner take all, system of decision making. Others, or at least one other Board member, who also happens to be a staff member, however, has a view of coops that is more consistent with the worker collective model of coops and a worker collective decision making model. Is this why many members of the Board are concerned about the presence of staff members on the Board? Is this further evidence for how a once countercultural organisation has gone all liberal corporate mainstream.
What has and continues to happen at "coops" like Honest Weight and Bloomingfoods is intellectual candy. More than anyone else Max Weber and Michel Foucault have influenced me in my intellectual and academic work. The focus in most of my work has been on social movements, how social movements create identity, culture, and community, how social movements change, how power is organised and changes in social movements over time, and how culture wars or how sectarianism can split social movements apart.
I have toyed with writing an academic paper on food coops as an extension of my work on the culture wars over the Woodstock Festival of 1969. The theoretical and observational centre of such a paper would be several. First, many countercultural coops have moved from bureaucratic to paternalistic to today's bureaucratic forms authority as the coop has aged and grown. Second, over the years many coops have moved from more cooperative forms of decision making to more bureaucratic or corporate forms of decision making. Third, over time once countercultural coops have seen routinisation and professionalisation increase. Fourth, as coops have gone increasingly mainstream national cooperative bodies with a corporate and professional ideology have arisen and increasingly influenced individual coops sense of self and their historical memory. The National Co+op Grocers (that's a trademark there) and the National Cooperative Business Association are prominent among such bureaucratic managerial top down profit oriented bodies. Fifth, as many coops adopted and adapted a bureaucratic model of authority a chasm opened up between the power elite, those who view themselves as bureaucratic professionals (Boards, Management Teams) with professional bureaucratic expertise and training and those bureaucratic professionals view as unprofessionals, the staff. The differentiation between management professionals and staff, in turn, creates inequalities of status that fossilise over time into status groups, classes, and castes. Sixth, as coops have grown those present in the early years of the coop have seen what they knew and treasured as the coop slip away. Lastly, most of today's coops only look countercultural in an American society in which John Birchism and Ayn Randism have gone increasingly mainstream. Perhaps one day I will write such a paper if I can get ahold of archival material that provides evidence for these transformations. Or perhaps someone out there in cyberland will take up the challenge. It is certainly a challenge well worth taking up.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
I bring all of this up because I think it is important that we coopers remember what coops were like before so many to them morphed into that hybrid that Honest Weight is now, the corporate coop. I also think it is important to remember that once upon a time coops in the age before managerial teams became dominant at so may coops across the United States that coops were run by its workers. I bring this up because once again we have choice before us. Either we can become more like the Willy Street Coop in Madison, Wisconsin whose website notes that they are not a workers collective or coop and that they have a management structure much like that of other corporations or we can maintain at least some of the member run democracy that our version of the ten commandments that is on our wall as you enter our store says we are. If you choose the former vote yes on the resolution giving the board and wink wink nudge nudge the managerial team greater ability to make quick unilateral decisions. If you choose the latter vote no on the resolution.
If this coop votes to give the managerial team greater power to make unilateral decisions with no limits (it would have been nice to see a sunset clause in the proposal; this would have made it possible for me to vote for the referendum) then they already have I think it is incumbent on us to eliminate the first commandment from our store wall, the commandment that stresses that Honest Weight is a member run cooperative. If we choose the latter than we must make sure to elect Board members and Membership Committee members who will act as a check and balance on the management team. It is your choice coopers, choose to let others run the store for you or choose to get involved with the running of the coop.
By the way, if I could ask a question of the management team at the upcoming membership meeting on Sunday, 22 February I would ask this: Why, given that you already have informal fast tracking and have used it on several occasions--to wit the satellite store at the Plaza--should we give you the formal ability to fast track certain policies when one of the items you fast tracked--the satellite cafe--is not making us much money and is actually draining resources that could be used at the 100 Watervliet store? Additionally, I would ask why we should give the management team further power in the wake of recommendations on their part to build a new store, a new store that has put us in debt to financial institutions and as a result may threaten our very existence?
In the rest of this brief essay want to return again to the early days of coops. Bloomingfoods, the first coop I joined, like most other countercultural coops that I know of, didn't have meat in the store whatsoever. Neither did Honest Weight when I visited its Quail Street store for the first time in the 1980s. The reasons were various. Some opposed an industrial system of farming that turned cattle, pigs, sheep, chicken, turkeys, and fish into commodities to be fed foodstuff they weren't evolutionary fit to eat and who were treated in the most inhumane of ways because they were seen solely as commodities. Others noted that meat eating on the scale of that in the contemporary US was not sustainable in the long term. Both of these concerns, by the way, were then and are even more now more than factual.
Over time those forces advocating no meat in coop stores were pushed back by the forces of meat eaters and their allies once coops went corporate and opened the coop to non-members as meat eaters joined coops in significant numbers. Eventually, however, a compromise was achieved: only locally raised meat and meat from humanely treated animals would be sold in coop stores.
