Letter from John Serio

Dear Honest Weight Coop Community Members

I really am pleased to see all the passionate, thoughtful involvement of many members of the Honest Weight Community over the last few weeks.  I realize that, at least in part, many who have been motivated to be more involved have done so due to a failure of the Board to communicate in a way that reaches everyone and is responsive to legitimate questions as members wish.  Some have concluded that the board is taking steps that could harm the coop that we all know and that many of us love.  I would like to try to provide my view of what has occurred.

First I must disclose I am a member of the Board of Directors (only for about two months now) but I am writing here in my capacity as a Coop Member, Shareholder and Lender to the capital fund.  I have been a shopper since Quail St days, shareholder for about 20 years, and a member-worker or a committee member during some of this time.  Much of the food my children ate growing up was from the co-op.   In June 2014, I joined the Strategic Planing Initiative and then the By-laws Revision Task force, and I have continued to be very involved in co-op work since then.

Since I am a Board Member and I do not want to simply be seen here as defending how it came about that the Board passed a resolution to significantly curtail the member labor program by January 1 in consultation with the membership, I will not say much on that subject.  I think the Board’s explanation has been laid out pretty well in the Inside Scoop and in the many discussions and meetings they have had with members.  Member’s questions still need to be answered, but I will just say that membership input on the many issues that are governed by the by-laws (the member labor program, shareholder voting rights, decision authority distribution among governing bodies, the membership and store management, etc) has been methodically solicited by the Board over the past 15 or so months.  All that membership input has been carefully considered.  In addition, the board has considered the input of attorneys (those retained by the co-op and member workers who are attorneys, as well as others), researched the literature and consulted with co-op experts and members of other co-ops. I, for one believe that when it comes to issues like those we are dealing with here, reasonable people acting with good will can be provided exactly the same information and come to legitimate different conclusions.

When it came time to start working on a new Strategic Plan that will cover the next 5 to 7 years a good size group of members (I don’t remember the number) was brought together to kick off the development of the plan.  Sub committees  from that original group met many times to formulate and propose steps to develop a Plan that included as much coop community input in the process as possible.

The committee began having regular meetings, expanded the group, developed and conducted a market and stakeholder survey (of shoppers, vendors, members, shareholders, etc.), held focus groups (small group discussions), did a Strengths Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats analysis and probably took other steps that I don’t remember.  We planned and held four all day informational gathering/member input sessions where all members were invited to three different venues around the capital district in an attempt to get maximum participation.  We expended substantial effort promoting these events and while we had hoped to get much larger attendance, but each event was attended by between 70 and 100 members and other stakeholders.

Everything we did was with the goal of enabling Honest Weight to continue to achieve its Mission (if you haven’t read the HWFC Mission lately, please take a look at it on the website) in a way that builds on our history, maintains our core values (see the by-laws, for our core values, also at the website) and insures the success of the co-op.  Even if you were not involved in any of these Strategic Plan activities, as you might imagine, many, many ideas were generated by this process (most recently, last month’s Coop Scoop provided an update on the Strategic Planing initiative).  Culling the best ideas from the analysis, exercises, research and discussions during this process has been a huge undertaking but I believe, necessary for the good of the Co-op.

One of the issues raised during this process was concern that the Member Labor Program might threaten the financial health of the Co-op due to a possible finding that the Department of Labor might make because of the Fair Labor Standards Act (the law that requires employees get a minimum wage and other required treatment in their place of employment).   However, it was also almost felt by many that the Member Labor Program is the heart and soul of the Co-op.  So without it, we would not be the Co-op any more.  –  This was a tough one.  So in many group sessions, small and large, we talked about it.   – Personally, I pretty quickly concluded that it would be irresponsible to pretend the concern does not exist or to dismiss it just because the coop has had the program forever and it has never been legally challenged.  –  I personally, thought there was too much at stake, today in 2015 and over the next 5 to 7 years.  To not take the issue seriously and at least consider proactive intervention would be irresponsible.   My sense was that there were many coop stakeholders who agreed that the concerns about the Member Labor Program should not be ignored and the committee began working on a plan that would maintain as much of the Member Labor Program as possible if it came about that it had to change.  In fact, the Strategic Planning committee is working on methods of expanding the Member Labor Program (Probably mostly outside the store, but we are also looking at expanding some opportunities in the store as well).

