2016 Board Elections Q&A: Collin Fox Thomas

Collin Fox Thomas
Collin Fox Thomas

1. For leaders of organizations such as HWFC, what situations do you think require disclosure of important information to membership, and what situations do you think require confidentiality?

Information regarding personnel and benefit information of individuals should be confidential, and situations involving harassment or threats, unless parties involved specifically allow details to be made available or poses immediate danger.

All financial expenditures, agreements, or policies should be made easily discernible and as specific as possible without violating confidentiality.

2. Give an example of how you have compromised in a group decision-making process.

Long story. Back when the US invaded Iraq, UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter wanted to speak at Schenectady County Community College on what a terrible idea that was. The community at large got wind of this, and very quickly threats on the safety of the campus came in. I was in student government, and was opposed the invasion, but I decided to cave in to threats (of terrorism) and voted with the majority to cancel his talk.

It was an awful decision, and I shouldn’t have been complicit with silencing speech.

3. How can the Co-op survive financially without compromising its values?

Instead of imposing austerity measures on those who are least responsible for financial irregularities (i.e. members and retail staff), we reduce the need for “professional” management by creating a training program to develop staff/members in store operations. This would make us less top heavy, and more accountable to each other, as currently only managers and administrative staff have job security.

Paying retail staff a living wage translates to more in-store dollars spent. We’re in the midst of stopping the hemorrhaging at the top, but we need to look at what we lose at the bottom. This can be initiated with nominal monthly raises (perhaps $.05), then increased more substantively as we clear known financial hurdles. Workers should be making a living wage of at least $15 an hour by no later than 2019.

4. Per the Bylaws, Members have operational control over HWFC; what does that mean for Board members? Are you in favor of the Membership having the ultimate decision-making authority?

I’m in favor of members having input on operational policies and implementation, however not every decision made by staff or the board can be brought to membership effectively within the limits of our bylaws or their occurrence. Membership should have a two-thirds or three-quarters majority veto ability to at least halt Board actions. Dissolution of the Board is always a last resort.

As for the Board’s role, I see it as a potential sounding board of ideas to take from the membership on the direction Honest Weight should consider, and once having fair and open vetting and consensus, works with those delegated with day to day operations.

5. Over the past few years many staff members have talked about unionization. What are your thoughts on this?

I am absolutely in favor of unionization. As long as managers act as the final word on implementing the employee manual, how member labor is used and receive higher pay, along with stable scheduling, retail staff need to have a means to ensure they are treated fairly. Ideally, management, members, staff, and the board would work together directly to determine pay, policies, and benefits and have an enforceable agreement.

Take a look at our customer base and members, competitors, and the services Honest Weight depends on: first responders, teachers, state workers, postal service, UPS, Shop Rite, freelancers. All unionized. We should be raising our bar, not allowing competitors to lower it for us.

6. How can we make the Co-op more accessible to low income people in our community?

One idea is actually going out, in person, door to door, to talk to people in our neighborhood. Member hours galore! We can also reach out to non-profits that assist poor families, and let them know we offer healthy options and accept benefit payments. Honest Weight has a non-profit arm, and we can partner with youth courts for community service hours.

Since “low-income” is a broad term, which applies to myself (though many may not guess) and almost all our employees, we should phase in a living wage so they aren’t low-income any longer.

Students and senior demographics can be reached by going to them, and offering new services, such as delivery to senior living facilities or tabling at college orientations.

In addition, if we can offer a senior and student discount day, we absolutely should have a low income discount day for families.

7. How would you empower the HWFC staff to participate in store management decisions?

Since we already have an All Staff meeting, it should be used as a place where staff can directly determine strategies to operate the store day to day, make changes as needed, and collaborate directly between departments. Representation from each department should be required and promoted by department managers. As it stands now, it’s where good staff ideas go to die.

There is an Open Book Huddle meeting where departmental numbers are discussed, but I have never been to one. In my circumstance, my lack of attendance was a combination of lack of consistent scheduling in my department (hard to plan anything when you don’t know when you’ll be scheduled), not knowing what was on the agenda at the meeting, and knowing how any of it actually ties in with store operations or improving workplace conditions.

In that regard, making worker controlled/department approved scheduling, requiring departmental communication for participatory opportunities, and an employee orientation that actually orients employees to what is available to them would help.

If we are to have departmental managers, they should be rotated out at least semi-annually to prevent burnout, provide new perspective, and train their successors.

8. Have you read the Food & Product Manual? If you are aware of the changes it’s gone through in the last 6 years, tell us something about that. What is the HWFC Food and Product Policy, and how would you uphold it as a member of the Board?

To me, the Food & Product Manual is second to importance only to our By-laws. We say we want to interact with our community cooperatively, and the FPM is a huge part of how we make it happen. As such, it’s a document only as strong as the intentions of the people putting it to use. In some respects, it is very clear and being adhered to (such as the Deli), and concerns of subversion have been raised in some sections (such as Meat).

I was loosely involved with the Nutrition and Education Committee (meeting times changed frequently, making attendance difficult) as they were planning the most recent provisions.

My perspective on the process was that it was very much a Leadership Team driven process and adaptation, though some membership concerns were included. We live in a very toxic world that benefits off our ignorance, and as such, it is extremely difficult to obtain accurate information regarding health effects or benefits of products and ingredients.

There was talk at the time that the Leadership Team would be more rigorous about self-labeling products to provide more information, but I have seen no evidence that such a project was ever started. If that’s the case, the Board and NEC should reach out to member services to find members who can assist, and speak with department managers about staff involvement.

I am of the opinion that Honest Weight should apply the Precautionary Principle and not carry or use a product if health effects are unknown or disputed. Many countries use this practice, and are much healthier for it.

I am opposed to the expansion of the meat selection, as animal agriculture can be a tremendously wasteful method for obtaining food, and people should kill their own meat. I advocated that we begin selling guns for such a purpose at the Membership Meeting where the expansion was approved.