TALES FROM THE COOP

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REBEL DIRECTORS CAST HISTORIC FIRST VETO, NIXING VOTE OF GENERAL MEETING

STAFF PUSH FOR BUILDING NEXT DOOR IS SHATTERED

COOP FROZEN IN CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS

WHAT HAPPENED

The General Meeting began in the large, roachy church always used when hot topics draw crowds. I ate my General Tso's Chicken and was asked where I'd bought it. A brother meat eater! If celery sticks were raised against us, we could stand back to back and beat a retreat, lobbing missiles of fat and gristle.

Two members started the Open Forum by implying that there was a coordinator (paid staff) conspiracy to pack this meeting for discussing buying the building next door. One complainer -- the partner of Paul Sheridan, who is a member of the board of directors and nominally anti-staff -- objected to a postcard announcing this GM, mailed at coop expense to the previous GM's attendees. The discussion of the building actually had begun at that last meeting. Sheridan himself then noted that GMs were bring promoted to newbies just in time for this major issue. (An impressive 100 members were there that night, many for the first time.) A coordinator retorted that the postcard had been sent only to attendees of the last meeting, for continuity of discussion. Later, a member added that since most of the last meeting's people had seemed against the proposal, a postcard to pack this meeting with such people would have been moronic.

The financial report also angered Sheridan, who asked why $100,000 owed in a mortgage had been paid off early and without prior approval, since the General Meeting must authorize expenditures over $10,000. Sheridan has written that such cash was supposed to rebuild the coop's crowded "front end," and that paying down past mortgages makes it insidiously easier for the coordinators to secure future loans, such as for buying buildings next door. The financial coordinator, who had been applauded minutes before when announcing the pay-down, said that it was maintenance, not an expenditure, and he was upset by the idea that debt reduction is not vital. Another coordinator agreed, saying refinancing would have been pricey.

I don't know what breakfast cereal Sheridan had eaten, maybe the coop's popular Stalks 'n' Grubs, but the first agenda item -- electing new members to the Agenda Committee, which plans the GMs -- didn't sit well with him either. He asked candidates if they'd work extra time to eliminate the need for the Agenda Committee's coordinator advisor. He called her role a conflict of interest. In reply, that coordinator was praised as a great source of coop knowledge, more than a paper-shuffler replaceable by extra member labor. All nominees were elected.

And then we finally got to that building item! Yea! The coordinators introduced the resolution: form a committee to study buying the building next door.

The coordinators had pushed to buy it in 1993 because that would double the coop's size. In 1990 the coop had previously doubled its floor space by buying the property on the other side. That had changed the coop from a grubby, drag-your-box-down-the-aisle cavern to a place that looks like a California health-food store, with new, cleanable surfaces, and with refrigerated bins that chill and spritz the veggies, which members no longer need to order in advance. But the 1990 expansion was no utopia. We lost the prized amenity of cheeses cut to order. And the outdated checkout area, a terrible bottleneck at peak shopping times, was never renovated with the rest of the coop. And as thousands more people joined, old systems grew strained, and costs and prices rose with an increase in paid staff. It's crowded now, but not all members want to blow money on expanding again. Some would rather get more bulk and organic items, redesign that tight front end, and hang the growing cadre of coordinators from meat hooks for not being earthy-crunchy enough. When the coordinators had tried to buy the building next door in 1993, a coop-wide referendum voted against it 53% to 44%. Now they wanted to try again.

Refined since last month's debates, this new proposal was not an imperious demand for lebensraum but a measured proposal to research it, with amendments added as concessions for the antis:

Not too shabby. Hardly the plan of a oligarchic conspiracy. The presenting coordinator stressed that this was not a resolution to buy the building next door, but just to study that prospect.

Some members said it still sounded like a purchase was inevitable. The coordinators responded by repeating the amendments, and admitted that the 1993 attempt had been badly planned. One said that even if the 1993 referendum had okayed a purchase instead of voting 53%-44% against it, it would have been too divisive, and that the 3-to-2 majority required for a new referendum would insure a true mandate. One member was offended by 3-to-2 voting, saying it undemocratically cheapened pro-building members' votes. That amendment was struck by the end of the evening when others also complained.

We weren't growing enough for such a huge expansion, someone said. Sure enough, membership has stagnated, hovering around 5,000, and for the first time in coop history our usual annual loss of 1 out of 4 members does not come from people leaving town, but from people dissatisfied with coop. A coordinator followed up, noting that big health-food stores would soon come to Brooklyn, and that our now crowded space was not competitive.

Then we argued over the cost of cleaning it up: the building is now a carpet store. A member who works at the EPA said that cleanup could cost up to $40,000, not the $4,000 estimated by the coordinators. Another member violently challenged her, accusing her of misrepresenting herself as a business-site toxicity expert and not the environmental one she actually is. She admitted being the latter but defended her estimate, blushing as purply as her sweater but speaking with great dignity. I was awed by such composure.

