Mimi Yahn: Searching for democracy at the Putney Co-op

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mimi Yahn, who is a local writer living in the Putney area. She is the creator of DeColonizingOurHistory.com and her blog, Progressive Instincts, can be read at https://progressiveinstincts.wordpress.com/
The Commons weekly in Brattleboro published a longer version of this article on Jan. 14, 2015. 

Democracy is a tetchy, elusive proposition. It is the common goal of humans that spans centuries, nations and cultures. It is as much an art as it is a science, a deep human yearning and a universal thread that ties humanity together. But it is something that must be practiced every day; left untended, it does wither and die.

Here in Putney, democracy is just as elusive, and just as imperiled, as it is anywhere else in America and anywhere else in the world. Some of the imperilment is our own making: Like elsewhere across Vermont, selectboard meetings are sparsely attended, if at all; attendance drops a little more each year at town meetings, and most of us have become happy enough with the status quo to do little more than trust that our progressive ideals are being well-protected and preserved.

But look beyond the reputation of Progressive Vermont and we find that corporations are increasingly taking control and our government offers few protections from the excesses and tyrannies of corporate greed. AT&T and other telecoms have been given carte blanche to bypass local ordinances, local zoning laws and local democracy in order to build cell towers, as many as they want, wherever they want and as big as they want. Fairpoint — notorious for erratic, substandard service — gets our tax dollars to build broadband infrastructure and make money by charging us for the service, but without any oversight or guarantee that they’ll actually provide adequate, reliable service. Comcast, Iberdrola, NSTAR, and a host of other corporations are finding there’s little they can’t do, legally or not, because there’s no meaningful oversight in the state of Vermont. More importantly, there’s no longer the political will to control the corporations.

Under the new health care law, insurance corporations operating in Vermont have been given carte blanche — and obscenely unprecedented subsidies of taxpayer dollars — to set premium rates far beyond what was already unsustainable, already bankrupting families across Vermont, and then to continue raising their rates every year. In the state of Vermont, there is no oversight, no structure to rein in the rampant, destructive greed of corporations. And there is no political will to take on these corporations, only the faith of good citizens that our progressive reputation will protect us.

Just as the Reagan gestalt shifted our national political paradigm so far to the right that we consider moderate Republicans to be flaming lefties, our concept of what constitutes democracy has shifted into something far less than democracy. We have come to accept a level of corporatist paradigms and corporate control in our personal and public lives that could not exist under true democracy. Like the frog in the pot of water slowly heating to boil, we accept and normalize the gradual erosion of our privacy, of our civil and economic rights, our access to politics and education, our ability to control our own government. Meanwhile, the water coming to a boil is the increasing level of rights, privileges, wealth, power, and control of governmental policy that we have handed over to the corporations.

And here in Progressive Vermont, here in Putney, one of our most cherished institutions — the food co-op — is in the process of being coopted by a large corporate entity.

The first many of us learned of this was at the October annual meeting when members were asked to vote up or down on some changes to the existing by-laws. Most of us trusted that the board of directors had merely tweaked and, as they termed it, “updated” some of the wording. However, thanks to the diligent efforts of a staff member, we discovered that what was being proposed was a major overhaul not just of the entire by-laws, but of the fundamental direction and governance of the Putney Co-op. The proposed by-laws represent a shift away from cooperative, member-controlled governance to an entity modeled on hierarchical corporate structure and control.

We also learned that behind this fundamental shift is a large national consulting firm, CDS Consulting, which has created standardized templates of uniform governance, by-laws, corporate structure, purchasing decisions, store design, labor management, membership management, public relations, hiring decisions, board training (promoted as “professionalizing” boards), and a range of other decidedly unco-op-like services to create a single model for all co-ops. Currently, they have over 200 co-ops as regular clients, charging a base rate of $6,650 per year. Beyond that, there are additional charges for seminars, webinars, retreats, board trainings, staff trainings, ongoing consulting, and membership in the United Natural Foods Incorporated distribution network. In fact, the relationship between CDS and UNFI is disturbingly close — more like incestuous, with joint ventures, co-sponsored conferences and seminars, and former employees of each being hired by the other. There is also a pattern emerging of a corporate approach to the way workers are viewed and handled, particularly those who oppose the cooptation of their co-op.

