TALES FROM THE COOP Now at foody.org/coop.html
WORKSLOT WHORES OUTLAWED
Besides making fun of a blind member, the Linewaiter's Gazette cruelly highlighted my tiny bald spot.
PLUS: WAITING FOR SCANNERS WASTED
Would you do it for money? Too many at the Park Slope Food Coop would, according to coordinators who have wanted to ban a problem once kept in the family but now a hot summer trade often involving minors: members paying other members to do their workslots, violating cooperative morality and risking its legal liability.
First at the General Meeting came some reports, though. "The balance sheet . . . well, it's in balance," said financial coordinator Mike Eakin. Extra office expenses often prompt criticism of coordinators, but Eakin was happy to talk about recent high photocopying costs because those came from the General-Meeting-mandated mail ballot for the board of directors election, a franchise-broadening ballot that the coordinators had opposed.
Eakin said that the first sales figures generated by the new checkout scanners were reassuringly accurate. Another coordinator admitted that though members were growing more familiar with the new system, lines were still long, so cashiers would soon handle their shift transitions so they don't have to stand there counting money for ten minutes out of the hour.
(Since that meeting, the coop has also eliminated the suspend-and-resume system by which an itemized tape is printed both at the checkout counter and then later at the cash register. Although this speeds the final cashier step, it was the coop's dependence on the suspend-and-resume feature -- which, thanks to a software bug, was crippled when the coop bought the checkout scanner system in December 1998 for $120,000 -- that delayed installation of the system till November 2000, 23 months later, when the bug was fixed. The coop coordinators should be grateful that there is no direct member oversight of their management. Can you imagine what would happen, in a more traditional firm, to employees who bought an expensive system, didn't cancel the contract when it proved unusable, waited almost two years for a fix, and then discarded the reason for the wait?)
To speed entry to the coop, please replace your old membership cards with the new cards bearing bar codes and digitized photos, said a coordinator. A member worried about data security asked whether the new cards might become mandatory; the coordinator said that might happen in a few weeks. Another coordinator, Linda Wheeler, said that the new cards' photos could be refused, but that only two or three members had requested that. "No one told me I had a choice," complained the member. Wheeler said she'd look into it. She's said that before; the reason why only two or three members have declined photos is that no one's being offered that option. The last time I eavesdropped on the process, the photographer was arguing that members should be happy to have their photos displayed.
Darlene of the Renovation Committee reported that both the committee and the chosen general contractor had signed the Building Next Door contract, and that the bank was expected to sign it in a week or two, which would allow construction to begin. Israel asked whether the total loan figures would let us build everything we wanted. Darlene, after a long pause, said no. "We want a lot . . . some of the curlicues and frills and our hearts' desires" would have to wait, she said. Uber-coordinator Joe Holtz said that replacement of the refrigerated produce displays, the rebuilding of a walk-in basement cooler, and the construction of one of two freight elevators would have to wait.
The Personnel Committee showed a draft of a help-wanted ad for a new coordinator, prompting coop president Eric Schneider to bitch that the committee had once again failed to solicit candidates with food-industry experience. "What happened? Last time you said you'd take care of it," he moaned. The committee rep said they didn't want to limit the general-management position to food specialists. "What is the possible harm" in suggesting food-industry experience, wailed Schneider. "It's ludicrous not to include it! We're a food coop!" The committee rep agreed to mention in the ad that food experience was a plus. "Thank you," gasped Schneider.
To begin the case against workslots for pay, Holtz and Wheeler introduced a lawyer, a member who had been seated bobbing his head, eyes his milky and sunken, till he was over-solicitiously brought to the microphone, where he faced a wall instead of his audience. "Justice is blind," someone whispered. (The Linewaiter's Gazette later also had fun, paraphrasing the lawyer as saying that the coop could "turn a blind eye," words he had not used.) He spoke at exhausting length of the link between the coop's work requirement and a workslot whore's role as an independent contractor, and how courts could call the coop the employer of said whore, liable for his or her injuries.
