Monday, July 18, 2016

Cracks in the Mirror: The Honest Weight Fragments

As a sociologist, historian, and social and cultural anthropologist there are a lot of things I found interesting during my observations over the last several years at Honest Weight Food "Coop" in Albany, New York. One of the most interesting, given my interest in culture and the social and cultural work of ideology, is the difference between rhetoric and reality at the "Coop".

Honest Weight Food Coop may have began as a countercultural operation in the 1970s but by the 1980s and certainly today Honest Weight has shed much of its countercultural past. Today Honest Weight looks just like a host of other corporations in the US and around the globe. It is governed as are most other corporations in the US and around the globe by a corporate Board, the Chief Operating Officer or general manager the Board hires--the Board refers to the COO in the language of doublespeak as the Chief Cooperative Officer--and the chief financial officer the Board hires. Below these are a number of middle level personnel who do a variety of administrative and supervisory tasks at Honest Weight.

The inequality of Honest Weight is not only reflected in the job hierarchy of store but also in the store's built environment. Administrative staff, those more highly paid then most of the floor staff presumably because it is assumed that the jobs they do are more important than the jobs floor staff do and hence should be rewarded with greater salaries than the floor staff--culture and ideology at work--are ensconced in the administrative sector of the building. Recent concerns, others might see these concerns as more the product of power and the paranoia that often goes along with power, that middle and low level staff might access top secret material in the administrative section if the store--in this instance the salary of the new general manager or COO--means that the administrative part of Honest Weight can only be accessed by those who work in the back, by Board members, and by middle level management personnel. Compared to the administrative section of Honest Weight, by the way, the staff break room looks like something out of the Soviet radiant future of the 1960s without the windows.

The realities of hierarchical bureaucratic power at Honest Weight and its expression in its built environment conflict with Honest Weight's conspicuous proclamation that it is a democracy. This fact was brought home to me again recently during an interview I had with one of Honest Weight's powers that be. I asked this power that be if he would have had those member worker owners associated with the Industrial Workers of the World who picnicked and picketed at Honest Weight on Memorial Day arrested. He said he would arguing that these member worker owners, ostensibly the owners of Honest Weight, might offend other member owners and thus had to be removed by the Board or by representatives of the Board from the property they supposedly co-owned. This power that be maintained that such an action was "democratic" because the Board had been authorised to operate the store and deal with store problems by working members. Ah, the joys of politically correct representative bourgeois corporate liberalism?

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