From the inclusion of the beautifully-worded cooperative principles (removed from the proposed by-laws) to the specifics of board responsibilities and member rights (both also removed), the current by-laws are clearly and unequivocally cooperative in governance and progressive in nature.

 

Unions are not welcome, as evidenced by management at the Brattleboro Co-op (a CDS client). As a member of another CDS client, the East End Co-op in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we saw management wage a long and expensive battle against unionization, which included hiring a notorious union-busting law firm and ultimately firing workers who supported unionization. In Portland, Oregon, another CDS client, Peoples Food Co-op (which I used to patronize until they gentrified), was the subject of a 2005 Portland Indymedia report following the firing of a dissenting worker opposed to the decisions being made to “corporatize the co-op.”

According to the report, CDS “is pushing the Policy Governance model on Coop boards. In effect, this board policy mandates that the board divorce themselves from the community, and only deal with the general manager, while refusing to hear the concerns of workers. It is a method for a board to ‘democratically’ decide to cede all power to management, while management does what they want with the Coop and employees. … When workers voice concerns, they get fired. Some try to organize unions, like in Seattle and Pittsburgh. Management typically hires a consultant and confers with CDS people on how to keep the board of directors unconcerned and uninvolved, by using Policy Governance as an excuse to not hold management accountable to the community.”

Equally ominous is the report’s assessment concerning UNFI’s relationship with CDS: “All of this has to do with making more profits for United Natural Foods Incorporated, who has a monopoly of the natural food distribution in the US. No more direct purchasing from local producers, or dealing with small distributors. Their hostile takeover of Blooming Prairie distribution speaks to that. The pretext is to compete with Whole Paycheck, but if Coops get corporate enough, they’ll just be sold off to the highest bidder in 20 years.”
(http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2006/07/342631.shtml )

Certainly the by-laws template being touted to CDS clients — including the one being proposed by the Putney Co-op board — paves the way for this. The wording is generic and vague enough, and the elimination of nearly everything that makes the current by-laws specific to the Putney Co-op and to cooperative governance, makes for an easy, and completely legal transition from a cooperative entity to a subsidiary of a large corporation.

The co-op’s board of directors adamantly denies that their proposed changes are anything more than “streamlining” and “updating” the by-laws “to make them clearer and more overarching.” In my own experience serving on by-laws committees with different nonprofits and community organizations, I’ve never seen better, more eloquent and a more clear set of by-laws than the Putney Co-op’s existing by-laws. From the inclusion of the beautifully-worded cooperative principles (removed from the proposed by-laws) to the specifics of board responsibilities and member rights (both also removed), the current by-laws are clearly and unequivocally cooperative in governance and progressive in nature.

The proposed version, on the other hand, is a bare-bones corporate model, a boilerplate one-size-fits-all template that can apply as easily to the Putney Co-op as it can to a Whole Foods or Pepsico subsidiary. One reason given by the board for the generic, boilerplate language is to prevent future boards from having to go through the laborious process of changing the by-laws “every time we need to change something.” But anyone familiar with the true and supremely important purpose of by-laws understands that changes to governance, structure, principles, and fundamental purpose embodied in a set of by-laws should be laborious and hard-thought.

The board also argues that the current by-laws are too long and needed to be “streamlined.” Aside from the implication that Putney Co-op members are too dull-witted to comprehend anything longer than a few pages, it would appear that the only ones who requested and pushed for creating a Twitterized version of generic by-laws for the Putney Co-op was CDS Consulting. In a conversation with a board member, I was also told that having by-laws that are a “boilerplate template” is what everyone is doing, and one of the great things about it is that we can have people come into the co-op from anywhere else and they’ll know that our by-laws are the same as the by-laws at their own co-op and so they’ll feel right at home.