"We need members who put in a workslot and care, and we don't get that with those who get paid to do workslots," Wheeler added. "To them, it's just a job." The problem is out of hand, she said. "It's gone beyond kids doing it for babysitting money." During discussion, she said the trend had begun with one minor being paid by his own family. Now, she said, it was teenagers with working papers, plus a few adult members.
Some disagreed with Wheeler and Holtz. One, an office coordinator and the mother of two teenagers who worked for pay, said the workslot whores comprised only 7 to 10 kids doing mostly summer work, and that such kids were often more competent than ordinary members because working at more than four-week intervals, they knew their tasks better and could work without supervision. She said that their fellow receivers (coop members and staff who offload deliveries from trucks) welcomed such members.
The more senior coordinators disagreed, though. A receiving coordinator said that her group had discussed it and had decided that they didn't like it because workslot whores tend to show up not for scheduled shifts, but for unscheduled makeup shifts, and receiving shifts didn't always need makeup workers, especially in the summer, when most paid makeups are popular. Another coordinator argued that it was mostly a summer phenomenon, but that some workslot whores are active even now, in winter,and that since the coordinators routinely remove from the bulletin board notices advertising workslot labor for sale, it could be more widespread.
The meeting also considered the ethics of workslot whoredom, and the ethics of taking action against it. "How far do we want to get into other people's business?" said one member. We do if they are doing business inside the coop's business, said a coordinator. The coop does enough of that already, such as when it forces all members of a household, instead of any members, to join. The meeting explored every imaginable possibility. Did a member's right of contract outweigh the coop's right to limit liability? Would the hirer or the hired be more culpable for violating a ban on workslot whoredom? Would a ban also apply to barter or services (someone mentioned massages) for workslot duty?
If more people are willing to pay others to work their job, does that signal a demographic shift toward members unwilling to work? "Maybe it's a crying out of the membership," said one, adding that she sees people arrive hating their workslot. Maybe it's less of a demographic change than a sign of permissiveness, said another. One adult member admitted that he had been working for money for ten to twelve years, in one instance for a couple whose husband refused to work his shift and whose wife didn't want to work her own shift plus his, and in the other instance for a couple with a baby. "I think it's a tough issue, and I'm personally torn by it," he said. One member suggested that he babysit for the parents instead of working their shifts.
There are surely more lucrative jobs for teenagers in this good economy, said a member. A coordinator jokily disagreed, saying that as a kid he himself would've gone for work with pay of the books, no supervision, and setting your own hours.
It's less important that each member work than that all members work, said a member. Another complained that she saw less of a sense of ownership among members, who now say "When are they going to get . . ." instead of "When are we" going to get . . .", and that the change in spirit concerned her since the Building Next Door expansion required that we attract more members. What of the morale of those who volunteer labor beside those who are paid for it? she asked. If we allow workslot whores, why not have nonmembers paid to work, and allow nonmembers to shop?
But in the end it was the ugly specter of liability that swayed the crowd. Holtz's leading questions to the lawyer had suggested the possibility lawsuits, even if neither he nor the lawyer would say that the coop would be liable, only that it could be. The coop pays worker's compensation insurance to insure that members injured during workslots will receive a guaranteed and standardized award based on the fiction that members working their labor obligation of 2 and 3/4 hours every four weeks earn minimum wage. Holtz speculated that an injured workslot whore earning more than minimum wage could sue for more. When asked whether the insurance policy specifically excluded a worker for hire, Holtz equivocated, his favorite technique, sowing fear through uncertainty: "It gets complicated; who knows? The coop should avoid cases where it could get hurt." The coop has "deep pockets" worth suing, agreed a member.
Wheeler tag-teamed with Holtz, saying that some workslot whores' habit of signing in with the name of the member supposed to work is "a liability worry of its own."
So, despite the concern over infringing on coopers' rights of contract, or the risk of adding yet more rules to the coop experience, or pleas to discuss and investigate the problem and solutions even futher, or the occasional incoherent interruptions of new regular GM attendee Frantic Mouse, Wheeler read the motion, adding that forbidding "pay" for labor didn't include barter. The vote passed it 43-13 with 2 abstentions.
The 5 board members present then upheld the GM vote 5-0, sealing the fate of coop whoredom.
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