Some folks wanted the building purchase to be one of many studies of the proposed committee, examining all the problems of the coop, past, present, and future, and possible solutions. But others objected to broadening the mission. Without a concrete goal, it would never get anywhere.

Many opposed to the purchase also opposed even studying it with this committee. In reply, another person demanded to know why putatively democracy-broadening members wanted to censor discussion and study. He testily attacked such members' "hidden agenda of resentment" against the staff, and demanded to know why there was so much passion over the environment next door when the coop's child-care room was already an uncorrected "cesspool of electromagnetic pollution."

The bickering went on. We voted twice to extend the meeting's end time. Slowly people grew tired and limp. The last speakers wandered. One, who had just been popularly elected to that Agenda Committee early that evening, began babbling about how we all needed greater understanding and less wrath. She was broadly hissed and shouted into shutting up.

Finally we got to vote, our arms waving yea or nay. The proposal to create the committee passed 55-26, with light applause. I twisted around to see how possible naysayers felt, but I was too relieved that a resolution had been reached, and did not pay attention. It was late, and the damned church had neglected to stock its rest rooms with toilet paper. I, and presumably many others, were eager to go home.

There was a huge rumble as people started shuffling, packing. Some always do at every meeting. The coordinators always then start yelling that the meeting hasn't ended, that there's still criticism/self-criticism, announcements, and then the formalizing vote of the board of directors, which must by law confirm the "advice received from the members," e.g. the votes of the GM. I always sit through it feeling surly. It's just a formality. Even when the first of the rebel board directors disagreed with a GM vote, he only abstained; and it never happened again. Many people left anyway; I stayed.

The touchy-feely criticisms and self-criticisms were made. One member said that members' professional qualifications should not be challenged on the floor. "Unless she misrepresents herself!" howled the EPA critic from the rear. A few people hoped for car rides. No one announced an International Limbless Children's Art Day or like holiday.

Joe Holtz, the most senior of the coordinators, called to order the board of directors, on which he too serves. He read the usual legalistic preamble in his reedy, nattering voice, asked the four other directors to identify themselves, and asked if they preferred voting on the two GM resolutions together, or separately. Separately, said another director: a recent preference of opposition directors, but meaningless, everything was always approved. Holtz asked how many yeas for the first agenda item, the election of new Agenda Committee members. Five. Motion carried. Holtz asked asked how many yeas for the second agenda item, approving the committee to study buying the building next door.

Two arms raised.

"Opposed?" Holtz asked.

Three. The rebel directors Paul Sheridan, Stewart Martin, and Chandra Hauptmann.

Could it be? I was too shocked. "Shame! Shame!" yelled members. "For those who don't understand," shouted a coordinator, "the committee does not exist! They voted it down!" The members who had stayed for the directors' vote, jacketed for going out, instead moved in twisted knots across the big room, conversation an anguished roar. "This forwards the democracy they advocate!" sneered a member. "Fascists!" "Fascists!" I lost track of Sheridan. Martin remained seated, impassive, as a couple of coordinators stood over him and screamed in turn. A sullen Hauptman was being yelled at by members, and she dabbed at a tear in her eye. The chairs shouted for people to clear the room for cleanup of, among other things, chairs, and people argued into the hall, through the lobby, and out the door, where people left in groups and another coordinator stomped up and down the sidewalk, visibly seething, audibly snarling.

"This is ridiculous! Completely out of order!" whined a member still seated inside as lingerers raged. The whiner sat alone, but surely enjoyed sharing the first taste of power of the rebel director traitors to the General Meeting. For he was correct. There was nothing to be done.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Since its salad days, the food coop (get it? "Salad"! "Food coop"! I'm so funny) has been ruled by the directly democratic, monthly General Meeting, where all members can vote. But as the coop grew from hundreds to thousands of people, it became a corporation and created a board of directors, a required legal fiction to "manage" the firm by ratifying GM decisions. It also acquired more paid staff -- the coordinators -- who manage the coop daily. Board members are elected at Annual Meetings from members historically nominated by the coordinators, supposedly for best attendance at past GMs, or by members on the floor.

The coordinators' management of the coop, especially as it mushroomed to its now 5,000 members, fed a small but growing opposition. Most opponents claim just to want broad representative democracy beyond the GM, extended to all members. Sure enough, only 1% of members attend GMs. The coordinators claim that shows a silent-majority support of their status quo. The opposition claims it shows silent-majority disgust with the GMs at worst, and an inability to attend them at best. But many opposition members also want more power in their de facto ownership, especially when their proposals are voted down at GMs, where the coordinators' voting power is strong. And some opponents hold anti-staff grudges, offended by their commercially broad support of evils such as meats, refined products, and excess packaging, sometimes at the expense of alternative products that must compete for shelf space. Also, major recent expensive decisions, such as the 1993 attempt to expand and a coordinator pension plan, did not have full support, fueling the fires against business as usual.

