TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
NOT TO THE COOP'S CREDIT
Me breaking the tension at the previous General Meeting. Inset from Linewaiter's Gazette photo.
Inset from inset of same photo. The lighter border limning the right side of the darker field proves the latter to be not armpit sweat, but instead an artifact caused by differing refraction from a fold of shirt fabric.
Coordinator Mike Eakin winced as he gave the financial report, not from bad figures but from a bad dentist visit. New members and new loans from members are increasing slowly, but shrinkage (income loss from theft and breakage, mostly theft) is still high. He said that shrinkage might be a problem until the new checkout scanners were ready.
Wirehead gave the first committee report. He reminded us that in 1996, the General Meeting had rejected his proposal for a coop-governance Web site, but had urged him to develop one unofficially, and that the most recent GM had authorized the posting of the new GM minutes on the Web. He then announced that he had created parkslopefoodcoop.org, "a working project so far, and a small step toward greater democracy at the coop." Articles were welcome, and there would be a feedback feature.
"I'm giving notice to the coordinators that this is the time to send photos and statements for your section, which you'll learn more about if you visit the site," he declared. He conceded, when asked, that participation was optional.
(The site was registered in his name one day after the previous GM. Besides hosting minutes, it has empty sections labeled "Coordinators Page" and "Board of Directors Page." Will coordinators cooperate with this venture, or reject it as uncooperative? There are forum sections for discussing the Building Next Door renovation, coop governance, and GM agenda items. The site first solicited donations for the site's maintenance; now it urges readers to sign up with the system that hosts it.)
Coordinator Linda Wheeler, who at the previous GM had vociferously opposed posting minutes on the official coop Web site (foodcoop.com), asked if parkslopefoodcoop.org looked like the official site. Wirehead replied that his logo said "Park Slope Food Coop: Democracy in Action." Wheeler said that she was "very concerned" about Wirehead's site being mistaken for the official site. "How does this differ from what we have?" she asked. "I see no similarity at all," Wirehead said blandly. Board member and coop president Eric Schneider jumped to Wirehead's defense, saying "He's simply a member who took it upon himself" to build the site. "You can't simply say you 'have concerns' in a grave tone; you have to articulate," he chided.
Wheeler admitted that she shouldn't have panned it so broadly, and that she'd be glad to state her concerns. "There's a space for that" on the site, Wirehead stated. Choosing to speak right away rather than wait for that opportunity, Wheeler said that "any six people out of 6,000 members could put up a page looking like the coop page, and I don't think that serves the coop well," especially, she added, if the site was run by one person acting alone, not in touch with other members, not involved with governing the coop.
"So do you think there should be a disclaimer?" asked the chair.
"Yeah. Something like that would probably make me happy," she said, with a short laugh.
Wirehead mulled that over, then said that he was well in touch with the membership, having "consulted with the 20 to 30" people whom he said came to a planning meeting, as well as with other coop members. "The consensus was that this is really a good idea. We need free speech, and we need a free press."
(Since the GM, parkslopefoodcoop.com has added an obscure disclaimer. Also, at a meeting for the official coop Web site, the Webmaster for foodcoop.com reportedly said that he would post elephant shit if it would attract hits, and Wheeler reportedly objected to Web distribution of financial reports and minutes, even though they are freely distributed at the coop and can even be found littering its sidewalk.)
The chair called for the report of the renovation committee, whose representative said that the new Building Next Door plans and budgetary information could be presented the following month. Board member Electromagnetic Israel asked if the GM would then accept the plans. The GM doesn't vote on the plans at all, she said; the RC votes on the plans, but the GM approves monies for the project. (A board member doesn't know this?) "When do we do that?" asked Israel. She assured him that it would be better first to let the next GM hear the plans and the budgetary stuff. "Then we can vote on the dollars."
A discussion of debit cards, led by Wheeler, was the main agenda item. She prefaced the topic by asking us to think not only of our coop working and shopping experience, but also of our interest as owners.
Card users would not pay their own way, said Wheeler: all the coop would have to subsidize card-handling fees via a 1% overall price markup, making it a general expense just like existing bank charges. "Our bank charges are huge," said Wheeler. It costs 30 cents to deposit $100 of cash in the bank and 21 cents to deposit a check, plus the cost of the deposit slip. Banks require us to offer credit cards if we offer debit cars. For a $100 purchase, use of a plain debit card would add 31 cents to the transaction, and 61 cents if the debit card has a Visa or MasterCard logo. A credit card's transaction fee would be a whopping $1.35. Increasing the price markup from 20% to 21% to pay for the added costs would make a $100 purchase cost the shopper $100.83.
All of which sounds simple in print, but orally it confused the whole room. Dumb requests for Wheeler and Holtz to clarify the math made me feel that I wasn't the only one who'd failed ninth-grade math. A member said that the rates seemed low. Holtz agreed, saying that since supermarkets had low margins, the credit-industrial complex had to give good rates if they wanted their business. Holtz added that the credit salespeople were enthusiastic enough to assure the coop not to worry about costs since adding credit/debit cards would supposedly pay for itself.
An anti-credit member asked whether a flat fee could be levied on individual users. Why should all pay a higher markup so only some could use credit/debit cards? he continued. Is the coop creating a class system? Wheeler again said that the card companies wouldn't accept usage fees from individuals, and that individual benefits to non-card-users could indirectly benefit everyone. Cards might draw in new members, increase convenience for those who would use cards, and could mean more sales, including impulse buying. "The credit-card companies all claim it; we don't know what the coop experience would be," she said.