As time has gone by and money has become a major if not the major central motivating impulse of corporate coops transformed into corpops and the national corpoperative organization that guides them, that compromise came under assault. At Honest Weight Corpop, for instance, three votes have been held in which management urged members to give them the ability to bring meat from further afield into the store. They have claimed each time, I am told by reputable sources, that meat is essential to the financial stability of the store, a store which, by the way, has been around since the 1970s.
Yet another vote on the meat issue is on tap for Sunday. Once again management is claiming that if we don't allow them to obtain meat from further afield, including Applegate, a national corporation that reputedly offers humanely treated organic meat for sale, I say reputedly because we don't know whether this is fact or propaganda since such facts are not easy to ascertain when it comes to corporations, in times of a local meat drought, the corpop will fail. Once again this vote has become symbolic for those who remember the good old countercultural days of the original coop.
My question for the management about the meat issue is this: How is meat, and particularly a meat product sold by Target and other corporate natural food stores all of whom have economies of scale we simply cannot match--and let's not forget that most customers in Albany go where the bargains are--going to save Honest Weight Corpop from destruction? Here's another: since Whole Foods in Albany isn't living up to corporate expectations and they have the meat we wish to supplement our store with on occasion doesn't that suggest some other factors are at play in putting us in the red?
And now for something not entirely different: It has been brought to my attention by Honest Weight gossip girl Jasmine Paisley that a rumour, rumour has it that it originated from a member of the Board, is floating around the Coop that I am involved in a conspiracy with 99% Ned to defeat both the fast track and meat proposals at the Sunday meeting. If that means I have asked a number of other members about their position on both policy changes and I have listened to their replies and debated them on occasion from both sides of the issue I plead guilty. Let me simply add that it has been interesting to hear how other members view the upcoming vote. I would suggest to Board members and the management team that they do the same. As for me I still have not decided how I am going to vote on the issues before the membership though I know how I am leaning.
As a social scientist I am very fascinated by labelling, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories however. I guess I would see the rumour that I am part of a Coop Thrush or Spectre or ZOG as very much like most other conspiracy theories I am familiar with, as having little basis in empirical reality. I tend to see most conspiracy theories as the product of fears and paranoias rather than empirical analysis. As for how conspiracy theories almost always set up straw scapegoats one can pin the blame on should things not go your way, that is a very long standing human trait one we can sadly hear right hear in are own coop store when some demonise those who are going to vote no on the meat policy as vegan fascists and nazis.
One final question: if Coopers opposed to the meat plan are planning strategy to fight the proposals so what? Is there any Coop by-law that prohibits coopers from acting in cooperative ways?
Are you ready for the Sunday showdown?
Sunday, February 15, 2015
First there was Meat Wars: The Movie. Then there was the Meat Wars: Double Trouble. Then there was Meat Wars Trinity: More, More, More. Next Sunday the fourth and possibly final installment in the Meat Quadropoly will be coming to a corpop near you, Meat Wars: Death or Glory.
Word on the street has it that Meat: Death or Glory, like the earlier films in the Meat Quadropoly, follows the well trod generic terrain established by the first film. To wit: The powers that be urge members to allow them to get meat further afield from sources that may or may not violate the corpops by-laws in order to compete against MeatCorp: The Monster. Meanwhile rumours from an unknown source or sources spread through the brand spanking new warehousy walls of the corpop's new and as yet unpaid for store suggesting that if the fourth meat resolution doesn't pass the corpop may fail and jobs will be lost (the sky is falling, the sky is falling). In a second narrative thread a Satellite Store needs approval almost two years after it became a fait accompli. Tension rises. Gossip divides the corpops members. Passions flare. Some fear fear itself. Nefarious Natasha's and Boris's plot to undermine the resolution. The end of days upon us? Well not quite. A denouement that isn't a denouement brings an end that isn't an end to the film. Will ambiguity breed more sequels should the resolution once again fail? Only those who don't have to get forty some names on a petition seem to know for sure.
Critics have been less than enthusiastic about the fourth installment in the Meat Quadropoly. Haven't we, they ask, seen this movie at least three times before? What are the real finances of the Corpop? Are the losses real or paper losses? Is the Corpop about to go belly up and bid Albany adieu? How much does the Satellite Store cost the Corpop? How much does it earn? Will a meat expansion singlehandedly save the Corpop from extinction (song tie in: "I Need a Hero")? Will the Corpop be able to sell meat more inexpensively than MeatCorp: The Monster? Should the Mom and Pop Corpop even be competing with international MeatCorp: The Monster since MeatCorp has economies of scale the Corpop simply can't match? Should the Corpop go niche instead? Then there is that big question hovering over the whole film: Should the Corpop have spent all that money on a new store in the first place? Stay tuned...
In other news: Gossip Girl reports that MeatCorp: The Monster has had lower than expected sales figures over the last several months...