Meanwhile, it was recognized that one of the tasks identified in the 2011 – 2015 Strategic Plan was to look at the existing by-laws for possible revision in several areas and to recommend revisions to the membership.  This task has not been done.  For this reason, and, I believe because there have been many times over recent years when the by-laws have been seen to be inadequate, ambiguous or faulty, the Board formed a By-Laws revision task force to take a close look at if and how they might be revised to reflect NYS law changes, inefficiencies, ambiguities, and, perhaps be updated to reflect the realities of running a large, cooperative with an increasing number of stakeholders and changing market and competitive environment.  AND to take a look at whether there is a need to change the by-laws in view of the POSSIBILITY that adjustments might be required to the Member Labor Program due to legal requirements.

I helped to formulate and joined the By-laws revision task force.  I believe that group ended up including about 27 members.  I saw it as a work group tasked with a very time-limited goal of generating revisions that would be recommended to the Board and then presented to the Membership for discussion in various ways, and then to Membership for an up or down vote.   One of the many issues examined by this task force has been the Member Labor Program and how it might be viewed by the Department of Labor.   We are almost done with the work of that  group and it is our plan that our recommendations will be presented to the membership soon.  –  Perhaps formally at the January Membership Meeting.  Meanwhile, beginning early last month, we have scheduled about 20 Information sessions (not to be confused with the Ask the Board In Store Drop in Sessions which were scheduled after that dreadful Times Union article)) to present the revisions to the members in smaller group conversations.

Honest weight has accomplished much in 39 years.  At this point, our future may be largely influenced by the feedback we get from the Department of Labor.  However, if we can all act in good faith and in the spirit of community I believe when the dust settles, we will be an even stronger force for economic and social justice in the future.

Thank you, my fellow members, for all for your passion and commitment.  I look forward to a continuing, robust dialogue.

Sincerely and in the spirit of cooperation,

John Serio

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19 thoughts on “Letter from John Serio

  1. Julie

    John, in full disclosure, can you please answer the following questions?
    Who authorized attorneys for the Board without full disclosure to the membership?
    How much is the Board paying these attorneys and what is the cap on legal fees? In other words. when are we done paying for attorneys? There is no secret to the NYS DOL. Since there is no secret, why must Board members require a non disclosure statement? Please provide a copy of the letter to the DOL. My husband tells me that the DOL records are public, yet the Board of Honest Weight has chosen to keep a file so private that I, a longterm member, must file a FOIL application for access to this “public” file. Please answer these questions. As a Board member you have full access to all that is not allowed by members. For some reason! Thank you.

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    1. Interesting letter from Mr Serio, a Board member who was appointed from an entirely different election than the person he was replacing did and who finished fifth behind Nicolson Cook, who finished fourth. Both Messers Cook and Serio were interviewed by the Board and one wonders why Mr. Serio was chosen over the person who one would presume would be chosen in a democratic process particularly after the Board appointed another fourth place finisher, Leif Hartmark, earlier. I guess consistency is a hobgoblin when it comes to the Board or at least certain members of the Board.

      1. Federal labour law supersedes state law so one wonders why the choice of New York state.

      2. Mr. Serio ignores the fact that other lawyers have an entirely different take on whether Honest Weight is in violation of labour law.

      3. Mr. Serio ignores the fact that several organisations that advise, and I use that term advisedly, Honest Weight have long been pushing HW to eliminate the member programme including CDS, the NCGA, and UNFI. He ignores the fact that members of the LT have been pushing for the same.

