TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
The coop now has a mission statement! The Mission and Growth Committee reported on the referendum on their proposed statement: with a tiny fraction of the coop voting, a piddling 16%, it passed 84% to 16%. The mission statement is a long litany of goals, explaining how we're member-owned, welcome anyone, and avoid commerce that is mean to people or to the earth. Only its earnestness will keep it from being seen as a catechism or loyalty test. And since it's nonbinding, it won't cripple daily management.
The coordinators submitted the first agenda item: a discussion about member labor. People denounced the practice of members who avoid their shifts by secretly paying other members to work in their places. We discussed why we can't shop on line -- which doesn't mean ordering by computer, but parking your cart on the miserably long checkout lines, then sneaking away from it to get more stuff off shelves. If we could shop on line, said a coordinator, then everyone might put their carts on line, and then leave them to shop.
I asked why every member of a household had to join the coop if anyone in a household wanted to join -- a rule that has some members lying about with whom they live, or even whether they're married. One friend who had wanted to join had been told by a coop office worker that if her housemate, who was no friend, didn't join, that they couldn't share even a roll of coop toilet paper. A coordinator said that this was a rule that had evolved from the coop realizing that if everyone in a household benefits from the coop, then it is unfair ("inequitable") for one person to do coop work for a household of six members while another person does the same work for a household of two. The coop policy is flexible, added the coordinator: if you're that remote from your roomie, then an exception could be made. Office policy, she admitted, is handed down unevenly.
A couple of other members complained about the all-members-in-a-household rule. One said that most of the women members she knew worked both their own and their husbands' shifts because the men couldn't or wouldn't take the time. Another member, a parent of two children who were home from college, said that both were reluctant to become members since they ate out so much, and that convincing them to do their work shifts had created family friction.
One member asked whether the soon-to-be-installed scanners could allow an accounting system to balance individual labor with products purchased. A coordinator agreed that scanners could make that possible. I liked the idea; it sounded Orwellian, yet coolly efficient. But another member said that tracking what anyone bought, or why, trod into discriminatory judging of lifestyles. A mother of five could buy as much food as two adults. Which member would an accounting system reward, or penalize?
Other member-labor talk was positive, such as praising people's commitment to teamwork even when they're shopping instead of working, such as when a member on a long line volunteers to do extra checkout work just to get the line moving. Rules that appear inflexible, said a coordinator, could be attempts to close loopholes of the past. The rules aren't perfect, she admitted, but they did try to be fair to everyone.
The next agenda item was bizarre for its intrusion of common normalcy into the coop's alternative oddness: it was a phone-company sales pitch. The proposing member, who was also a coop squad leader, suggested that the coop use a long-distance carrier called Excel -- "You know, like AT&T or Sprint" -- in a "powerful fund-raising opportunity." She said that if the coop got members to join Excel, the coop would collect a percentage of those member's bills. With over five thousand members, that could be quite a sum.
"If we cooperate, and we make Excel Communications our service, or if our members become representatives, then the coop gains financially," she said. Did she appreciate the cooperation from the roomful of members sitting quietly through her ridiculous sales pitch? She flipped through preprinted posters with slogans and diagrams, childishly boasted that Excel was traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and made vague claims about service quality. She told us coop members, who pride ourselves on fast turnover of our varied inventory, that Excel was "the perfect business" because it had no inventory. "You can't store a dial tone, it's in the phone, everyone can use this." She described Excel's CEO as "a visionary. He saw this vision to make this the best long distance provider possible, and so far he's lived up to that. We beat Bill Gates on the New York Stock Exchange," she added, no little feat since Microsoft is traded not on the New York Stock Exchange, but on NASDAQ.
This cheesy pitch continued, incredibly. Members listened but rolled their eyes, fidgeted, studied the floor, and whispered. Someone handed me a note joking about Amway, for she was by then describing a pyramid scheme in which the more people you get to shill for Excel, the more commissions you get, plus a percentage of your own shills' customers' long-distance fees. She would have gone on forever had the chair not asked her to wrap it up.
Discussion treated it seriously. First there was a fifteen-minute discussion on how to handle the discussion. Second, members wanted to know Excel's rates, which the presenter had neglected to mention. It was just an ordinary dime-a-minute deal. A member, who said she could sense people "getting agitated," hastened to say that other long-distance providers had such money-making options, and that the coop could benefit, but should study other services' offerings as well. Another member, who "happened to be the representative of another" such company -- they were breeding like bunnies, before our eyes! -- heartily agreed. He seconded launching a broader study: "I think this is a great opportunity. Personally, I've seen it."
An Agenda Committee member awkwardly said that the phone-service item had put his committee in an awkward position, as it only schedules, and does not judge the merit of, such proposals. "Is it the sense of this meeting that we should not have put this and other similar proposals on the agenda?" he asked. The chair refused to answer. Glowering stares around the room hinted yes.
It seemed outrageously offensive that a longtime member who was also a squad leader, someone with managerial responsibility for member labor, could subject us, a captive audience, to some firm's advertising. Yet there are members who join mostly for the right to advertise their businesses in the coop newspaper. Is that less self-serving? And while the presentation had all the grace of a dinnertime phone solicitation for time-shares in Camden, was it more outrageous to hear than the all-too-common deranged proposal from a General Meeting parasite? This was not even much of a profit-making venture for her, though she did not make that clear. She would get a commission for signing on the coop as a business, but not for the potential thousands of members who could sign on. Those rewards would go the coop.
In the end the proposer withdrew her motion to commit the coop to Excel. She was advised to resubmit a broader proposal reflecting the discussion's concerns, effectively permanently burying the proposal, to the relief of us all.
Holtz concluded the meeting by leading the directors' meeting, which follows every General Meeting to approve or reject its decisions. That there had been no decisions this night, only discussion, did not stop him from droning the usual explanation of the process. The directors present voted 4-0 to approve the lack of decision-making, and we adjourned.
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