2016 Board Elections Q&A: Saul Rigberg

Saul Rigberg
Saul Rigberg. Image courtesy Drea Leanza.

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?

It is incumbent upon the Board and management to operate in a transparent manner and to disclose information pertinent to the democratic and collaborative purposes and operation of HWFC; Membership should demand no less. One must temper this blanket observation a bit by real world situations such as discipline of personnel, litigation strategy and financial information, that if disclosed, would adversely HWFC or compromise an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, it was not appropriate for the Board in 2014 and 2015 to hold meetings in executive session to discuss their several-hundred-thousand-dollar campaign to end member labor in the store. Nor was it right for the Board and the Leadership Team not to disclose to Members their strategy of keeping as many employees as possible in part time status to avoid providing them with certain benefits such as health insurance. It is appropriate, however, not to publicly disclose HWFC’s negotiating strategy with lenders or why a particular employee may have been discharged.

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

In my work as a public utility consumer advocate, I often must compromise in negotiations with utilities, state regulators and other parties. For example, in a Consolidated Edison rate case proceeding involving more than 40 people representing 10-12 different parties (the company provides electric and gas service to New York City and Westchester County and annually receives billions of dollars in revenues), I argued for enhancements to the company’s low income program, no increase in spending to subsidize certain businesses and no salary increase for the company’s senior management. I had two major concerns at the time. One was that the company had not been diligent in enrolling eligible ratepayers in its low-income discount program, resulting in the program having about 100,000 fewer participants than I had expected based upon my research. The other was that the company had not always reconnected electric service the same day that a person paid his or her arrears, resulting in the occasional fire and loss of life when people used candles for light. Through my willingness to compromise on my positions regarding management salary and business subsidy increases, the company and the other parties agreed that the company would pay to enroll every eligible ratepayer in its low-income discount program. This resulted in 153,000 additional participants. The parties also agreed that it is an appropriate overtime expense for the company to reconnect 100% of the customers the same day that they pay their arrears.

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

The opposite is true. The Co-op cannot survive if it compromises its values.

A democratic community cannot thrive without honest sharing of meaningful information, transmission of its shared history, heritage and values to new community members and adherence to those values by those entrusted by the community to serve in a leadership capacity. No amount of marketing can replace the hard work of nurturing that a community requires to sustain and renew itself over the years.

Over the last 8 or 9 years, various board directors and the Leadership Team overtly and covertly diverted HWFC away from a robust example of an intentional community based upon knowledgeable democratic decision-making, locally sourced and sustainably obtained products, and treatment of each other with kindness, openness and integrity. The modus operandi mimicked that of a typical business focused primarily on people as consumers rather than as members of a community, and employees as fungible rather than paying them a living wage or providing superior benefits.

As we have learned, however, the corporate approach has been a dismal failure. Previous board directors and the Leadership Team: (a) failed to meet certain mortgage obligations two years in a row; (b) failed to provide the Membership a budget that earned its approval; (c) continued to pay rent on the Central Avenue building for more than two years after we moved to the current location; (d) stopped teaching new employees about the importance of cooperative values, the history of the Co-op or the reasons for the HWFC Mission Statement and Bylaws (e) shattered employee morale; (f) paid $75,000 in bonuses to members of the Leadership Team; and (g) blamed member labor as the cause of HWFC’s financial difficulties.

Providing healthy food and classes on various subjects are not, by themselves, adequate incentives to attract more shoppers. People like to feel that they belong to a community and that they are welcomed and valued by other members of the community, be it a religious organization, a sports team or organization, or a club of hobbyists–or the Co-op. Sales will increase as staff and Member morale improves and people once again enjoy spending time in the store.

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?

When I was working on the major revision to the current Bylaws in 2001-2003, the Bylaws Review Committee had many thoughtful debates and discussions about the issues implicated in these two critical questions. These questions are crucial because the Co-op’s Bylaws are not the typical set of operating guidelines that one thinks of when considering the legal requirements associated with a typical organization.

Instead, HWFC’s Bylaws are really akin to a state or country’s constitution. We tried to examine each constituent element of the Coop community separately, in relation to each of the other elements individually, and in relation to groupings of the elements. Then, we tried to envision how the community as a whole could best function. We studied various constitutions and the bylaws of many other co-ops to get a sense of the best way to identify various interests and workable rights and responsibilities as well as workable checks and balances.

We knew that Membership must have ultimate policy control over HWFC because such control is the foundation of the Co-op, its reason for existing. However, we also knew that, no matter how dedicated and vigilant, the Membership could not run the store as an amorphous collection of individuals. To help accomplish that task, we needed some organization: a Board of Directors to oversee and manage implementation of policies approved by the Membership; various committees staffed with Members, board directors and employees, and charged with specific responsibilities; a professional paid staff to handle day-to-day activities consistent with HWFC values; and a Governance Review Committee to bring to the Membership’s attention conduct it believes is not consistent with the Bylaws. We tried to build in a variety of safeguards—checks and balances—such as requiring at least four Membership Meetings each year, allowing Members who have a grievance to call for a Special Membership Meeting that they would conduct, and requiring that employees may not be disciplined without just cause. We spent a great deal of time on this complex exercise because we were mindful of the truism: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We also came to the conclusion that the Membership must have operational control over HWFC. We came to this conclusion for two reasons. First, although policies have a crucial place, it is at the operational level where the rubber meets the road. It is not enough to espouse positive, centered values. Really important to people is how they and the people and food they care about are treated. Second, we knew from our research on labor law that when the owners of the business (in HWFC’s case, the shareholders who work, defined collectively as the Membership in the Bylaws) retain operational control, minimum wage laws do not apply to the work performed by Members in fulfillment of their volunteer hours requirement.

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

I am comfortable with unions. Were it not for workers organizing and striking, children might still be working in factories, minimum wage laws might not exist, and workers would likely experience higher rates of injury on the job than they do now.

I worked for a public employees union in Cincinnati, Ohio after receiving a Master of Science degree in Labor Relations. My father organized a faculty union at Monmouth College (now Monmouth University) in Long Branch, New Jersey. My maternal grandmother was an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

I attempted to replicate some of the elements contained in my state union contract (paid holidays and progressive discipline comes to my mind) while working on HWFC’s Employee Manual around 2004. We also promoted the Living Wage concept. It was my objective in designing the Bylaws and rewriting the Employee Manual, and as a member of the HWFC community, that the Co-op would always be a model employer that provided an excellent working environment as if a robust union existed.

Going forward, with or without a union, I would explore approaches to flattening the hierarchy and require management to routinely involve groups of employees in decision-making. Based on organized conversations with staff, management and my fellow directors, I would seek to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.