Democracy is a tetchy, elusive proposition. It is the common goal of humans that spans centuries, nations, and cultures. It is as much an art as it is a science, a deep human yearning and a universal thread that ties humanity together.
But it is something that must be practiced every day; left untended, it does wither and die.
Here in Putney, democracy is just as elusive, and just as imperiled, as it is anywhere else in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world.
Some of the imperilment is our own making: Like elsewhere across Vermont, Selectboard meetings are sparsely attended, if at all; attendance drops a little more each year at town meetings; and most of us have become happy enough with the status quo to do little more than trust that our progressive ideals are being well-protected and preserved.
But look beyond the reputation of progressive Vermont, and we find that corporations are increasingly taking control and our government offers few protections from the excesses and tyrannies of corporate greed.
In Vermont, there is no oversight, no structure to rein in the rampant, destructive greed of corporations. And there is no political will to take on these entities — only the faith of good citizens that our progressive reputation will protect us.
Just as the Reagan gestalt shifted our national political paradigm so far to the right that we consider moderate Republicans to be flaming lefties, our concept of what constitutes democracy has shifted into something far less than democracy. We have come to accept a level of corporatist paradigms and corporate control in our personal and public lives that could not exist under true democracy.
Like the frog in the pot of water slowly heating to boil, we accept and normalize the gradual erosion of our privacy, of our civil and economic rights, our access to politics and education, our ability to control our own government. Meanwhile, the water coming to a boil is the increasing level of rights, privileges, wealth, power, and control of governmental policy that we have handed over to the corporations.
And here in Progressive Vermont, here in Putney, one of our most cherished institutions — the Putney Food Co-op — is in the process of being co-opted by a large corporate entity.
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The first many of us learned of this was at the October annual meeting when members were asked to vote some changes to the existing bylaws. Most of us trusted that the board of directors had merely tweaked and, as they termed it, “updated” some of the wording.
However, thanks to the diligent efforts of a staff member, we discovered that what was being proposed was a major overhaul not just of the entire bylaws, but of the fundamental direction and governance of the Co-op.
The proposed bylaws represent a shift away from cooperative, member-controlled governance to an entity modeled on hierarchical corporate structure and control.
We also learned that behind this fundamental shift is a large national consulting firm, CDS Consulting Co-op, which has created standardized templates of uniform governance, bylaws, corporate structure, purchasing decisions, store design, labor management, membership management, public relations, hiring decisions, board training (promoted as “professionalizing” boards), and a range of other decidedly un-co-op-like services to create a single model for all co-ops.
Currently, more than 200 co-ops are regular clients, charged a base rate of $6,650 per year for the consultation. Co-ops pay additional charges for seminars, webinars, retreats, board trainings, staff trainings, ongoing consulting, and membership in the United Natural Foods Inc. distribution network.
In fact, the relationship between CDS and United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) is disturbingly close — more like incestuous — with joint ventures, co-sponsored conferences and seminars, and former employees of each being hired by the other. There is also a pattern emerging of a corporate approach to the way workers are viewed and handled, particularly those who oppose the co-optation of their co-op.
Unions are not advised, as evidenced by management at the Brattleboro Food Co-op (a CDS client). At the East End Co-op in Pittsburgh, Pa. (another CDS client), management waged a long and expensive battle against unionization, which included hiring a notorious union-busting law firm and ultimately firing workers who supported unionization.
In Portland, Ore., another CDS client, People’s Food Co-op (which I used to patronize until it gentrified), was the subject of a 2006 Portland Independent Media Center online discussion following the firing of a worker opposed to the decisions being made to “corporatize the co-op.”
According to one writer, CDS “push[ed] the policy governance model on co-op boards. In effect, this board policy mandates that the board divorce themselves from the community, and only deal with the general manager, while refusing to hear the concerns of workers. It is a method for a board to ‘democratically’ decide to cede all power to management, while management does what they want with the Co-op and employees.
“When workers voice concerns, they get fired. Some try to organize unions, like in Seattle and Pittsburgh. Management typically hires a consultant and confers with CDS people on how to keep the board of directors unconcerned and uninvolved, by using policy governance as an excuse to not hold management accountable to the community.”