Around 1991, member Stewart Martin was appointed to the board to finish a departing director's term. He was a leader of the ragged, earthy-crunchy opposition to coordinator/General Meeting rule. In the spirit of Rosa Parks, Martin did something just as trivial and as powerfully symbolic: once, he did not join his fellow board members in rubber-stamping approval of the monthly GM vote. He abstained.

The GM was outraged. Imagine the members of the American Electoral College, who cast the only real ballots for president, beginning to vote for Perot out of proportion to the popular vote. The public would begin to feel the fear: what could they do if the College chose its own way?

The coop board of five directors was only 1/5 rebellious when Martin had dissented. When Martin's term ended, the coordinators nominated someone to replace him. But opposition members packed that Annual Meeting, a rude shock to the coordinators who normally pack the General Meetings themselves with their own votes or their own allies' votes. (As paid staff who are also members, they're entitled to vote, which the opposition calls a conflict of interest.) Martin was elected to a full term. He made no more abstentions, but still verbally protested the GM, and over the years two more opposition candidates, Paul Sheridan and Chandra Hauptman, were elected to the board, and neither pretended to respect the GM. The "Electoral College," now 3/5 rebellious instead of a wimpy 1/5, had just made Perot president.

The opposition had repeatedly failed to make change through normal channels. Their proposals had been voted down at GMs, and their committees were fractious and apathetic. So they had slowly campaigned for slots on the board of directors, one at a time, year after year, voted in both by their followers and by undecided GM voters bored with rubber-stampers, even when they knew that was what the directors were for. Apparently they did not know well enough.

THEY'RE GOING TO COMPOST US

This is the gravest constitutional crisis in the coop's history. But the same slow decision-making bureaucracy that till now preserved coordinator power, and gave traditional governance a fair, objective credibility, makes a quick response difficult.

The Agenda Committee might be the first to act. It is not unfriendly to the coordinators, but it is sensitive to charges of favoring them. Normally, when a resolution is defeated, the Agenda Committee calls it settled and makes room for new business. Normally, to revisit this defeated, heavily coordinator-favored proposal to study the building next door would destroy the Agenda Committee's impartiality, which it prizes so much it that it even lets Andy Kaufman mindlessly flap his yap.

Yet this meeting was anything but normal. The resolution was defeated by the board of directors, not by the GM. I'd hate to be one of the Agenda Committee's newly elected members. Do they now think of the early Supreme Court, which had begun wimpily but then claimed the ballsy power of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison? Will the Agenda Committee defend the GM against its newly dictatorial directors, and try shaming them into compliance by hammering the GM with the same issues? Or will it feel forced to schedule only items an opposition board might approve? The coop now balances broad commercial appeal with support for alternative products. Will the committee shift to the left and air fringe ideas that might please hardcore granola-heads but narrow the coop's market, like banning fish and dairy? Or will the Agenda Committee hunker down and kill time by sending trivial crap to the floor, like maybe a proposal to add a drinking fountain next to the dairy case?

If the Agenda Committee doesn't allow challenges to the directors, and if there are no ways to restore GM power -- I know none but I am not a governance expert, I just go to meetings because I have no life -- mainstream coopers' hostility to the now openly rebellious board of directors, and that board's sabotage of this major growth initiative, and opposition members' resentment, in turn, of that mainstream hostility, will spew where it can. The coop newsletter will bulge with letters and essays. Each "silent majority" might organize caucuses. The Open Forums that begin each GM will host vicious soapbox snarling, after which will follow the GM's usual business, but under the grim, conniving gaze of newly empowered directors who might, or might not, defeat their decisions.

But most importantly, those who identify strongly with either camp may find it hard to reconcile as people. In the food coop, bulk food bins face the small appliances. The radicals want more bulk goods added to the coop's alternative offerings. The staff and the mainstream members like the appliances: people are buying the Britas and universal remotes, which are profitably higher-ticket items broadening the coop's appeal. Yet whether to buy bulk noodles or a solar-powered calculator has become less personal and more political than ever, and member friendships could be hurt if people get ideological on the shopping floor. And what of simple courtesy? Opposition member Hauptman is a squad leader (a decent one, I've worked under her), managing a basic unit of coop labor. Now that's she's defied the core of coop governance, will that hurt her authority over her squad? Can she and her two compatriots even shop comfortably when the membership learns of their principled sabotage?

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