A member gave a heartfelt speech about feeling like a second-class citizen while he carried cash, "an accepted form of payment for the last 250 years of the United States," and had to wait for credit card transactions in a line ahead of him.
Many worried that elitist use of plastic would alienate poor members. But one member, calling herself low-income, warned against "making a blanket assumption" that the poor wouldn't want such cards, use of which could mean fewer bank transaction fees for the card owner.
Another member suggested speeding the process by swiping the card at the checkout counter and signing the receipt later at the cashier. (Fuck no! If there's a problem up front, you'd have to beat your way backward to your former checkout worker, who'd be busy with a new shopper.)
"Banks get you coming and going," declared board member Doyle Warren -- usage fees, merchant costs, and accumulated debt for those who can't afford it. We should protect coop members from such exploitation, he said: if we're weirdly unique enough to have members perform 85% of our labor, let's be weirdly unique in opposing plastic.
Wirehead asked why we were considering a markup instead of reducing costs, especially by replacing paperwork with computers. Let's create our own cards, said Andy Kaufman. Israel concurred and asked for a staw poll of GM attendees, as if that meant anything. Eakin's face showed a pain beyond dentistry, and he spoke of a "French gentleman" who wanted the coop to have smart cards and its own private economy. Then he held his head in a Scream pose.
Israel suggested a more modest, flexible markup -- why not only half or a quarter of a percent, adjustable later? Holtz agreed that the markup could be tweaked midyear. A coordinator complained that it wasn't the markup that counted, but the final price, which was dependent on the coop's wholesale buying savvy. "We get better at it all the time."
Installing an ATM on the shopping floor attracted much interest, but a Renovation Committee representative assured us it would disrupt traffic badly. "Every inch" of floor space "is spoken for." She said that adding an ATM would be like adding an elephant.
I don't favor a markup increase for cards. There are many nice things we could add to the coop -- credit/debit cards, a bagging service to keep checkout lines moving, a cafe, the restoration of the cheese counter, and a Mosiach counter where that squinting Lubavitcher toad who asks everyone "Are you Chewish?" could stand so he wouldn't be a pest in the aisles. But I'm leery about paying for frills. We don't know how much more business the Building Next Door will bring. We're expanding to meet a growing demand for organic food -- a demand that will also create competitor stores that don't subject shoppers to the coop's hassles.
The chair announced the end of the GM and the beginning of the board of directors' meeting. Schneider bounded up to the mike to say that the chair would present to the board for approval the minutes for the July and August meetings. The chair interrupted him, saying that the board "usually runs its own meetings" without chair interference.
Holtz, who always leads board meetings, said that they would now vote for the first time on GM minutes. Board member Melinda Marx complained that she hadn't received minutes during her summer vacation, and that she was "very uncomfortable" with this, and that she didn't want to vote on this since it would expose GM proceedings to the outside world. Holtz said he'd tried to mail her the minutes.
Wheeler protested that the July minutes had been presented at the previous GM as only an example of minutes, not as a final draft, and that there were a couple of errors that she would've wanted to comment on. Schneider retorted, "This is not the time to comment on this." (When was the time?) Some in the audience protested, agreeing that the July minutes had, indeed been presented only as an example.
"I'm not here for this," said Electromagnetic Israel. "Then you've disregarded the advice of the members," replied Schneider. "There is no advice!" shouted Israel, refusing as a board member even to fart unless the GM would direct him to do so the same night.
"I object to being shouted to," said Wheeler. "We have a factual error. Do we want to pass something with an error?"
"Will comments go into the minutes?" asked Marx. Riana McLoughlin, coop secretary and drafter of the minutes, said no.
Holtz watched from behind, not objecting to Schneider taking the lead but not standing by him, either. "Can anyone speak here?" complained an audience member. Over a gossipy buzz of audience complaint and confusion, Schneider stridently asked the room if the board members had read the minutes. Then he asked if the board members approved the minutes. Then he asked the chair to record that Holtz, Warren, board member Kathy Bauer, and he himself had voted to approve the minutes, making it 4-2. He didn't ask for dissenting votes or abstentions, Marx and Israel's opposition being a given conclusion.
The criticism/self-criticism wrap-up was strained. A coordinator complained that the board shouldn't have accepted minutes with factual errors, and that it wasn't fair to call Wheeler's "principled objection" acrimony. A member asked how non-board members could comment on minutes. Holtz said that he'd understood from Schneider that the latter was first going to discuss the minutes, and "that's not what happened." Next time, he said, amendments should be proposed.
Schneider apologized for "being stifling," said the more participation the better, and said that the board should be able to sit down "like human beings" to discuss minutes approval. He complained that last year he had tried to get the board to meet outside of the GM, but that "some" (Marx and Israel) wouldn't "for inexplicable reasons" (actually, for well-articulated opposition to board action outside of the GM).
Wheeler, speaking slowly, said that she was shaken by Schneider's attack over an "error in fact." "I'm sorry," she said tremblingly, "I'm not accustomed to being attacked. I'm a person of integrity." Minutes-writer McLoughlin said that she was happy to have amendments for inaccuracies, but that discussion of minutes should not be "a major rehash."
The chair tiredly closed the meeting, ignoring Israel, who ranted as people broke up that he wasn't about to vote on something that was illegal.
Afterward, craving meat, I stood on line forever at Key Food, cradling a shell steak, waiting for someone ahead of me to take forever to pay with his credit card.
Back to list of dispatches.