      4.Mr. Serio ignores the fact that the powers that be control the means of communication and only deign to give approval for critics to speak. Power does have its perks.

      5. Mr. Serio ignores the oligarchic diktat ending the membership programme without any member discussion and without a vote, something that really might be illegal despite the little trick the Board has up their sleeve whenever they want to do something that they don’t want members to vote on, fiduciary responsibility.

      6. Mr. Serio ignores the fact that HW did quite well before the Leukakis regime turned HW into a branch of some lawyers office.

      7. Mr. Serio presumably could tell us how much the financially ailing HWFCorp is paying for lawyers but doesn’t. One wonders what fiduciary responsibility means in this regard.

      I could go on, suffice it to say that the notion that there is “democracy:” at the HWFCorp is rather bizarre. As Mulder said, trust no one and I would add particularly if they are apologists and polemicists for the powers that be.

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  2. and oh yes, did Mr. Serio, who had only been on the Board for a few months, tell us why he voted to end the heart and soul of real Coops along with Roseanna, Shaw, Frye, Kuchera, Hartmark, and Deb “I never met a Workers Coop and NCGA told me there was no such thing” Daniels, voted for a measure that was not democratic?

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  3. Rebecca Tell

    I’m not weighing in at all re: content at the moment, but can we try for civil tone please? I think it’s possible to engage in dialogue that brings out all the important points while still operating from the assumption that folks are doing their best and deserve civil treatment.

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  4. If this is aimed at me, I am being civil. Being civil doesn’t mean doing the smiley faced thing and avoiding raising questions about what is clearly an apologia that avoids the discussion of a number of issues including the “democratic” process by which someone who finished behind someone else is appointed to the Board. I guess “civil” will forever remain in the social and cultural eyes of the beholder. If my honesty and forthrightness bothers you please hit delete, i.e., censor.

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  5. Jules Harrell

    Ronald I too have problems being “civil” while watching the Board and Management Regime attempt to boondoggle all of us toasted hippies. We are not so toasted, and not stuck in a time warp, and not willing to take it anymore. I watched this happen at Honest Weight before, and this time it will leave a legacy of a broken down mothership with no assets and much debt. Who will rescue this overburdened, debt ridden, super gourmet meat market? From a corporate standpoint, Honest Weight is in grave danger of losing what fiscally solid ground they once had, before the Big Move (which I advised against numerous times I’m glad to say).

    FIRE THE LAWYERS!!! Fiscal accountability is needed now by the Board. Not tomorrow. Now.

    Jules Harrell

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  6. Jules spot on.

    I have seen an increasing veil of secrecy wash over HWFC. I have seen Board members who won’t tow the party line bullied. I have seen Honest Weight become a place where dishonesty has replaced the honesty in our name, where the democracy that is written on are wall become simply a word, a word used as a cover for what is really going on. I find all of this deeply disturbing on so many levels.

    I also find it very deeply disturbing that someone who was appointed to the Board who finished fifth, not fourth, that was Nicholson, but fifth in an election that the person he was replacing didn’t even run in. Mr. Serio claims he was told that Nicholson didn’t want to be a Board member which if true means that he was told falsehoods by someone on the Board because Nicholson has told me and others he did want to serve on the Board. He interviewed for the position something which itself makes a mockery of the democracy on our wall. And we are supposed to trust these people?

    I simply can’t stand idly by while evil, crooked and twisted evil, takes place before my eyes. That is one thing I learned from the Holocaust. Sometimes you have got to speak truth to power and you have to speak it forcefully. Anyway, for reconciliation to occur an accounting of the truth has to take place. People have to take responsibility for what they have done and own it or disown it. I don’t see this happening as of yet.

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  7. Susan Longtin

    I believe I heard that Saul R. et al. already went to DOL and all is OK in that regard. Please correct me if I misheard.
    I’ve been very angry and close to tears a lot in the recent past and I just want to do what we have to do and get on with it.
    I wish us all peace.

