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Voices / Letters from readers

Absurd interpretation of Policy Governance breeds contempt for the model

Unlike the disgruntled members of the Putney Food Co-op who leapt to unwarranted conclusions of sinister conspiracy about a perfectly innocent effort to simplify their co-op’s bylaws (“Losing our principles,” Viewpoint, Jan. 14), the organizers of the Brattleboro Food Co-op Shareholder Forum raise some profound issues (“Disheartened that our co-op speaks with one voice and listens with one ear,” Jan. 28) that deserve full and serious consideration — not just at their co-op but at all food co-ops.

And while I have written here that I had no dog in the fight at Putney, I have a deep interest in what is happening in Brattleboro as someone who believes strongly in the efficacy of the Policy Governance model for co-op boards.

I learned about the model by spending 10 years on the board of the bi-state Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, and I continue to work within the model as a member of the board of the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction. As an attorney who helps co-ops and their organizers, I recommend the model enthusiastically to my clients as a means of focusing the process of governance on what really matters.

The notion that a board should “speak with one voice” is indeed an important aspect of Policy Governance. Miriam Carver, who created Policy Governance along with her husband, John Carver, has offered this succinct definition of the concept: “The board’s authority is a group authority. While board members will and should bring dissenting views to the board, the board speaks authoritatively only when it has resolved, through voting or some other mechanism, the official position of the group. The board can change its official position, but individual board members cannot.”

As the two fellows who were forced by their seven colleagues to resign from the board of the Brattleboro Food Co-op last year have themselves pointed out, meeting informally with concerned co-op employees constitutes listening and not speaking. To convict them of transgressing the “speak with one voice” imperative is to embrace an absurdist interpretation of a key tenet of the Carvers’ model.

That, in turn, breeds contempt for the model, not just in Brattleboro but at every food co-op that uses Policy Governance. And, believe me, the national community of food co-ops is watching.

It seems to me that ultimately this is not really a fight about Policy Governance but about how consumer co-ops and their boards should deal with workplace unrest.

Brattleboro is one of several food co-ops in the region whose employees have opted to organize and bargain collectively. Workers at other food co-ops are considering such a step.

Regrettably, despite its noble history, organized labor has taken such a battering in our culture over our lifetimes that even in the most enlightened organizations — i.e., those whose values contrast the most boldly with those of ruthless corporations — there is a spasmodic reaction that assumes “union” equals “bad.”

Ergo, when a labor union is or even might become involved, the lawyers swoop in at management’s request, instructions are issued to board members for strict silence and isolation from employees and their grievances, and board members who find this inimical to the cooperative values and principles (e.g., “honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others,” see face the disquieting choices that the two ex-board members at the Brattleboro Co-op confronted.

We must do better — and, even though I do not know any of them personally, I salute the anonymous organizers of the Brattleboro Food Co-op Shareholder Forum for addressing these issues.

Their task is not an easy one. Food co-ops are blue collar workplaces, which means employees work harder, get paid less, and function in more difficult working conditions than do people in the white-collar workplaces where members of food co-ops frequently earn their living. Retail grocery is a business with razor-thin margins, and the big multinational corporations that own most of the local supermarkets would love to stomp food co-ops into oblivion.

This places career cooperators like Brattleboro Food Co-op General Manager Alex Gyori — someone I do know and respect deeply — in the most difficult of positions as he seeks to reconcile the ideals that have guided his long and distinguished career with business reality. Need I point out that these tensions have played out with particularly tragic consequences at the co-op Gyori leads?

One possible solution is to transform consumer co-ops into “solidarity” co-ops that are half owned by the customers and half owned by the workers, with each group electing half the board. Such a hybrid board would, of course, have to work really hard to find that “one voice” with which to speak to its dual constituencies.

Meanwhile, it bears noting that the unhappy employees with whom the two ex-board members met were themselves members of their consumer co-op.

Forbidding contact between a co-op board and its members might make speaking with one voice easier and more likely. But what will that board be saying about cooperatives and their potential for building hope and solidarity in our communities?

Donald M. Kreis

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Originally published in The Commons issue #291 (Wednesday, February 4, 2015). This story appeared on page C3.

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