Admittedly, I’m still trying to make sense of that explanation, but turning the Putney Co-op into a uniform clone of all other co-ops across the nation is not a direction I’d ever imagined we’d be heading. It’s the corporatist future of America that’s already here. All Hannafords and Rite-Aids look alike, all tablets and smart phones direct us to the same small handful of corporate merchants, and notions of beauty and human value are stripped down to a single generic standard of impossible emaciation and brand-name labels. Even the very notion of cooperative governance has been perversely turned upside-down and repackaged by corporatist shills as the new future of coops.

This new future of Stepford co-ops, prettified with glowing, feel-good language, marketed by experts in Orwellian messaging, is already spreading across Vermont. Brattleboro, Middlebury, Morrisville, Onion River, Plainfield, Rutland, Springfield, Hunger Mountain, the Vermont Land Trust — all are clients of CDS and all have bought into the corporatized, homogenized version of what it means to be a cooperative.

Here in Putney, we’re being offered a chance to become a standardized clone of all other co-ops, in exchange for which our co-op gets discount prices, particularly if we limit our options to foods produced and distributed by big corporations. Here in Putney, it feels like we’re facing a smaller version of the same big shift as the rest of the world. If we don’t hitch our future to the big corporations, we’ll be left out in the cold. Go with the corporatized, big brother flow or hang onto our humanity to our last breath.

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  • David Woo

    As a Cooperator in Philadelphia I’ve come to expect that the job of a Board is to execute the will of the ownership. Sounds simple. With potentially thousands of owners, each board must find ways to figure out that will among the various diverse opinions of each person who has bought into any particular Co-op. Not so simple.

    BTW CDS is not a powerhouse consulting firm, it’s a worker cooperative of consultants drawn from all over the cooperative enterprise sphere, board directors, staff, members who have become experts in their fields to keep Co-ops from going out of business.

    There are Co-ops out there only as stable as their membership and the better informed and educated, the exchanges of ideas goes smoother. I suspect that the writer has conflated CDS with possibly the NCGA or the NCBA, National Cooperative Grocers Association or the National Cooperative Business Association. They have direct connections to UNFI, United Natural Foods, Inc. not CDS. CDS has distribution consultants who work with UNFI in the capacity of how to better work process and procedure to make the retail experience more efficient, but that’s just a small part of CDS’s contribution to bring Co-op’s into a very competitive business sector looking to run each one of us into bankruptcy.

    Take a look at Co-op failure history to see how an organization such as CDS came about. Note the widespread knowledge of the Berkeley Co-op and it’s dissolution in the 1990’s after almost 50 years of existence. None of us want to see another Berkeley Co-op disappear to be replaced by WalMarts.

    Do a fact check and read up on some national Co-op history before coming to your own opinions of what is going on at Putney Co-op.

  • It seems to me that democracy is alive and well in Putney and that member in involvement is critical.
    When members show up to help shape a document that for all practical purposes shall last a good ten to fifteen years it is really important. So I cannot stand by while one person completly derails the process and distorts the reality of the all volinteer boards sincere desire to create a current set of bylaws.
    Lets get on with it. Enough of the negitive press and sensationalizim.
    We are quite lucky to have the Putney coop and the willingness of the board to continue to remain engaged in the process of bylaw updates. The board has shown their sincere desire to work with members.

