2016 Board Elections Q&A: Tim Corrigan

Tim Corrigan
Tim Corrigan. 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?

I tend towards maximal disclosure. I think the only things the board should keep secret are matters related to specific personnel (but not general personnel decisions.) I think executive session should be used rarely to never.

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

At my job as an engineer in a design firm, I often have to balance the opinions of many experts. Recently, I teamed up with another mid-level engineer to redo a bunch of standard practices and design conventions. We went out in advance and got the opinions of many senior engineers and construction supervisors, and we went through a process of trying to figure out who cared the most about a particular issue or who had the most at stake, and let that person’s opinion rule there, because at the end of the day a standard is mostly about everyone’s agreement on something that could be considered arbitrary. We figured if everyone got some of the changes they wanted we’d get compliance from our whole group, which can be like herding cats.

There were many decisions we made which weren’t the way I would have done it, but where the most important thing was that we all did it the same way, and I held back on those issues. I saved my opinion for one or two things that I felt very strongly about, and won the day on them (though had I lost I would have enforced the consensus once it was made). I think that’s the best way of getting to consensus – strong opinions, presented effectively, and one final decision that once made everyone lives with. I think a little noise is a good idea as long as everyone lives with what is arrived at and everyone maintains respect.

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

I find the current incarnation of the co-op at Watervliet Ave is pretty bland, and the substance of our values is a lot harder to see than it used to be. I tend to think that the best way for the co-op to survive and thrive is precisely to return to its core values and be loud about it. I think the trust people have in our food selection is our strongest “branding”. The fact that we have people willing to fight over the definition of kombucha or strongly concerned about GMO’s is our core identity. I think it’s a huge asset to us in an environment where we’re competing against Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and one or two shelves at Hannaford’s. We can’t be slicker than Whole Foods, and we’ll fail if we try.

When I first joined, I was told in my orientation that the co-op in its early days didn’t stock coffee because of ethical concerns about supporting despotic governments in Central and South America, which made a really strong impression on me, and an awareness of the ethical dimensions of our food supply is crucial to our community, and it’s the reason I want to shop at the coop. But it’s also really handy as what the marketing people call a “differentiator”… after all, some of our most formidable competition is partially owned by Goldman Sachs. It’s only a matter of time before they compromise whatever values they pretend to, and that’s a huge opportunity for us – as long as ours are always front and center in everything we do.

Along those lines, I think we also need to rethink the growth strategy. The only thing that keeps growing forever is cancer… We have an obligation because of our debts related to the new store to hit certain profit targets; we have no choice about that until the mortgage is paid off, and we need to do well there because when we miss these targets narrowly it costs us resources we could use for other things. But it’s worth remembering that the old store was enormously successful without any of our current marketing plans, and our main goals should revolve around helping our community, not continual expansion.

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?

Yes, the Board needs to think primarily about how it can express the will of the members. I think the 2015 Board both overstepped its authority and also abandoned its oversight duties. I think the Board as it has existed for the last 4 months has done an excellent job of restoring transparency and trust, both of which are key to the relationship between the membership, the Board and the staff. I also think that the Board needs to make sure that the management structure is responsive to initiatives from the members through committees; we’ve got a lot of talent among our workers that we’re not making full use of.

I think on major decisions the Board should go back to the membership – and for really big decisions (like changes to member work) it might need a few instances of member input, to get a general direction, and then to come up with specifics for the members to approve. I think it’s more important to get this input than to move quickly on most things.

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

I think it’s a good idea, with one caveat. I was part of a drive for a management union within the New York Power Authority in 2012 and was really proud to sign a union card (I was joining the IUOE, which was my dad’s union). We wanted one to give us some protection from upper management particularly for ethical and safety decisions, and to balance the power of the IBEW which represented most of NYPA’s workers.

Since I managed a group of union workers, I actually channeled some of my safety concerns through my IBEW shop steward because I knew he could raise issues without fear of retaliation. I think a union keeps management honest; if we had one at the co-op, we’d never have gotten to our current state of wages, benefits and holidays.

My concern is, I was in a union in a Waldbaum’s supermarket in NYC when I was 16-18, and that union was generally dominated by 3 employees who were there for 15 or more years. That chapter was made to serve the goals of store management, essentially creating a channel for all complaints that went nowhere, which was particularly obnoxious when it was about things like sexual harassment. So I think a union is good if it is independent of management, including department heads. Had I been in the same union as the people I was supervising at NYPA I don’t think they would have felt comfortable pushing back on my decisions. If management wanted their own chapter (with a different parent union) I think that’d be ok too.

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

A key thing there would be educating people in the community about membership, including payment plans that spread it out share cost over years if necessary, and the benefits of the membership worker program.

One idea for outreach (to introduce the membership idea) would be to publicize cooking classes in our kitchen and “Home Ec”, because in some places that are food deserts the best way of making use of basic healthy ingredients can be lost over time, and the most economical way of using the co-op is in buying unprocessed foods, which happily is also the healthiest way. We’re already doing this really – this month the class “Secrets of the Bulk Department: Cooking Soup with Kids” probably would work just as well as low income outreach.

I’d say the focus should be not on gourmet cooking but on basics like say how to buy a whole chicken, butcher it, and part it out for 4 meals and stock – which makes buying an organic bird more affordable. These are some skills that I definitely didn’t start with and only picked up as I went through grad school.

Another example is how to cook vegetarian, which is by far cheaper even with organic legumes than any form of cooking meat, even the horrible stuff they sell at Walmart. That was another skill that I only acquired when I had to, and I was lucky that some of the people I was in school with were very good at this. The “Eating Good on the Cheap” section of our web site is an excellent start to this. So we should publicize what we’re already doing in places like SNAP offices.

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

I’d like the board to meet directly with the department heads on a regular basis; as a management structure I think there should be a single chief cooperative officer, and that person should be empowered to run day to day operations, but the Board should meet with all of the department heads, because the good functioning of say Produce is really more important to our mission than Marketing (which is also essential, but first and foremost we’re really a supermarket), and the Board should understand what the department heads need. I think the board should also periodically meet with all of the staff without any intermediaries. From what I’ve gathered, I think there are probably a lot of great staff ideas that haven’t really gotten the attention they deserve because the structure we had before only had so much bandwidth.

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?

I have just read it to answer this question. Honestly, I’m not really aware of what changes have happened to it in the last 6 years… but I am aware of changes to the organic standards over that time. I know I got pretty complacent that the organic label solved the problem, which was never really true and is becoming less so the longer the organic standard exists and is controlled by large corporate producers. I particularly learned a lot about the dilution of organics when we learned to control my wife’s migraines using diet, which led us to eliminate all possible stressors and reintroduce them one per week. In the course of that I learned about carrageenan now being a totally legal organic milk additive, what “natural flavors” could disguise, and so on. It made us more reliant on the screening done by the Co-op, which while less effective than in the past is still better than other main stream alternatives.

With attempts to fight labeling of GMO’s and change Country of Origin for meat, and with more changes coming with the TPP, the Co-op is going to be called upon in the future to do more of what it did originally – think independently about what’s the most ethical, ecological and safest way of dealing with food, and provide a lot more information about food to everyone shopping at the Co-op. A big investment in keeping our suppliers honest and providing full information to everyone shopping at the Co-op is a really good place to invest our time and money, not just for our health and the planet but also eventually as a competitive measure.

Tim Corrigan is an electrical engineer working in renewable energy and lives in Cobleskill. He is a former Board member and has been a Co-op member owner since 2009.