TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
GM JACKS OFF OVER BEING JACKED IN
Board member Electromagnetic Israel opened the anything-goes Open Forum period by saying he'd noticed the wonderful gadgets hanging above his head in the coop aisles. He asked if anything was being done to promote them so others could see them. Israel is a tall guy. He can't be missing the whisks, universal remotes, and meat tenderizers (just kidding) that anti-staff members resent as wastefully packaged tchotchkes that take the place of weird, high-fiber bulk goods. If he isn't careful, they'd poke him in the eye. Still, the coordinators treated the question as genuine, and said over-the-head product placement tended to be missed by everyone, especially short people.
Coordinator Mike Eakin gave a rare optimistic financial report that for once didn't report tiny random shifts to red or black. The monthly balance sheet -- following the usually slow time of summer sales, and preceding the upcoming request of a big fat bank loan to finance the Building Next Door construction -- showed sales and gross margin up, and staff costs down from "better control" of hours worked. We switched from Chase to Citibank -- or the other way, I forget -- for lower fees, and member loans are pouring in. But Eakin called "worrisome" a 2% drop in members, compared to a .094% drop for the same period last year. He stressed that the coop kept accurate, audited records -- a reply to a charge by Doyle Warren, a board member and a Building Next Door Project Development Team member, that bookkeeping was fuzzy, though Warren had been specifically addressing past expansion costs.
The main item, a wirehead's proposal to add voting, discussion, and General Meeting transcripts to the Web, led to worried opposition. Few admitted computerphobia, but many worried about weakening the GM. Wirehead, who had apparently once said that the mean GM attendance was 27, began by conceding that the average was in the high sixties for all meetings, but added that the typical attendance was as low as he'd written. Quite true: it's the bitchier GMs that draw the feral crowds. Wirehead disavowed, in advance, any connection with previous governance-changing groups or people.
He said that creating a Web site for governance -- with a terminal on the coop's shopping floor for those still unplugged -- would boost participation "perhaps tenfold," if at the cost of some f2f interaction. Adding online voting would eliminate the need for politically noxious proxies, and would grant access to people who couldn't attend the inconvenient GMs, like some parents and the handicapped.
People came up with a metric shitload of concerns:
- Navigability. Some are freaked out by just keyboards. Novices might be unable or unwilling to learn the necessary geekish talents.
- Security. Electromagnetic Israel boasted that he could punch in hundreds of member ID numbers, though I can't imagine him risking standing near a terminal long enough.
- Discussion. GMs are the center stage for learning about and debating issues. Online talk would be separate, and hard for many to learn or maintain. Minds can change at GMs. Wirehead himself admitted that increasing democracy's quality via the Web could reduce its quality.
- Class war. An online franchise could boost the white, male, college-educated, technocrat elite vote, thus ignoring minorities -- though not many, I think. The coop is pretty white-bread, despite selling little of it.
- Power shifts. The GMs are the coop's governing body, or at least that's the happy fiction that works when the board of directors rubber-stamps GM decisions. What if more people talk and vote online instead of at the GM? Which should have more power to "give advice" to the board of directors, which must ratify all GM initiatives to make them legal?
A coordinator said that the coop already had a Web site, now under redesign, and that it hadn't been interactive because the site was a marketing tool. If members could post anything they wanted there, it might, well, not be good marketing.
Most worried about process. The proposal was too sweeping, committing the coop to online voting but not saying how. Wirehead was asked to resubmit a more developed proposal. Board member Eric Schneider, who also announced that these dispatches were must reading, said that Wirehead should begin tackling this project by forming a committee.
The chair summarized people's points. As the negative litany went on, Wirehead sadly hung his head. "It was a good discussion! Thank you!" consoled the chair, and a coordinator said she would give Wirehead the names of interested people.
Wirehead withdrew his proposal, but not without a fight. When a member suggested finding out how many were online, Wirehead quickly asked for raised hands. Delighted to see two-thirds plugged in, he said that justified his proposal. But everyone else knew only a survey of all members would count. The chair urged Wirehead to resubmit a developed proposal at a future meeting, maybe form an unofficial committee, and build a prototype site. Wirehead grumbled that he was "out of the running." The chair again suggested he start a committee. A coordinator said the coop would link to such a prototype, so online support for it could grow.
But when the chair tried to close discussion and move on to the next agenda item -- grapes -- Schneider, who'd been huddling with Wirehead, insisted on creation of an official committee with the GM's imprimatur. The chair refused the motion, saying Wirehead had already withdrawn. People started yelling for a vote for a committee, and when Schneider answered a question for Wirehead, he was yelled at, too. A coordinator complained that the discussion was anarchic and that whether to form a committee would need a whole new discussion, but that he wanted to move on to grapes. The chair again ended discussion. A member asked her it to table it instead. She said she'd just done so. He said she hadn't. Stuttering a little at the parliamentary pinball, she said it was the same thing and that they. Were. Moving. On!
"So . . . uh . . . " began the next proposer, who was proposing to end the coop boycott of organic table grapes from California and Arizona. Once a sacred cow of United Farm Workers, the boycott, reactivated in 1984, includes organic grapes because the problem is not just pesticides, but abusive labor conditions that also include pesticide overexposure.
Yet the UFW itself isn't supporting the boycott of organic grapes. It's always stressed pesticides over labor abuse, making it pointless to include this product, and now it's busy banning strawberries. Without Western grapes, coopers must wait for the season for Mexican grapes, or for those from failed New York State wineries.
Many members and coordinators reminisced over their past support for the boycott. But the same people said it was time to stop fully supporting a UFW boycott that even the UFW was not supporting, and time to stop depriving members of a good organic product. Denied organic grapes, coopers would buy pesticide-laced grapes elsewhere. It was time for the food coop to "take leadership," one said, though it seemed too late for that: the proposer had said that almost no other food coops boycott organic grapes, and that one coop was embarrassed to admit that it did so. Holtz said we should tell the UFW it was their failure that brought us back to organic grapes, and the whole room agreed. "People have to support each other," Holtz said. "The unions have to support the stores. It's time for the members to decide, individually, if they want to boycott."
One lone member supported boycotting grapes, emphasizing labor problems including rape in the fields. But the vote passed 30-1 with 2 abstentions, returning organic Western grapes to the coop bins. Holtz was philosophical, saying that the coop has waxed and waned on the issue. We'd boycotted Chilean grapes after the bloody Pinochet coup. The GM had voted before to buy California table grapes, but opponents had returned to the GM with UFW organizers, and that vote was promptly reversed. Holtz predicted grapes would return to the GM in around three months, when a reversal resolution would filter through the Agenda Committee.
The meeting closed with a reflection from the chair, who said the informality of smaller GMs meant that people could speak out of turn, but that that led to impatience when procedure was not enforced. Relieved to get it over with, she closed the meeting without announcing the follow-up meeting of the board of directors, an omission so glaring it was silly, so we all laughed. The directors voted 4-0 to approve the GM's decisions, and then we all went home and ate huge quantities of meat, or at least I did.
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