  • Actually, I do know the difference between CDS and NCGA or NCBA. The fact is CDS does promote UNFI in their training, especially for new co-ops, and this promotion does not give equal time to supporting and doing business with local producers or smaller, independent distributors. As an entity that purports to promote principles of cooperative, sustainable business models as opposed to corporate, monopolistic models, I find this quite troubling, even if those who’ve invested time & money into CDS training don’t find it a problem. What I find more troubling though is former UNFI people who are now CDS consultants and whose specialty is expansion and store design. This is where the big bucks are for CDS — and for UNFI. The myriad consulting services required to steer a store through expansion, new building, etc. run to major bucks. Multiply that by the hundreds of stores CDS has “helped” expand, and it’s clear that CDS is, indeed, a tremendously influential powerhouse. For UNFI, convincing a coop to expand is equally lucrative: The bigger the store, the more products they’ll order from UNFI. And the less shelf space there is for local producers. In addition to the CDS “distribution consultants” who work with UNFI, I find it quite troubling that the CDS consultants in charge of store expansion are deeply connected with UNFI. Nicole Klimek, for example, was a Store Planner for UNFI from 2006 to 2013, then joined CDS in 2012 (notice the overlap when she worked for both) as a Store Planning & Design Consultant. PJ Hoffman, a primary CDS Store Designer, has been with UNFI since 1987 as a Store Development Manager, and joined CDS in 2002; he still works for both entities. When he first joined CDS, he was promoted on the CDS website as being part of a “collaborative agreement”:
    “Hoffman now works with CDS designing food co-ops through a collaborative agreement with United National Foods Inc. (UNFI).”
    (See http://www.cdsconsulting.coop/newsletter/article/8)
    I’m aware that CDS promotes all its services as being essential to avoiding bankruptcy, but the reality is that expanding and gentrifying a coop has not proven to be profitable for a great number of coops. It has, however, proven to be extremely lucrative for CDS and UNFI.

  • David Gowler

    Mimi Yahn has written an insightful article mirroring many of the things that I have been exposed to firsthand and have been speaking about for a few years. Thank you, Ms. Yahn for bringing these important issues to light for members of and community members interested in the Putney Food Co-op.

    In the summer of 1997 I began organizing a food cooperative for the city of Northampton, Massachusetts, which has become the River Valley Market. I was the first board president and served on the board for 10 years. I have worked as an employee, managing the co-op’s database, since before we opened in the Spring of 2008. After problems about the work environment and operations of the co-op were brought to my attention by a co-worker and former board president, we met with another former board president and a longtime former board member, created a concise and comprehensive list of concerns and requested time with the, at that time, current board. After initially being rebuffed, the board finally agreed to meet with us. They refused to meet with us without the general manager present, however, as we had requested. At that time board meetings were still being directed by a CDS (Cooperative Development Services) consultant, under whose direction, a similar ‘streamlining’ of the co-op’s bylaws had occurred. In short, our concerns were basically ignored and we, and supporting members, received a patronizing and dismissive letter from the, then, board president.

    It was clear that the board was unwilling to veer away from the corporate direction promoted and encouraged by CDS. They were unable or unwilling to engage in meaningful dialogue about any of the issues raised and and expressed discomfort about speaking to or hearing from me, as I was a worker at the co-op. (River Valley Market like many retail food co-ops, have their boards operate under ‘policy governance’ which specifically identifies the general manager as the only point of contact for store operations.) Shortly after that I reached out to other workers, staged some off site meetings to discuss working conditions and we ended up organizing for a union shop. After an article was published in the Valley Advocate about our successful organizing efforts, we were contacted by workers at Greenfields Market in Greenfield, MA and by workers at the Brattleboro, VT food co-op, who indicated that they were dealing with exactly the same or similar issues. They subsequently began organizing efforts and currently workers at all three co-ops are represented by UFCW 1459. (United Food and Commercial Workers) Hunger Mountain co-op in Montpelier and City Market in Burlington previously organized and are also union shops.

    It was initially surprising to me that whenever I heard from workers at any New England retail food cooperative, they were all dealing with the same issues. Clearly, there is something about the culture of these cooperatives which is breeding discontent among workers. This should be a matter of concern to all members of these cooperatives and to their respective boards of directors. For those of us interested in the food co-op movement in general, it should be of particular interest to us that workplace issues are not isolated incidents but widespread among all co-ops. There must be something that these co-ops have in common, creating these issues. Despite one of the seven, oft cited, international cooperative principles, being ‘autonomy and independence’, there is a sameness being created. As Ms. Yahn points out in her article, that unified corporate mentality is coming straight from CDS and NCG (National Cooperative Grocers(formerly NCGA)) Managers from all of these co-ops attend conferences put on by CCMA (Consumer Cooperative Management Association) where they are further indoctrinated with a corporate mindset.

