The following is an interview with Seward Co-op Board Member and Workday Minnesota Editor, Filiberto Nolasco Gomez. Some answers have been shortened or paraphrased for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why did you want to join the board?
A: Given that there was an active union organizing campaign, there was an intention to be a board member who prioritized the perspective and conditions of workers. Having been an organizer for a long time, I know that organizing isn’t fun. Forming a union isn’t easy, you only do it when things are wrong at the workplace. So it indicated to me that something was going on at Seward.
Cooperatives in and of themselves are political entities and significant in Latin American history. They were radical places for people to confront the state and build consciousness together and develop their critical assessments of what the government was doing to them. Co-ops have always, in my mind, been a site of resistance.
Q: What is your current status on the board?
Prior to this interview, Nolasco Gomez obtained copies of board emails that he was not cc’d on. The email, written by General Manager Sean Doyle, outlined an event that took place on March 30, in which Nolasco Gomez handed out business cards to co-op employees to discuss their experiences working at the co-op. This was at a going away party for a co-op employee that took place at Tracy’s Saloon. The email discussed board policy violations Doyle said he believed Nolasco Gomez committed.
Board President Mary Alice Smalls contacted Nolasco Gomez multiple times to discuss these events, but Nolasco Gomez declined as he claimed that the board’s attempts lacked clarity and transparency.
A: Having received these emails indicates that there is some degree of censure and restriction around information that I’m receiving. During a closed session, the board started interrogating me about two main topics. One was about the events that took place at Tracy’s. The second was based on a charge that I have a conflict of interest because I had interviewed the president of a local that they’re negotiating with, UFCW 653, for a separate article.
The whole thing feels very fraudulent as there’s no due process to this investigation. To be talked to like a child and told to explain myself is just really off-putting. If they are willing to come to me with that level of immaturity and lack of integrity, lack of process or clarity, I can’t imagine how bad it is for workers on a daily basis.
Nolasco Gomez emailed the board after the meeting saying that their approach “reeks of a desperate move to quell dissent, to hold on to power rather than a careful examination of why people are dissatisfied with their experience interacting with the Co-op.”
In a lengthy letter dated July 13th, Board President Mary Alice Smalls explains, “We have not made a decision to remove you from the board, though we believe our policies and co-op bylaws permit us to take that action. Rather, I would like all directors to engage in a meaningful dialogue with you and address the concerns we have raised as well as your concerns. ”
In an emailed response, Nolasco Gomez wrote,”To simultaneously threaten further punitive action and offer a facilitated mediation is somewhat confusing and ultimately manipulative. In my view, if the board was serious about a thoughtful conversation they would back off of the unfounded allegations.”
Q: Where do you think the board’s concerns over your conduct stem from?
A: They’re focusing on me but they’re ignoring the fact that these workers are really upset. It’s an organization that doesn’t want to acknowledge how bad things are for workers.
The idea that the board speaks with one voice contributes to their concerns as well. To control voice and perspective like that screams of an authoritarian culture at Seward. There’s a way to express the nature of the conversation and still maintain that there’s one decision moving forward.
Q: How do board members communicate with each other? When and where do those conversations take place?
A: Board members get a board packet once a month before the board meeting. We’re supposed to review it and email questions so that when we’re at the meeting there’s no discussion. They describe it as a way to have more efficient meetings, but owners in the room who are not on the board aren’t going to be privy to the conversation. We often vote based off the numbers or naming conventions in the board packets, so owners, who don’t have access to the packets, don’t even know what we’re voting on.
In the emails I’ve received there’s been very little conversation or interest in clarifying issues or other points in the packets. This is the least working board that I’ve ever been a part of, and they make more money than any board I’ve ever been a part of.
Q: What is the responsibility of the board? What is their purpose?
A: As far as I understand the board has fiduciary responsibility over the organization. And I can’t even claim that’s something we’re doing because information isn’t given to us transparently.
Because of the way Policy Governance works, we just affirm everything Sean [General Manager Sean Doyle] self-reports is happening, and see that he meets these metrics that he himself wrote. He shows up with some curated documents and we just say okay. They’re very explicit that we shouldn’t talk to anyone else. In the end we actually don’t make decisions, and the moments that we try to make decisions it gets kind of wrenched away from us or gets delayed.
Q: Have you noticed any changes in recent meetings?
A: When I first became a board member, no one showed up to the meetings. Recently, more co-op owners have been showing up, and as attendance has increased, meetings have become shorter and more of the generic work we do is being pushed into closed session. It seems to be a means of restricting access to the conversation. Every time there’s an interest in being more involved from owners there are more restrictions on meetings or information, or as we saw two months ago, open hostility towards folks asking questions and trying to be involved.
One of the reasons the board and Mary Alice say we can’t have owner participation is because of time constraints but increasingly our meetings have been shorter and shorter. We have more time but they’re refusing to yield it to owners who are showing up.
Q: You said that forming a union is indicative of concerned workers, why do you think that workers felt the need to unionize?
A: I think what really stands out for workers is the arbitrary treatment. Turnover rate is really high, reports vary; I hear that it’s at a minimum over 50 percent and possibly into the high 60’s. In my experience, turnover that high happens when an employer is so abusive that workers leave feeling disposable. In general I am concerned that Seward is understaffed, resulting in greater risks for injury.
Q: How does the board address worker’s issues at the co-op?
A: What workers are dealing with doesn’t show up at all. In the last board meeting, it was brought up that the ratio of workers to revenue is lowering. So that means there are fewer workers, they’re understaffed. I asked about that. What does that mean for workers and their experience? What does that look like for the store?
Sean Doyle, the general manager, says it’s a robust labor market, and it’s hard to hire folks, but that wasn’t my question. I tried to focus on the point of my question, working conditions, and Sean began raising his voice in frustration. That is the level of invisibility that workers experience on a day to day basis.
Q: On the Seward Co-op website it says that, “through the Ends Statement, the board establishes the vision and goals that co-op management is to pursue and achieve.” The Ends Statement claims that “Seward Co-op will sustain a healthy community that has equitable economic relationships; positive environmental impacts; and inclusive, socially responsible practices.”
How successful do you think the co-op has been in upholding the Ends Statement?
A: The longer I’ve been on the board the more it feels like those words are really empty. If workers are being treated poorly and are trying to start a union, clearly we’re missing something. If the products that Seward carries only appeal to white wealthier folks, that’s a problem. There is a program that gives poorer folks a discount if they meet certain income requirements. In one of the last board meetings Sean talked about how, based on anecdotal evidence, people are abusing the program by giving other people their number and sharing their discount. I was really concerned because to me, that sounds like they’re going to start profiling poor people.
Furthermore there is a general hostility to having things in other languages, everything in that building is in English. There’s all these grand gestures around diversity and inclusivity and equity and nothing happens.
Q: Some co-op owners are concerned with the lack of information about the lengthy union negotiations. How is the status of the union negotiations representative of the way Seward operates?
A: The consultant they’ve hired to do their negotiating, Greg Leifer, based on my understanding and folks I’ve talked to in Madison, is perceived as a union buster. He was a consultant to the Willy Street Co-op, working against organizing efforts a couple of years ago. I ended up speaking with someone from the management side of the Willy Street organizing campaign at a national conference, and she said the union organizers were, “obnoxious and evil.”