TALES FROM THE COOP Now at foody.org/coop.html
VOTING TO VOTE NOT TO VOTE
Who wrote two wildly popular articles demanding that the coop restore price labels on items? Who annoyed two General Meetings in a row by tooting his own horn off the agenda? Who finally was on the agenda? Tonight was the night for: Label Guy!
But first came Open Forum questions. One member asked why working members don't wear nametags. (All members must work, though how hard would be argued later.) He said he'd recommended nametags twice in the coop's suggestion box, but had gotten no response. "You might be communicating with someone who doesn't get your message," said a coordinator who added that there was no coop suggestion box.
Another coordinator said the staff planned to alleviate the shopping crush (membership has boomed since last year's expansion) by adding behind-the-scenes squads to weekend shifts. This led to a debate about whether basement baggers of of bulk food should use scoopable bins or silos. Sticky items like raisins clog the silos. The chair halted discussion when we began discussing the merits of tiny Ziploc bags for spices.
The Fun-Raising Committee ("No D -- we're always happy if we break even" -- announced the upcoming celebration of the renovation, and asked for future ideas. The coop has held dances, concerts, and pool parties. Rummage sales were panned as too labor-intensive, and no one came to the last potluck supper.
Reelecting a member of the Disciplinary Hearing Committee was the first agenda item. The DHC resolves uncooperative behavior such as members disappearing during work shifts, disagreeing during shopping, and theft. If the DHC decides that a trial is necessary, it gathers a committee of randomly selected members to hear and judge the defendant.A DHC member presented the lone candidate, who said, "I've been interviewing and interrogating people since 1974, and I really enjoy doing it." She said it was "horrific" that some members were so uncooperative that the DHC sometimes needs the police and district attorney. Conversely, she praised the judging committees for their creative solutions beyond the two official punishments of suspension and exile. The presenting member called the candidate "great"; the candidate said that was only because the presenting member was "so pathetic." Member Andy Kaufman on a Bad Day asked if the DHC's records cited members by name and were public (yes, but in locked files) and whether he could see them (no).
We reelected her 58-3. No one else ran. Later a member complained that the paper ballots had cost the lives of trees. He was told that paper ballots were required for comfortably anonymous voting.
Label Guy at last. Armed with handouts including big Lexis chunks of the city truth-in-pricing law, he calmly -- compared to his explosive appearances at the last two General Meetings -- stated his case. He said that by abandoning price labels once we started using checkout scanners, the coop violated city law. Since the Building Next Door mortgage demands coop compliance with local law, we were violating that loan agreement as well. Price labels allow shoppers not only to better follow budgets, but help them to challenge scanner errors. Shelf labels are meant to allow price comparisons, not meant to substitute for labels on items.
We could be fined thousands of dollars if inspected by the Department of Consumer Affairs, he said. Key Food and many other stores routinely violate the label law, but enforcement is almost nonexistent and the rare fines may be seen as their "cost of doing business."
Grizzled top coordinator Joe Holtz's rebuttal was contrite but stubborn. Only with the advent of scanners had he realized that the coop had been ignoring the label law for years by pricing items per the items' own cost at delivery, rather than by a uniform price; by not repricing already-shelved items when that cost changed; and by not using shelf labels that let shoppers compare prices.
The coop had tried to do better once scanner use began, he said. But our prices, determined by each delivery's invoice, changed more often than those of supermarkets, which he said pocketed the differences anyway instead of passing savings to shoppers. Repricing took tremendous time and slowed shelf restocking, he said, adding that "we got a lot of resistance" from members who resented relabeling items when the latest delivery's price rose. Shelves are better stocked when we don't label individual items, he said.
He added that since all coop shoppers are also coop owners, we should be exempt from a law meant to protect shoppers from owners. He said the coordinators would like to seek such an exemption. But, he said -- loudly, in case visiting City Council member David Yassky was deaf -- he would vote to obey the law because he had obeyed the law all his life. In the meantime, he proposed unpleasant options for compliance and said that as administrators, the coordinators would have to choose one if the General Meeting didn't. "Pick one that you like," he said in closing.
In discussion, coordinators -- and, surprisingly, several members -- opposed item pricing. They said that the labels were often inaccurate, thanks not only to differences with the always-more-current database used by the scanners, but because of human error during pricing and repricing. Even shelf labels can fall out of date, resulting in three different prices -- item label, shelf label, and scanner. The new, larger membership is already emptying shelves faster than we can restock them, and in the slower days when all products had price labels, the aisles were blocked by carts stacked with items awaiting those labels. Some people preferred shelf labels, praising them for making comparisons easy. One coordinator said that the label law didn't apply to us because the big chains didn't follow it.
