Sunday, November 17, 2013

Trouble in Co-op Land

We go a little far afield on this one, to the politics of my local co-ops. It violates my oft broken "no politics because it makes me froth at the mouth" rule. I have put it a bit out of the way by posting it here on a Sunday. I sent it to my (very) local paper. What else can I tell you to encourage you not to read it? Oh, it's mostly humorless, outside of a few, sharp, quiet, possibly savage digs at a co-op board and a co-op CEO. You should know the following though, I mean, if you're going to stick this one out, which I advise against. I really love my co-ops. I love food, and they are so far and away the best place to get amazing, actual food, where I live that they dwarf everything else. And I love cooperative ventures, like libraries! And so it always will break my heart when some cooperative institution, whether library or grocery store, starts looking all admiringly at the capitalist shiny bangle organizations that are usually in full and heedless control of everything.

So, here it is:

There is an old story in which a man comes home, beaten down from a hard day at work, and on the issues of the day he is a fiery leftist, sympathetic to the poor and downtrodden. But as the pleasures of home are introduced to him his positions moderate. In what turns out to be a comfortable lifestyle, surrounded by people who indulge him, the man eats a rich meal, is tended to by others, and loses all sympathy for the oppressed, even to the extent that includes, at least somewhat, his working self from earlier in the day. He ends the day full, unsympathetic, and very conservative in his views.

There is nothing wrong with comfort or satisfaction. They are wonderful things and fine pursuits, but they do have their dangers; complacency, coldness, greed, and self-satisfaction have a pronounced tendency to creep in around their edges. I see troubling early indications of this at my local co-operative food stores.

I have lived in these Cities for more than 20 years now, and during that time I have always belonged to at least one co-op. I and my wife have done the vast majority of our grocery shopping at these often wonderful stores. I have watched them grow and thrive and expand. And I have always been pleased and proud to be part of such a brilliant, against-the-odds, series of collective enterprises. These are like business versions of Libraries, but without the government umbrella, just, gathered together in the wild. Self supporting food shopping, bypassing government, dancing with capitalism, and going straight to the benefits and power of collectivity. I am currently a member at the Wedge and at the Seward. It is at these two Co-ops where I suddenly find new things, common in the culture at large, but traditionally anathema to the very spirit of co-ops, creeping in at the edges.

The first issue is at the Wedge, and seems minor, but is also disturbing in its vision. They hired a CEO. Not a general manager. Not even a President. A CEO. The position and term CEO invokes in every way the image of corporate organization, top down management, and high gear capitalism. The disconnect between the collective and cooperative nature of the Wedge and its purported goals, co-op values of democracy and equality, egalitarianism and equity, and a generic, corporatist, and frankly clueless term like CEO is enormous. If it is true that Wedge CEO Josh Resnick's duties at the Wedge are best, or even legally described as those of a CEO, perhaps it should call into question what his duties are. And even if it does not call into question those duties the term nevertheless rankles. It has the feel of a Republic calling their leader King. It may be meant perhaps charmingly or affectionately, but there is a real feeling of sycophancy in it. And using the language, and possibly the structure, of the very things we are trying to dismantle is never the way to dismantle them. It is dangerous because it starts to erode our own identity and mission. If we wish to aggrandize our leader in name, what compensation packages and powers will slowly and ever so quietly seem appropriate to go with such a title. I do not know Josh Resnick. He may be great for the Wedge. But I do know he has a deep background in marketing at General Mills. People change, and CEO Resnick has done different, more positive jobs since then, but his glossy position title of CEO certainly evokes the term "co-opt" more easily than "co-op", and his Linked In profile seems alarmingly content to cast CEO of the Wedge as a natural progression from mercenarily marketing mass produced, heavily processed food, rather than as a rejection of the same.

Over at our Seward Co-op the new problems seem similar, though they play out differently. The Seward community just passed a proposal (498 to 365) to compensate its board members several hundred dollars a month. That a barely thinking public might choose, in a time of many financial and expansion challenges, to pay high level volunteers shows a kind of sloppy, well fed sympathy for the more prominent and influential among them. That the board itself would put this to a vote suggests a self-interest anathema to being on a co-op board. When poorer members of the community need help, the Seward finds ways and systems to try and help them, they give money to organizations, they stock food shelves, they provide education. For members of the co-op board, an always sought after, and formerly volunteer position, we just give them a bunch of money. This is business as usual culturally, but it is sad to see at a co-op, which, let me say it again, prides itself on issues of democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. We give money to people who have it because they deserve it, and we carefully dole out precious resources to help people in need pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is a sad surprise to get that Republican feel at my local co-op.

In all my years of Seward membership I don't recall ever getting the opportunity to vote on a proposal for a ten percent raise for all non managerial staff at the Seward. It's an interesting idea and I'd like to see the former volunteers on the board put that one forward. I think our community money would be better spent there. I know it would be expensive. I'm willing to cut back on some of the co-op's offered classes, outreach, marketing, board compensation, and CEO salary. That would express co-op values. And if the board or CEOs really can't get by, they can stock a little lettuce. If it's really bad they can go back to test marketing yoplait flavors. I am sure they will be richly rewarded.

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