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Let me describe the scene before I get into my observations. Demography? White. Culture? Mostly Social Liberal corporatism. Religion? Predominately Liberal Corporatism. The scene: The president of the Board sat at the centre of the rectangular table. He spoke in such low tones that I, sitting at the other end of the table, could hardly hear him. I began to wonder whether his conscience was getting in the way of what he was saying. The LT, the Leadership Team, sat next to one another on the right side of the table while other members sat on the left. I sat at the other end of the table from the president along with another Board member and other interested non-Board members. Some of those at the table listened, Some ate and presumably listened, some played with their smart phones and presumably listened. The accountant sat on the right side of the table playing with her tablet and presumably listened.
Now on to my observations. I want to break these down into two categories: Orwellian doublespeak and obfuscations. Orwellian doublespeak first. Classic Orwellian doublespeak erupted as soon as the meeting began. The president of the Board read the minutes from the last meeting, a summary that claimed that one member of the Board, the Cooperativist, was "excused" from the last meeting. The Cooperativist was, as anyone who knows the facts about what happened, was not "excused" from the "executive" session of the Board. He was excluded. Reality can be a bitch.
Now the obfuscations. These were flowing like vodka at a raucous party in Moscow. First, many of the Board members claimed that Liz Leukakis spoke about the potential dangers of staff/members/Board member involvement in the evaluation of the LT at the Membership meeting last May. Actually Leukakis, even if she phrased this in an unfortunate McCarthyesque manner, was concerned about the presence of too many staff members serving on the Board. Ironically, I talked with the president of the Board about this very thing after sending him a letter demanding a new Board election because, I argued, Leukakis's statement had tainted the Board election that followed. He agreed that Leukakis's statement tainted the election but he couldn't, or so he claimed, call another election. I still think the election was tainted irrevocably and should have been done over. Second, one Board member, claimed, on the basis of information she received from a national coop organisation, that all coops excluded staff/member/Board members from evaluation. In reality such fundamentalism, quoting a national coop organisation that has an ideological and social interest in making such claims without any skepticism about the source of the claims, is simply false. There are worker coops, producer coops, and consumer coops--Honest Weight was once the second and is now the third--around the globe and in the United States. Since worker and producer coops, in many cases, do not have corporate style management the issue of evaluating management never comes up.
Thanks to the president of the Board I was able to ask questions of Board members. I asked how many hours the ad hoc committee that evaluated the Board, an evaluation accepted at the Board meeting in which the Cooperativist was exiled, involved. After asking the question a second time the Accountant answered. She said she put 25 hours into the evaluation. Let's put this in perspective: that is less than 10 hours observation of each member of the LT, much much less hours than the hours put into evaluating general staff. Note that she didn't say at what times and in what places she conducted the evaluation. I asked the Board to note what real conflicts of interest might arise if staff/member/Board members were involved in the evaluation of the LT. One Board member said, as I noted earlier, that it was because other coops do it this way, the follow the leader perspective. A member of the LT said it was because of perceptions of conflict of interest that might arise, the it may not be real but we have to deal with socially and culturally constructed perceptions anyway. I am willing to concede that many create their own mythical and fictional realities but that doesn't mean that we should ignore real reality. I asked why it was that there seemed to be no problems with the Cooperativist's involvement in previous evaluations of the LT several years ago. I got no answer to this. Given this silence I am left to conclude that the real reason the Cooperativist was excluded from the evaluation was ideological. He is a coop kind of bloke, they are corporate types.
I want to end this brief essay with an irony because I love ironies. After I left the Board meeting, according to sources who were there, the Board addressed the issue of the Corpop's upcoming audit. The Board, according to these sources, accepted the suggestion of the Accountant that they hire a particular accounting firm to do the audit. Talk about perceived AND real conflicts of interest! When this potential conflict of interest was pointed out to Board members, some Board members apparently dismissed the criticism because the Accountant was, they claimed, a "professional". Needless to say, there are enough perceived and perhaps real conflicts of interest to go around at the Corpop raising the question of why the powers that be emphasise some (which really aren't) and ignore others (which really are). But then some humans are very adept at creating realities that "see" what they want to see and ignore that which they want to ignore. So what do I take away from this? I take away the moral that some members of the Board divide the world into "professionals" and "non-professionals", put staff in the latter category (despite, by the way, their backgrounds), and rationalise, in the process, the actions they take. Why this is the case I don't know. Is it because we staff are too proletarian? Is it because we don't accept the points of view of the corporate "professional" crowd as "gospel"? Is it because they can't comprehend that anyone could or would disagree with them, the "professionals"? I leave it to you, dear readers, to draw your own conclusions.
Sunday, February 1, 2015
The problems with this argument, it seems to me, are several. First, those who take this position haven't offered any concrete case or cases in which a staff Board member had a conflict of interest when evaluating the LT. What is clear is that the staff member under suspicion has never and will never, to my knowledge, be evaluated by any member of the LT. So where does the conflict of interest come in? Second, they haven't explained why the same staff Board member who was involved in the evaluation of the LT several years ago and not one of the powers that be seemed to object to this at the time. What changed in the intervening years? Third, they haven't provided any evidence of a written code of ethics that mandates that staff Board members recuse themselves from LT evaluation committees. This leads one to wonder whether certain members of the Board make the rules up as they go along and have no problem changing them whenever it suits the powers that be's purposes.