Others mourned the loss of item pricing, saying that other stores priced items, and that it was harder to tally up totals without individual labels. Members are smart enough to understand when a price must be marked up, said another. One said that the scanners had been given General Meeting approval, but that the elimination of item pricing had not, which he called a serious procedural issue, though not proof of "mal-intent."
Several said that whether we ignored or enforced labels, we should seek an exemption. Council member Yassky was asked how practical this was, but after first equivocating, then saying he'd come just to listen, he said that city agencies had given exemptions on similar matters. He then fled the room, saying he had to cook Passover food. A cranky law professor insisted that since there was no process for exemptions, the law would have to be changed, and before such "a vast task" we should restore labels or risk losing our commercial license if we were found in violation. Another urged getting an immediate temporary exemption and following the label law later.
Holtz said that since we had no choice but to comply, we should discuss either his proposals or alternative ones. But his -- which offered increasing either the price markup or lengthening workslot hours -- were only brought up when condemned by some who said that we would already have enough member labor for item pricing if members stopped chatting, shopping, and otherwise goofing off during their workslots.
Label Guy's original proposal was for the food coop to return to its earlier policy of price-labeling. He refused an amendment for the coop to seek a legal exemption, saying it was too soon to make an informed decision. But someone else seconded it, so we had to discuss it.
Then someone proposed another amendment, to seek a temporary exemption. Slowly, the chair mused aloud that "it would probably save quite a bit of confusion" if the amendment proposer accepted this amendment to the amendment. But the amendment proposer rejected it, so the chair committee went into its first huddle of the evening.
Once unhuddled, the chair asked for a second for the amendment to the amendment, and was visibly relieved when none came. The cranky law professor asked for clarification, and when it didn't come quickly, demanded it in the name of his 25 years as a parliamentary law expert. Finally we voted on the unamended amendment for an exemption, which passed 32-21 with 4 abstentions.
Since the hour was late, the chair said he would entertain motions to extend the meeting or table the debate. Holtz moved to meet for 20 minutes more, and another said there were other motions. One motion at a time, said the chair. Holtz said he would entertain a friendly amendment about extending the time, but rejected a suggestion for 10 minutes. We did not vote on the now hostile amendment to reduce the extension of meeting time. Instead we voted 32-19, with 2 abstentions, to meet for 20 minutes more.
That decision had taken almost 10 minutes to reach. Yet there had also been a motion to table, forgotten by the chair, who was unhappy to be reminded of it. We must entertain a motion to table, said the cranky law professor. The chair replied that we use only a modified Robert's Rules of Order -- but someone else seconded the motion, saying we couldn't decide label-law compliance in only 20 minutes. After some more discussion, we voted 31-21, with 4 abstentions, to table the proposal to whatever future meeting would be chosen by the Agenda Committee. Some who had voted to table had also voted to extend.
"Can I make a motion?" asked Andy Kaufman. "What kind of motion would you be making?" asked the chair. Andy Kaufman began to ramble. "We can't discuss it any more; it's been tabled," said the chair.
Holtz then led the board of directors in their vote to confirm or reject the advice of the members. The directors ended up voting 6-0 after discussing and then agreeing that they should officially recognize that the item had been amended and tabled.
Despite the meeting's inability to decide anything, members cheerfully offered to share rides around the neighborhood. One person announced competitively that her car was better. A coordinator announced an upcoming party celebrating the Building Next Door renovation, saying that there would probably be some congratulating politicians for a few minutes, but that it would otherwise be fun.
In the closing evaluation of the General Meeting, coop secretary Riana McLoughlin praised tonight's meeting for doing nothing, saying she was "very happy" that we had given ourselves more time to consider this issue. She had earlier condemned last month's meeting for doing something -- revising the meat-buying policy instead of encouraging more discussion and a theoretical second referendum. Label Guy said he would have revised his approach had he known of the risk of tabling. Another said his previous General Meeting had been the "most horrific experience of my life," but that this one had been "not half bad."
Some asked whether label inaccuracies and member-labor sloth would ever be addressed. One coordinator said it would be addressed in squad-leader meetings, and Holtz said we could have addressed it had we met for 20 more minutes. A third coordinator tried to talk more about labeling, but the chair, mercifully, ended the meeting.
Back to list of dispatches.