TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
"LOOK AT ME! I'M NOT A CANDIDATE! I'M NOT RUNNING! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!"
THE ANNUAL MEETING
Held in a synagogue ballroom with wallpaper so ugly it must have been chosen by Nazis, the Annual Meeting began with a scant 26 members present -- not including me, for I was not on the rolls. Maybe because I've missed all my work shifts since February 1997. When I agreed not to vote, I was allowed to enter.
Since there were easily three times more empty chairs than full ones, the chair declared that proxies would be used to create the needed quorum of at least 100.
He showed off his new gavel, then introduced the accountant, who presented the annual financial statement. It was boring; later questions and answers were more interesting. He said that renovating the Building Next Door would wipe out our net income for a while, with the construction nuisance hurting earnings early and heavy interest payments hurting us later. He would speculate no more, having not seen our future fiscal forecasts, and not caring to. "I'm not gonna express my opinion for nothing, and expose myself to liability," he said to the laughing audience, which had now reached around 40 people, excluding me.
Former rebel director (for his term was now over) Paul Sheridan asked -- first invoking the interests of the general membership -- about worker's compensation. What hourly rate did the State Insurance Fund apply to our labor, which every member (except me, since February 1997) donates? The coordinators said it was first $4.50 an hour, and that when the SIF reappraised it at $11, a protest got it reduced to around $5. Still dissatisfied, the coordinators got a new insurance company, which agreed to peg member labor at minimum wage. Not that member labor isn't our most valuable resource, they hurried to say. Just that it was so infrequent, per person, that it was worth officially devaluing.
The meeting then voted to approve the financial statement -- 42 yeas, and then ten minutes of fussing over and counting proxies, all voted yea. There were over 200 of them, held not only by el maximum coordinator Joe Holtz to preserve staff power, but also by another coordinator and by a couple of members. Those members would turn out to be . . .
Candidates for the board of directors! This night we would elect three new members to the board. Two terms had expired, and one member had resigned. The board approves or rejects General Meeting decisions. Traditionally it always does the former. In recent years, opposition members such as Sheridan, lacking support for change and frustrated with forums that support the status quo, won board seats. Claiming liberal representation of a silent majority, they radically cast vetos to support classic, conservative coop policies.
The new candidates were asked to give speeches. One was not there but was introduced by a friend as a "very proud mother and grandmother taking care of her grandchildren" that night, and was described as loyal and true. The friend was applauded.
More interesting was the candidate and longtime General Meeting attendee Israel. He didn't want to use the microphone -- he has long complained about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation from fluorescent lights and other electrical equipment -- but he risked poisoning himself to read his statement. He praised the member activism that successfully fought the 1996 rebel-director veto of the Building Next Door, saying that it opened a "vibrant and glorious future" while maintaining "the traditions of our coop which have served us so well in the past." To describe his role as a director, he said that the General Meeting attendees had a lot more collective intelligence than just one person. "I defer to you. . . . I'm running for a position to have no power." He too was applauded, loudly.
Then came another candidate, the lawyer who had launched the Special Meeting movement that overturned that Building Next Door veto. "Barring something really crazy" like a fiscal disaster, he said, he would not vote against the GM. Later, earning laughs as well as applause, he referred to "inorganic" instead of nonorganic food. Yet a lot of coop food does look kind of inorganic . . . sort of like soil.
The declared candidates having spoken, the chair asked if anyone else was running. Paul Sheridan nominated himself, striding to the front of the room and refusing the mike. The coop, he announced, was not, as the previous candidates said, a nonprofit corporation. "Before you're elected, learn that! Israel, if your vote is less important [than the GM collective vote], what do you think about Joe Holtz with 85 proxies, with everyone carrying proxies? Everyone should be outraged! The board members are going out on a legal limb! That's why I'm withdrawing my candidacy. I wouldn't want to be a part of this board."
As Sheridan stalked back to his seat in the silent room, a coordinator hurriedly announced that the coop was indeed incorporated as a not-for-profit cooperative corporation. When I next looked for Sheridan, he had silently left the meeting.
The chair prepared to start the voting, only to be stopped by an incredulous member asking, "Don't we get to ask questions?" Right you are, said the chair, and the two candidates who'd bothered to come returned to the front. Where did they stand on the Building Next Door, they were asked. Both were in favor of it, Electromagnetic Israel first stressing that the issue was not the Building Next Door at all, but the relationship between the General Meeting and the Board of Directors. He stressed the issue for quite a while. "I'm passionately in favor of it," he finally added. "But in a gentle, kind, deliberative way, not our trashing each other . . . we produce food for each other! If we keep trashing each other, our food will be trash!" When he finished we applauded again, grateful more for silence than for speech.
At last, everyone (except me) voted. The two highest vote-getters would get full three-year terms. The third highest would get a one-year term. The loyal and true grandmother, and the lawyer, got the most votes and thus a full term each. Electromagnetic Israel got a one-year term. The two candidates who were present held proxies, and grandma was surely also supported by Holtz and his proxies. The vote count was not announced.
The meeting then elected officers -- a president, a veep, a secretary, and a treasurer -- from the new board of directors. The chair wasn't sure of the job duties, so we all suggested stuff, punctuated by people saying, "No, that's wrong." "Every once in a while we ask the president to sign something," said the chair. The current president agreed, saying he'd signed the contract to buy the Building Next Door. He added, "So it's sort of a leadership role. If it looks like a leader, it is one!"
"We're having too much fun," complained a member. "These are serious positions of responsibility." Joe Holtz reminded the meeting that the coordinators wanted the departing secretary-treasurer to be reelected treasurer, and that when the treasurer retired this autumn, an office worker would have been trained to do the job instead.
There was only one candidate per slot, so everyone who was nominated to be an officer got elected (except by me). The well-liked treasurer was approved unanimously (excluding me), the others getting a few niggling nays or abstentions here and there.
Finally, the new board of directors voted to approve the decisions of the General Meeting. Electromagnetic Israel asked to speak. He thanked the coop for making his role possible, and just when he seemed to be going off on another tangent -- this is the man who was once told, when he'd said that he'd submitted 18 pages of suggestions for the Building Next Door, to "get a job," and he'd just gotten one of the biggest the coop could offer -- he said he was casting his first vote in the memory of a member, who'd also been a GM regular, who'd recently died of cancer. It was a sweet gesture well received, and the meeting closed with smiles and satisfaction.
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