    It is time for members of retail food cooperatives to join workers and take back our co-ops; demand just work environments, the replacement of hierarchical management structures with more collective ones, the ousting of negative corporate influences, and a return to the cooperative principles, including autonomy and independence and democratic member control. The first step in this process is the creation of opportunities for meaningful dialogue amongst the component parts of the cooperative: board, management, workers and members. If we are allowed the opportunity to work together as equal partners, and power and information is honestly shared, I believe it is possible that we can get back on track and reclaim our legacy.

  • ronhelf

    Ms. Thayne Joyall does not always reveal in print or when speaking that she is a CDS Consultant though this information can be obtained via a google search. In one article she talked about this interpretation that coop member worker programmes are illegal under federal labour law, a valid if not the only possible and even only real interpretation, cited help with the article from CDS, but was not forthcoming about her work with CDS. She is, as her articles at the CDS Consulting website a shill for corporatisation, something she and CDS benefit from.

    The National Cooperative Grocers Association also benefits from corporatisation and selective honesty about the legality or illegality of member labour programmes. It has cut another deal with UNFI, which is a non-cooperative monopoly, and in its pr for that relationship calls it members “virtual branch” stores.

  • am the manager of CDS Consulting Co-op. This opinion contains innumerable inaccuracies and accusations which are simply untrue. CDS Consulting Co-op has absolutely no ties with United Natural Foods. The consultants who co-own our co-op love food co-ops, treasure the cooperative structure, and are committed to the widespread practice of cooperative values in business. The purpose of our work with food co-ops is to help them continue to be successful, independent community-owned businesses by identifying and using best practices, sharing what works with other co-ops, and working for operational improvements. We have no desire to homogenize co-ops or weaken legitimate member control. I welcome anyone with questions or concerns to contact me directly at 802-387-6013 or [email protected]

    • KJ Jakobson

      Marilyn, I have been a lifelong coop member of over a dozen food coops as well as a manager in some and a working member in others. I have founded what is possibly the only truly 100% organic food coop in the country. Years ago I was an employee board member on a policy governance board. In my home town at another coop I am a member of, I attended a “Community Conversation” run by one of your staff that was anything but a conversation. It was scripted and controlled and there was no opportunity to discuss real issues of concern in any depth. Then several years later management claimed that plans for expansion came out of this conversation. Its all spin. While there was some brainstorming about add-ons to the existing coop it was merely a wishlist not a serious examination of priorities and none of the important issues mentioned at the “Conversation” like GMOs in the coop or paying the workers better compensation which were raised as high priorities among members have been addressed.

    • KJ Jakobson

      I tried to discuss some of my concerns with your staff person and he was very dismissive. Now we are being told this unfunded expansion is what members want. This coop has no retained earnings, there is no plan to raise new capital and therefore all of the member equity is being put at risk. I could go on but suffice it to say that I find Mimi Yahn’s perceptions of what is happening in US food coops to be completely resonant to what I have experienced with a half dozen coops in my area. Everything she says rings true with my own experiences at all levels of involvement with food coops in recent years. What are the innumerable inaccuracies that are untrue? How is it that I attend a party in another city in my state whose food coop just underwent an expansion and the conversation spontaneously is about “why are

    • KJ Jakobson

      “why are all food coops starting to be alike?” I have been identifying the practices that have homogenized, and undemocratized the coops I am a member of. At the top of the list is the anti-democracy Policy Governance model, getting rid of working member programs (how is it that many of the older coops still have them), and getting rid of employees on the board are a few of those practices. Can you show me any literature from CDS that promotes a diversity of voices on the board, promotes working member programs as a way of ensuring a more active engaged membership, and promotes employee representation on the board as a means of worker empowerment? I could go on but will end with attention to your use of the word “legitimate” member control. What is illegitimate member control of a coop? The current model of policy governance bestows an “illegitimate” amount of power in a single manager, illegitimate in the context of a cooperative owned by its members.

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