Keep in mind as you read this story that Bloomingfoods is a co-op, in fact an iconic co-op, in existence since 1976. As such, its owners are its members, that means us. At the very least we should find out about what’s going on that would make workers seek to unionize.
And wouldn’t you know, on our very first political outing together, Rebecca and I make the front page of the local Herald-Times with this picture.
Most likely, it was Rebecca’s dreadlocks that attracted the attention of the photographer. However, that I was holding my sign standing backwards (so I could both communicate with cars driving by and talk to Rebecca) might also have caught his attention . . .
In any case, Rebecca has been a worker on occasion at Bloomingfoods, so she knows the situation. And in fact, the things she told me over the last year made me want to join in solidarity with whatever the workers decided to do.
It’s interesting that this push to unionize should come now, when it has just been announced that not one, but two grocery chains that carry organic food are coming to town, Whole Foods and Lucky’s.
To those of us standing there and talking with each other, these two changes are synchronous for a reason: only if Bloomingfoods returns to the spirit of its original cooperative charter will we have reason to shop there. After all, we love to know that we’re shopping at a place where we are member-owners, and have a say in all decisions made. In theory it sounds great, but in practice, another matter.
I learned many things yesterday while standing there with my sign at my back facing the street.
Besides the workers being paid a non-living wage (average $8.50?), and besides administrative bloat, our beloved co-op actually hired some firm a few years ago to help them reform how to run things to make it more efficient and profitable. Administrative bloat was one of the problems they pointed to. What happened as a result? Nothing.
This, apparently, is a common theme in workers’ complaints. Somebody wants something done and takes it to management, and noises are made about responding to the need, and then nothing is done. The workers feel disenfranchised.
So do the members. That’s us, me. And it’s my own damn fault. I do not attend the monthly meetings, I just feel virtuous for doing my shopping there (and enjoying my 5% senior discount), along with the other virtuous folks who can afford to shop there. The workers, on the other hand, who do get a 10% discount as long as they work there, can’t afford to shop there once they quit.
I had a long discussion with a man whose name I will not mention, but he was on the co-op board twice, briefly, the last time in the early ’90s when he ran on a platform with a single sentence, that he would make sure Bloomingfood workers got a living wage. He won, with twice as many votes as the nearest competitor. So, when he attended the first meeting, he figured that since he had such a mandate, he could and did say to the group that he was going to make sure this got done before any of their other concerns could even go on the table. Well, he said, they dithered, and told him he was “ruining the co-op,” and in the end, refused to go along. In consternation, and figuring they’d see his action as a wake-up call, he resigned. Oops! Nope. They welcomed it. He kicks himself now for not having stayed in the board and fighting for that one thing.
And do you know what happened next? This, to me, was the most important single thing I learned at the rally yesterday: as a result of the board’s experience with this man, they then passed some kind of a law that said that anyone who wants to run for a board position has to be “vetted,” by them, the sitting board! I wondered, did they have to change the by-laws to do this? And did the members find out? Yes, they did, he says, it was in the newsletter.
To me, that goes to show that for almost 20 years, at least, the Bloomingfoods co-op has been one in name only. That the owner-members are not really involved, or they would have caught that centralizing, hierarchy-making, corporatizing “law” that guaranteed continuity for the policies of the board that were already in place.
Also noted yesterday by a number of people, how Bloomingfoods is aping the example of (corporate) Indiana University, by focusing these years on building infrastructure rather than paying their workers.
In fact, it was the fact that the new store (the latest of five) that opened in a tony neighborhood of Bloomington was (and is?) “hemorraging” money that prompted the call for unionization. Why? Because, in response to the hemorrage, the board decided to cut workers’ hours, across the board. That was the final straw.
What’s wonderful about what’s happening now is that at last all the shadow-stuff is being aired, and no doubt our beloved Bloomington Co-op, if it wishes to continue, will have to return to the wonderful spirit of its founding.
I close with a hilarious quote from Dmitri Orlov, which to me resonates with the contradiction that develops when any organization grows big and stodgy, way too entrenched in the status quo to respond to new needs, and, in fact, downright stupid!
It appears that the problem of stupidity is quite pervasive: look at any large human organization, and you will find that it is ruled by stupidity. I was not the first to stumble across the conjecture that the intelligence of a hierarchically organized group of people is inversely proportional to its size, but so far the mechanism that makes it so has eluded me. Clearly, there is something amiss with hierarchically organized groups, something that causes all of them to eventually collapse, but what exactly is it? To try to get at this question, last year I spent quite a while researching anarchy, and wrote a series of articles on it (Part I, Part II, Part III). I discovered that vast hierarchies do not occur in nature, which is anarchic and self-organizing, with no chains of command and no entities in supreme command. I discovered that anarchic organizations can go on forever while hierarchical ones inevitably end in collapse. I examined some of the recent breakthroughs in complexity theory, which uncovered the laws governing the different scaling factors in natural (anarchically organized, efficient, stable) systems and unnatural (hierarchically organized, inefficient, collapse-prone) ones.
But nowhere did I find a principled, rigorous explanation for the fatal flaw embedded in the very nature of hierarchical systems. I did have a very strong hunch, though, backed by much anecdotal evidence, that it comes down to stupidity. In anarchic societies whose members cooperate freely, intelligence is additive; in hierarchical organizations structured around a chain of command, intelligence is subtractive. The lowest grunts or peons are expected to carry out orders unquestioningly. Their critical faculties are 100% impaired; if not, they are subjected to disciplinary action. The supreme chief executive officer may be of moderately impaired intelligence, since it is indicative of a significant character flaw to want such a job in the first place. (Kurt Vonnegut put it best: “Only nut cases want to be president.”) But beyond that, the supreme leader must act in such a way as to keep the grunts and peons in line, resulting in further intellectual impairment, which is compounded across all of the intervening ranks, with each link in the chain of command contributing a bit of its own stupidity to the organizational stupidity stack.
It may be that Bloomingfoods will need to split into five new coops, one for each building we own? Or will we discover ways to continue as a larger co-op, get lots of member involvement, and meet the new competitive environment that the corporate stores will bring to our fair city? Obviously, we have now entered an intensely creative moment that unless we become highly aware of the opportunity this crisis presents, could degenerate into chaos.
BTW: Our co-op is now 38 years old. Bingo: The electric, explosive, unpredictable planet Uranus, with an 84-year cycle, now begins to reach for the opposition point to the zodiacal point it occupied when the co-op was born. If the co-op were a human person, we’d call this a mid-life crisis. And it is!
Here are three local stories about yesterday’s rally.
Next up: the annual Bloomingfoods board meeting: October 16th. We all need to be there to support our workers, our co-op, and our vision of a transformed future that is not corporative, but cooperative.