Fictional Faction Distraction

Farewell addresses were the order of the day at the 2016 annual meeting of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, what with President Margaret Drye ending her record-breaking 13-year run as a Board member and Terry Appleby wrapping up his 24 years as the cooperative’s general manager.  Both Drye and Appleby offered valedictory remarks that revealed much about where the Co-op is today and the challenges it faces at it seeks to continue its own record-breaking run of 80 years.

Drye invoked the famous farewell address of George Washington, who warned as he was completing his second and final term as president that “the spirit of party . . . serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, [and] foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”  In Drye’s remarks, this tocsin was compressed to “the distraction of faction,” a phrase Washington did not actually use.

This has been Margaret’s beef all along with the grassroots Concerned About the Co-op (CATC) group that sprang up in 2014 in the wake of two controversial firings.  A year ago, when CATC fielded three candidates, she wrote a letter to the Valley News accusing CATC of having sought to “politicize” last year’s Board election.

Whether George Washington was right as a matter of national interest – he certainly did not succeed in preventing political parties from coming to dominate both federal and state government – Washington’s dim view of partisanship ought to prevail at the Co-op and Drye is wise to say so as she retires from the Board.

But, just as I said in response to her letter a year ago, the claim that CATC is an unwelcome brand of co-op factionalism is unfounded and unfair.  As proof, I offer my own firsthand experience with the grassroots organization.

As one longtime CATC activist reminded me a couple of days ago, when CATC first emerged I was among its most outspoken critics.  With 400 people in the room in July 2014 – surely the most well-attended Board meeting ever – I accused CATC of recklessly massing “with torches and pitchforks” in an effort to overturn a couple of unpopular personnel decisions.  Just as I said at this year’s annual meetings, I don’t think the Co-op’s personnel decisions should be subject to veto by the Board or membership – and, on that question, many in CATC still disagree with me.

But unlike every sitting member of the Board in 2014-2015, I decided to take CATC at its word when it claimed that anyone who was literally just concerned about the Co-op was welcome.  So I started showing up at its gatherings, my first being the picnic CATC hosted in August 2014 at Storrs Pond.  (I hasten to add that it was another former Board colleague, Richard Schramm, who did this first.  He made it feel safe.)

What I found was common ground, not necessarily on the workplace issues that brought CATC together in the first place (though I too support CATC’s call to make sure the Co-op is a fair and humane workplace) but more generally on the question of whether the Co-op had become too much the “black box” cooperative and whether its Board had become ineffective at scrutinizing the decisions and priorities of management.  These are general concerns rooted in the Cooperative Values and Principles.

Even you don’t share these concerns, you should welcome rather than disparage efforts to vindicate them through the Co-op’s election process.  If Board elections are an inappropriate forum for airing sincere disagreements about what the Co-op should do, then you’re saying that elections must never be anything more than bland popularity contests.

That could not have been what George Washington was warning against in his farewell address.  He would be appalled if the Co-op’s Board were to become riven by its members identifying themselves as, say, Democrats and Republicans, or Granite Staters and Vermonters.  But surely he would not object to the Board and its election process being used to resolve sincere differences of opinion about whether the Co-op can treat workers as at-will employees or whether it should continue to expand or whether it should seek to transform the nation’s network of independent food co-ops into one big consumer co-op grocery chain governed by a single national Board.

Margaret Drye should understand the distinction I am drawing better than anyone.  Few if any people who have served on the Board during the past couple of decades have been, outside of the Co-op, more publicly associated with a particular partisan political perspective.  Yet, to her great credit, she never used the Co-op to give expression to these views in any way and, indeed, her visible presence as the titular head of the Co-op proved that you do not have to be a fan of Bernie Sanders to love cooperatives.

Ironically, if factionalism has erupted on the Board I believe it is the fault of those who disclaim factionalism.  When the three CATC candidates who ran last year were elected, I predicted at the time that they would be readily absorbed into the overall culture of the Board and all would be well.  Instead, the Board’s incumbents and management team chose to treat the newcomers as an unwelcome incursion and the result, alas, was meeting after meeting at which little or nothing was accomplished beyond the exchange of angry words.   The CATC trio was this made a kind of de facto faction – and, indeed, what was noteworthy was how rarely, if ever, they responded by attempting concerted action.

In the current election, the rhetoric involves the extent to which some people are running to advance “special interests,” as one of the candidates alleged at the Annual Meeting.  I respectfully disagree with this assessment.  There are legitimate differences of opinion among the ten people who are running for the five available seats on the Board, but each seems sincerely concerned about the future of the Co-op overall as an institution.  Those who claim this year’s election is tainted by factionalism should produce evidence to support this argument or they should set it aside.  As for me, I think that whoever wins the election will be able to help the Board and the Co-op move forward.

[If you have read this far into such a long post, surely you care enough about the Co-op election to vote at between now and April 30.  Just click on the link and go there immediately!]