Observations on Our Co-op

The Co-op (The People’s Food Co-op in Ann ARbor Michigan) is in a bit of a mess and confusion. Which is not anything new. I’ve been off the board for about 4 years, and have been mostly an observer. Although I do step in every once in a while to serve on a committee, as well as I’ve been called for advice and an historical perspective.
Previously, I was on the board for nine years and served three years as President. Not consecutive years. I also served as Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. I’ve been a decades long volunteer.
A few years ago we added up the time I had spent volunteering for the co-op and it was as if I had worked there full time for a year.
So I do have a few observations on the current state of the co-op. These issues are of course intertwined.

Here are a few opinions.

The board has been less than honest with the membership about the state of the co-op, and how much money we are losing. The board should be letting members know that we are in trouble. Not letting the membership know that we have been and continue to lose money is wrong, and also dangerous. It is the membership that can pull us out of this downturn, and the membership should be directly called on to be involved with saving the co-op. The silence and side stepping is bizarre. And may be the primary thing that brings the co-op to its termination.

The vote to unionize takes place tomorrow, Friday. I honestly don’t know if this would be a good or bad thing for the workers and for the co-op. And my opinion isn’t going to make any difference. What I can say is that there was a chance to do this with kindness. With dignity. With honesty and a great process. That hasn’t happened. There was no need to surprise the board with the news. And there was no need to make it personal, with direct personal attacks against the General Manager.
I worked for more focus on staff and having a great work environment as well as better wages and benefits. I’ve seen the progress in fits and starts. I also know that the staff having trouble with management has been a long term theme for our co-op. I believe the path to resolution includes a lot of listening, and a lot of kindness. A lot of the board supporting the GM and making sure they have the resources to work well with staff, and careful professional monitoring to make certain that happens. A union may help the co-op through a maturation process. It may also create an even more divisive atmosphere that will harm relationships and make financial recovery even more difficult.
We need to support the legal process required with a vote to unionize, and I ask everyone to be as kind, thoughtful, and aware as possible. That includes reviewing history and learning from previous mistakes as well as building on success.
I think unions are good things. They also change the culture of the workplace environment. Let’s see more kindness and compassion during and after this process. And I hope the vote is an informed vote balancing the staff needs with the stark financial reality that has been obfuscated unnecessarily.

The Co-op is once again without a permanent General Manager. This is a really painful place to be, and is hard on everyone. Thankfully there is policy and plans in place for this situation. And previously our staff have really pitched in to make things work in the interim. It is a total distraction for the board to go through a hiring process. Focus on long term plans, expansion, and pretty much everything else is set aside. It is essential for the board to get help during this time. I’m less and less confident of the board (not just this board but every board including when I was part of the board) having the skill to go through this process and to make good decisions – especially when a long term plan is still missing and without recent membership surveys and input. After my experience with the hiring process, I don’t think the board is qualified to be guiding this process. I believe the consultants from the co-op world, who have experience and expertise, should be heavily utilized at every step of the process. I also now believe the decision making should be shared by board, staff, and members. Without a clear direction and financial stability this is more important than ever.

A lot of people have been chewed up and spit out working for the Co-op. I’m sp very sad about this legacy.This just needs to stop. Moving forward, I would seriously ask the players to continually ask “how can this process be kinder?” “how can we benefit the most people?” “is there a kinder and more inclusive way to do this?” and “how can we empower the people involved and make sure everyone is informed?”

Those are the questions I would hope people will ask, the people who I am entrusting to make decisions that at this point will allow People’s Food Co-op to thrive or to die.

3 Responses to “Observations on Our Co-op”

  1. Richard Conto says:

    I’ve been a customer and (passive) member of the PFC since the ’80s. I’ve enjoyed the presence of the Co-Op for a long time. That presence even helped me weather a particularly hard time in my life.

    I want to see the Co-op continue to be a presence in Ann Arbor.

    In my working career, I’ve seen organizations thrive and fail. In some cases, the needs they originally served came to be served by others – and the original organization failed to realize that or felt it should be accorded a certain respect (and that respect wasn’t given because the population changed over and all the new population saw was a fuddy-duddy sort of organization.)

    I’ve also seen organizations seeking help through management consultants. (I’m skeptical of the advice given by such consultants – but the exercise is worthwhile.) Management consultants have a wonderfully vague set of buzzwords and phrases – in particular “Mission Statement” and “Stakeholders”.

    The Co-op is old enough to have had several “mission statements” over time (even if they weren’t called that.) Perhaps a new sense of focus can be drawn from a review of those old statements (or goals.) A way to give a framework upon which to make decisions – a way to give kindness a context to work in towards the success of the Co-op.

    But that all depends on the members, workers, and management agreeing that the Co-op is worth continuing.

  2. David M. Hall says:

    Thank you for your care and dedication to the co-op Linda, and for taking the time to reflect. Your experience and insight is appreciated.

    It’s true that despite disagreements, mistakes and difficulties the value of working at a more caring and respectful communication has lacked lately in this process. The utter disrespect voiced by a few employees, and afforded by the protection of the union process has been very disturbing to many of us.

    There are quite a few people on all levels of employment with the PFC that have been disgusted at the ambush that has occurred. It’s true that these have been lean years financially, and we’ve had to pull together and work hard at turning things around, and from what I’ve witnessed in 2 ½ years things have improved in many ways. The last thing the PFC needed is a hijacking by a few disgruntled employees that have very little perspective of the overall workings and needs of the co-op.

    From my perspective the recent actions of a few employees is a total affront to the 8000+ members/ownership, all those who have contributed over the years, and the rest of the employees that have absolutely no say in this matter of unionizing.

    Time will tell and show how it all pans out.

    The board, as you know are volunteers, and have inherited the challenges. I would not want the tasks placed on them that they’ve been working through.

    Thank you for voicing your consideration and honest observations.
    If only we could have a grand meeting of the elders and most experienced in this matter, with the empowerment to help make some decisions, things may be could be much different. There is a collective wisdom from 45 years, that if tapped, could accomplish great things.

    Is the opportunity passing beyond our reach?

  3. Peter Schermerhorn says:

    So, OK, I did my time on the board as well. I think I can agree that a GM search by the board alone is a non-starter, and that the resources from the co-op world are good and should be used.

    But the rest of it – ouch!! When did we lose the GM? Why? How? How bad is the financial situation? How did unionization get ‘hidden’ from the board? Why, when the co-op seems as busy as ever, is it losing money? What role does UNFI play in the financials?

    There are so many questions. And it is unclear how the board should have/could have let the membership know some of these things. I can think of a few, and probably would have advocated them were I on the board. That said, I made enough mistakes during my time there that I don’t want to point fingers. The question is, where to go from here to salvage this great institution?

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