Are You a “Member” of the Honest Weight Food Co-op?

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Muddy boots
Photo courtesy Steve Fentner.

Until the fall of 2015 I, like many other members, had not really been fulfilling my role under the Co-op’s Bylaws. I was content to simply meet my obligation for a contribution of hours, enjoy my discount, and leave the governance and committee work to others. I trusted that the values and beliefs on which HWFC were founded would be safeguarded by others. I assumed the quality and purity of HWFC’s food and other merchandise would continue at the highest levels under the scrutiny of others more aware of potentially questionable ingredients or practices. I believed that the people elected to the Board, and those hired to manage the Co-op, would act in the best interests of the membership. I now realize that more is asked of us as members, and would like to briefly describe what that is by way of describing my involvement in another organization. I also ask you to consider your own performance as a member. My hope is that many more members will respond positively to the call to serve on committees and in governance of the Co-op, so that there is a robust, fruitful and continuing conversation regarding all aspects of the Co-op helping to guide its direction and operation.

‘Membership’ in the Adirondack Mountain Club

I belong to several organizations, each requiring some type of dues or “investment”. For instance, one is the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). I have been a member of this club for approximately 26 years, paying annual dues each year. Monetarily, this far exceeds the
one-time cost of a share in HWFC. What do I get for my dues to ADK? Am I a member? Yes, certainly according to the club’s bylaws I am a member, entitled to discounts on various merchandise/services and receipt of periodic publications. Technically, I needn’t do anything else to be a member and feel I’ve supported the club’s values and principles. However, because I love the outdoors, and hiking in the Adirondacks, I actually do much more to support the club than simply pay my annual dues. I’ve participated in the governance of the club in a number of ways, including service on committees at both the local and statewide levels, leading other hikers on trip outings, and by working on many other tasks that just needed to be done over the years. I firmly believe it is these activities that really make me a member of ADK, and give me pride in knowing that I support the club.

‘Membership’ at Honest Weight

Membership at HWFC is formally defined as akin to the higher level of active involvement I have with the ADK. Purchasing my share makes me a shareholder of the cooperative and entitles me to receive two percent off my purchases there. However, the HWFC Bylaws make the distinction that to be a ‘member’ I must also contribute to the Co-op by putting in a minimum number of hours of labor in helping run the organization. I can contribute my hours in a number of ways, including working on the floor of the store, in the administration of the store, and by serving on one or more committees that aid in the governance of the Co-op. In recognition of my contribution I am provided a discount on purchases, relative to the level of hours I contribute and, more importantly, I am granted the right to vote on issues vital to the Co-op.

Proposed Changes to HWFC Membership Gave Rise to Opposition

So, after nearly 40 years of growing the HWFC membership, why all the fuss suddenly about what it is to be a member? In 2015, substantial changes to the Bylaws were being considered. These changes would have drastically altered the meaning of what it is to be a member of HWFC. In October 2015 the then Board of Directors went further and abruptly proposed to completely end member-labor on the floor and in the administration of the store. The membership responded with swift opposition to the proposed changes.

Why it All Matters

The issue is not just about the discount – it is about how the Co-op is governed and what makes it unique. Participating in the store’s functioning is what makes HWFC a co-op, and voting gives member-owners the ultimate authority to control the governance and direction of the Co-op.  Operational control of the store, exercised through the vote, is one of the most important responsibilities of membership at HWFC.  The right to exercise that operational authority is so important a responsibility – so fundamental to and indicative of co-op ownership – that the Bylaws formally require that a shareholder must earn the right to vote by working in the store on a monthly or weekly shift.  Such work gives the member-owner the opportunity to gain valuable perspective on how the Co-op runs, and in fact makes the member-owner integral to the running of the Co-op. These aspects of the Co-op along with in-depth knowledge gained from committee work help inform the member-owner’s vote. It is the investment of time and energy at HWFC by way of experience in the store and committee work that gives membership meaning. Please seriously consider increasing your participation in the Co-op by going even further than owning a share or working in the store/administration – serve on a committee and help decide the direction and operation of the store, attend Board meetings and participate by questioning anything you believe is inappropriate. A watchful eye is still needed to ensure the continuance of the Co-op’s values and integrity.

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Gene Reilly is a native of Albany and worked for the local/state government for 36 years. He has two grown children and four grandchildren. He’s been a member of HWFC since 11/1/2008 and has worked as a member on administrative projects and in grocery. Currently he is on the Corporate Compliance Committee and tries to attend all board meetings.