The wording in the CDS bylaws template eliminates nearly everything that makes the current by-laws specific to the Putney Co-op and to cooperative governance. It is generic and vague enough to make for an easy and completely legal transition from a cooperative entity to a subsidiary of a large corporation.
The Co-op’s board of directors adamantly denies that their proposed changes are anything more than “streamlining” and “updating” the bylaws “to make them clearer and more overarching.”
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In my own experience serving on bylaws committees with different nonprofits and community organizations, I’ve never seen a better, more eloquent, and more clear set of bylaws than those currently governing the Putney Co-op.
From the inclusion of the beautifully worded cooperative principles (removed from the proposed bylaws) to the specifics of board responsibilities and member rights (both also removed), the current bylaws are clearly and unequivocally cooperative in governance and progressive in nature.
The proposed version, on the other hand, is a bare-bones corporate model, a boilerplate one-size-fits-all template that can apply as easily to the Putney Co-op as it can to a Whole Foods or Pepsico subsidiary.
One reason given by the board for the generic language is to prevent future boards from having to go through the laborious process of changing the bylaws “every time we need to change something.” But anyone familiar with the true and supremely important purpose of bylaws understands that changes to governance, structure, principles, and fundamental purpose embodied in a set of bylaws should be laborious and hard-thought.
The board also argues that the current bylaws are too long and needed to be “streamlined.”
Aside from the implication that Putney Co-op members are too dull-witted to comprehend anything longer than a few pages, it would appear that the only ones who requested and pushed for creating a Twitterized version of generic bylaws for the Putney Co-op was CDS Consulting.
In a conversation with a board member, I was also told that having bylaws that are a “boilerplate template” is what everyone is doing, and that people can come into our co-op from anywhere else and know that ours are the same as the bylaws at their own co-op, so they’ll feel right at home.
Admittedly, I’m still trying to make sense of that explanation, but turning the Putney Co-op into a uniform clone of all other co-ops across the nation is not a direction I’d ever imagined we’d be heading. It’s the corporatist future of America that’s already here.
All Hannafords and Rite-Aids look alike, all tablets and smart phones direct us to the same small handful of corporate merchants, and notions of beauty and human value are stripped down to a single generic standard of impossible emaciation and brand-name labels. Even the very notion of cooperative governance has been perversely turned upside-down and repackaged by corporatist shills as the new future of co-ops.
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The water is now simmering.
Here in Putney, we’re being offered a chance to become a standardized clone of all other co-ops, in exchange for which our co-op gets discount prices, particularly if we limit our options to foods produced and distributed by big corporations.
Here in Putney, it feels like we’re facing a smaller version of the same big shift as the rest of the world. If we don’t hitch our future to the big corporations, we’ll be left out in the cold. Go with the corporatized, Big Brother flow or hang onto our humanity to our last breath.
The task here is made so much more complicated by the board members being our friends and neighbors, by Putneyites striving to be nice always. We all want the best for the Co-op and we all want to trust in one another’s integrity and good intentions.
But those good intentions and the trust was seriously damaged when the board attempted to force a vote at the annual meeting and imperiously attempted to shut down the discussion and questions by members.
Vote up or down now, we were told; the board has put in many months of work on these new bylaws. But under that rationale, no change should be made at all in view of the extraordinary amount of time the previous board put into creating the current bylaws.
The trust was further eroded by the behavior of two board members at a public meeting in December. Though the meeting was somewhat disorganized and poorly facilitated, the intent was to give respectful space to all parties to speak and be heard.
Instead, one board member engaged in making insulting, snickering comments when people spoke in opposition to the proposed bylaws, while another shouted angrily at someone attempting to present information about CDS and UNFI.
In response to direct questions about proposed changes, board members took the opportunity to tell us lovely stories about our wonderful Co-op. I could almost hear the advice and promptings of the consultant as they steered the conversation away from substance and “managed” the discontent of the members.
Without a better, more forthcoming explanation than what we members have been given as to why the current bylaws needed major reconstruction in the first place, the trust continues to lie fallow.
Characterizing the concerns of members about fundamental revisions to the bylaws as a matter of “perception as opposed to reality” doesn’t help the board’s case or credibility. Nor did one lengthy discussion at the December meeting over their proposed change, which would allow members to attend, but not participate in general meetings.
Despite the vehement assertions of the board that there is no difference beyond semantics, there is. It’s called democracy.