Democracy in Action at Honest Weight

January member meeting
HWFC Board President talks with Member Owner Anastasia Onorata at the 1/29/17 Membership Meeting. Photo by Drea Leanza.

On Tuesday, January 3rd, I attended my first Honest Weight Food Co-op Board meeting in about half a year. Usually, like too many other Member-Owners, I only attend Board meetings when there is some sort of crisis or an important Membership vote coming up. I was inspired to attend this meeting, however, out of interest in issues on the agenda.

I was only able to stay for half the meeting but I left it very impressed and felt encouraged about the productivity of Board meetings and about the Co-op’s future. Some people attending the same meeting, including some Board members, might have left the meeting with a very different impression. They might have seen it as contentious and unproductive. Contentious, yes! Unproductive, no!

What I like best about the Co-op is its democratic core, something which may soon become a rare commodity, and this core was certainly on display at the January 3rd meeting. In my two hours at the meeting, I saw the Board, Management, and the Membership dealing with some difficult issues in the midst of some very intense dissent.

The Democratic Process Exemplified

January Member Meeting
Member-Owner and Staff Rep to the Board Jamere Shelby talks with Chris Colarusso at the 1/29/17 Membership Meeting. Photo by Drea Leanza.

One topic stood out for me as the meeting’s best example of the democratic process. Rick Mausert, our new CCO, announced that Honest Weight is currently $350,000 in the green. He said that most of this turnaround is due to the efforts of Management and Staff to rein in costs. Because we are no longer in the red, we are able to discuss refinancing our debt with various lenders. As an added plus, Rick said Management is proposing a bonus program for the store’s employees, based on the last six months of profitability. Ten percent of the profits from this period will be shared with employees and at this point he said that amounts to $34,900 [update: now $46,578.47, eds.], available to divide amongst the Staff. The distribution will happen in February.

So far, so good, but the devil is always in the details.

Management proposed making the bonus proportional to the salary of each staff member. Under this proposal, those such as Management, who make more money, would get a proportionately larger bonus than their Staff. Suddenly, there were objections and counter-motions, and there was a heated discussion about how the money should be distributed. Several members made a suggestion to give more of the bonus to the lowest-paid staff. Backing this proposal, a Board member said that, for some of the lowest-paid workers, a larger bonus might mean the ability to put another meal on the family table. One of the department managers said he would rather see his staff get more of the reward since they are the ones most responsible for the turnaround in his department. Someone then countered that any department manager who felt that way was free to distribute his or her bonus among the staff of their department. A few members of the Board insisted that they were aware of the need to raise the base salary of the lowest-paid employees, but that the bonus was a separate issue. They said that they are working on proposals for increasing the base but that the bonus was a separate issue. Other Board members and Member-Owners felt that Management was most responsible for the turnaround and therefore deserved the greater award. It was obvious that these positions for some Members represented deeply held and diverse political philosophies. At one point, we even got into a discussion about whether the Co-op was a socialist or capitalist entity.

While some of the good news of the Co-op’s improving fortunes and our ability to give our employees a well-deserved bonus got lost in the dynamics of this discussion, on the whole it was an open and productive dialogue in which all sides presented their points of view. At the January 17th Board meeting, the Board left it up to Rick (Mausert, CCO) and Erin (Martin, CFO) to make the decision for this bonus. They decided on a hybrid method of distribution; half of the bonus will be distributed based on hours worked, and the rest will be given out in proportion to people’s level of remuneration.

In our discussion about the bonus you could see on a smaller scale some of the same political divisions that are shaking the entire country right now. It is not surprising that this sort of argument would arise since the Honest Weight membership represents many different people from the Capital District and beyond.

After attending the January 3rd Board meeting and seeing how productive it was, I vowed to go to more Board meetings and would advise other members to consider doing so as well. I think you’ll find the experience to be well worthwhile.

Bob Jacobs joined the Co-op Voice in September as an Editor. He has been a Shopper's Helper at Honest Weight for about two years. Bob has been a teacher, editor, landscaper, advocate at a homeless shelter, coffee and papaya farmer, beekeeper, and an appraiser for the state. He loves the people and energy of the Co-op and looks forward to his new role.