By Christopher Cox
The October General Meeting (GM) of the Park Slope Food Coop, held on October 25, 2022, was another in a series of tense gatherings since last summer. It was a busy night: David Moss of the Chair Committee noted that it was “the most heavy agenda we have had since we switched to the Zoom format.” The proceedings were contentious from the start, when the meeting’s open forum almost exclusively addressed the General Coordinators’ recent decision to keep the store’s mask mandate in place.
In September and October 4,615 member-owners responded to a survey about whether the Coop should continue to require masks for workers and shoppers. The results, released a week before the GM, showed that 51 percent preferred to make masks optional for all; 43 percent wanted masks to be required for all. Several members spoke during the Zoom session about feeling frustrated that the general coordinators overruled the majority. “There was a questionnaire and the general coordinators didn’t like the answer to that questionnaire, so they just decided to disregard it,” said member Dani Liebling. Another member, Meilin Mehri, agreed: “The majority vote was disrespected. It was not honored.” One member compared the decision to the election denial of Donald Trump and his supporters, calling it “Mar-a-Lago-esque.” The general coordinators who spoke in defense of the mask mandate said that the poll was too close to warrant changing the policy. Coop General Manager and Treasurer Joe Holtz, speaking for the other general coordinators, held that the “vote” was actually an “advisory survey.”
As with the uproar over the disciplinary action taken against Holtz several months ago, members seemed surprised that the Coop doesn’t always work in a transparent—and transparently democratic—way. Until the GM specifically instructs the general coordinators otherwise, they have the power to run the Coop as they see fit. “We must decide things for the Coop where this [meeting] has not directed us,” Holtz said. Because the process of bringing an agenda item to a vote takes so long, the coordinators’ decisions tend to stand for a long time. That arrangement itself has been a source of tension at the General Meetings.
We must decide things for the Coop where this [meeting] has not directed us.General coordinator JOE HOLTZ
The Holtz affair came up again during the October meeting’s open forum. Several members asked why the proposal to reinstate Holtz’s lost wages was not on the agenda. Receiving Coordinator Gillian Chi, who had said at the last GM that she would be sponsoring the proposal, said that she had withdrawn it after some of her fellow coordinators had talked her out of it. Chi read a statement to that effect at the October meeting: “After listening to my co-workers, I no longer believe that that proposal was the best path forward. And I never [want to] go against the wishes of the majority of the staff and…[T]he opinion and the needs of the staff, to be honest, matter more to me than the opinions of membership because we’re the ones who work there 40 hours a week…. I never meant to make any of my co-workers feel disrespected,” Chi concluded. “I was trying to do what I believed was right and I realized that in many ways I was wrong.”
The rest of the meeting took a more positive turn when the treasurer reported the state of the Coop’s finances to the member-owners, and several votes were taken. The Coop’s finances are better than they were last year, Holtz reported, but the Coop still has not reverted to a break-even level of revenue. The upshot: the Coop will not be returning to the 21 percent markup anytime soon. General Coordinator Joe Szladek also informed the meeting about the Coop’s Halloween plan to give out apples to trick-or-treaters.
In her report from the Committee Oversight Committee, for whom “transparency is the sole focus,” Rachel Porter noted that most of the Coop’s many committees had been forthcoming with information about their activities, with the exception of the Agenda Committee and the Personnel Committee, who were stonewalling.
The Agenda Committee had a chance to respond to Porter’s complaint during the next part of the meeting, when members voted on elections to the Agenda Committee, the Dispute Resolution Committee and the Hearing Officers Committee. David Warren, up for a two-year term (his first) on the Agenda Committee, explained why they were often slow to respond to questions from the membership: the committee’s policy is to only respond to emails on the Tuesday following the GM. Warren was elected to the Agenda Committee; Lee Bantle to the Dispute Resolution Committee; and Marian Hertz, Andrea Hirshman, Liam Malanaphy, Julie Vasady-Kovacs to the Hearing Officers Committee.
Next there was a discussion and vote on a proposal sponsored by the Equity, Access, and Community Committee (EACC) to collect member demographic information in a survey. EACC members Paul Warren and Isiris Isaac spoke in favor of the proposal. The survey had been years in the making, Warren said: “The committee has worked since 2016 to develop this demographic survey, where we would be voluntarily collecting demographic information about Coop members.” The goal was to create a “demographic profile of who the Coop membership actually is.”
Isaac stressed that collecting the information would allow the Coop to serve its members better, especially people of color and those with disabilities. She called it “a snapshot of the population of the Coop.” The survey would be anonymous, and the committee promised to protect the confidentiality of those who filled it out. It was a way to find out “who we are, essentially,” Isaac said.
collecting DEMOGRAPHIC information would allow the Coop to serve its members better, especially people of color and those with disabilities.
Most of the members who spoke after the presentation were in favor of the proposal. Beth Ann Mastromarino asked how the committee would ensure a robust response rate. Cheyenna Weber assured everyone that this kind of survey was in line with best practices of food co-ops nationwide. Beth Ruck said she wanted the survey to become part of the orientation process of joining the Coop.
The proposal passed, by a vote of 83 to 42.
The final agenda item was a vote on returning childcare to the Coop. The childcare room on the second floor had been closed since the start of the pandemic. Recently, that room has served as a space to prepare some of the bulk items for the shopping floor. Now members Lauren Belski and Brian Russ offered a proposal to open it to families again.
Belski and Russ, who are both schoolteachers, began with an economic argument. Hiring a babysitter during a parent’s Coop shift negated the cost savings of being a member in the first place, they said. If the Coop needed all the members it could get, then reopening childcare was a surefire way to get families to come back—and to attract new ones. “The word on the playground,” Belski said, “is if you bring childcare back, I’ll come back.”
“Many members who quit will come back,” Russ added. “And honestly, where did they go? They went to Fresh Direct, they went to Jeff Bezos, they went to this corporate model of grocery shopping.” Belski and Russ closed by submitting their proposal: to reopen childcare within 60 days of the vote.
The debate that followed again broke down along staff vs. membership lines. Membership Coordinator Jason Weiner, worried that disrupting the bulk-item bagging before the holidays would be too disruptive. “How do you think that the Coop is supposed to operate during the busiest holiday period, which is from November to January?” he asked. “How are we supposed to stop all operations in order to resume childcare, which serves a very important but small percentage of membership?” One member, Maya Solovey, replied, “The Coop has done it before and it knows how to do it again.” Another member, Juliette Kennedy, said that restoring childcare was an equity issue.
The difficulty of the 60-day timeline came up again and again. Receiving Coordinator Craig Roberts, said that he was in favor of childcare returning to the Coop, but that more time was needed to figure it out. “It’s a short-term process that needs a long-term solution,” he said. The debate seemed to be reaching an impasse—and the possibility of a failed vote loomed—until Holtz suggested a revised proposal. Rather than bringing childcare back within 60 days, members could vote on a timeline that he described as “as soon as possible during 2023.”
That deadline, with its combination of flexibility and rigidity, appealed to Russ and Belski, who quickly adopted it as their own, and the motion moved to a vote. After a tallying delay, the results were announced: 134 in favor to 18 against.
In 2023, the Coop will have childcare again.
Christopher Cox’s book, The Deadline Effect, is now out in paperback.