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    1. Well again therein lies the rub. All is not ok if a member files a complaint. That is how DOL investigates. Unless there is a complaint there may or may not be a problem. DOL hearings and conferences begin by someone filing a complaint. Due to video conferencing the DOL is investigating and hearing many more cases sooner than in the past. If no one files a complaint and the Board stops posturing perhaps this will all go away. Meanwhile I believe the leaky ship is going to start listing anytime due to the huge weight of debt and not enough customers. With the additional price of lawyering up we can only hope for a miracle.

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  8. Mary Ann McNamara

    You actually just proved all the Board’s points. It just takes one complaint to start a DOL investigation and we have no way of knowing what the resulting opinion will be given the current politics of the minimum wage? Are you willing to risk the livelihoods of over 200 people, most your fellow Owners, on the idea of if we keep our eyes closed no one will see us

    While we are arguing and nursing our hurt feelings there are people in our community who are without jobs, who are hungry and cold. We should be, as the Honest Weight community, putting our efforts into creating good jobs that set a good example of how retail jobs should be. We can use all the grassroots and organizing talents to help ease a portion of the poverty and suffering we see all around us. I can think of 10 groups in the greater Capital District that work with food insecurity, poverty and homelessness and I am sure those who are more involved than me can think of many more.

    We need to take a breath, stop bickering and come together to form the ethical community that I know Honest Weight wants to be.

    Let’s change the November 30th meeting from one of full of animosity to one full of positive ideas.

    Mary Ann McNamara

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    1. Susan Longtin

      Yes, Mary Ann, most of us work with them already apart from Honest Weight. There was a time, and there still is to a lesser extent, that no matter what other thing you did, they were Co-oppers. And visa versa. We all work with Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, Food Not Bombs etc, I for one, want to do my work hours in Wellness. Two things, in my opinion, make us great: our working members and our commitment to social justice. So, I did hear correctly. Saul and that bunch already did clear things with DOL. And another thing, we are not in competition with whole foods. We are better: better products, working members and our commitment to social justice.

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  9. Julie

    Just to set the record straight, I have a long history of working for causes that help the poor and downtrodden, those sexually abused, in prison, and in pain.

    I’ve been a volunteer EMT for years, I teach yoga to people who are locked up, and I teach yoga for trauma. I rescue horses, llamas, dogs and cats. My daughter attended the Albany Free School for many years. I could be considered an old hippie from way back.

    However I am also a technical writer with a background in banking who has conducted FDA and IRS compliance, OSHA policy, ISO 9000, and written multimillion proposals for corporate and scientific entities, in response to RFPs issued by state, and federal agencies. I’ve served on the Board of Honest Weight, the Board of NYSCASA, and the Board of the Berlin School district. Each time I reviewed previously undisclosed financial information and each time there was a resultant shake down. Shake the dog hard enough, the fleas fall off. Those who know me and know my works will attest to these facts.

    One of the problems I had with the new store was that they eliminated the old ripe fruit and veggie section where the elderly Eastern European group used to flock. The management decided, which questioned, that the little tray of overripe was taking up too much space. With one fell swoop we eliminated that population. Very sad.

    As for “risking the livelihood of coop owners” I’m not sure what your question is if it is directed to me. How am I keeping my eyes closed? I’ve tried to educate members with facts.

    Honest Weight falls under the NYS DOL Division of Labor Standards. Here’s the link. Feel free to ask them questions. Let’s at least operate with full KNOWLEDGE. Thank you. Jules Harrell

    https://labor.ny.gov/workerprotection/laborstandards/ls_ContactUs.shtm

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  10. Julie

    Can someone provide a public statement written by the DOL employees and ex employees who attended meetings at Honest Weight? To dispel rumors? Maybe the Board will share it with us? Jules

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  11. DOL, as I noted, called the Coop yesterday and they will be meeting with the Coop elites. Other member workers apparently are not welcome due to the veil of secrecy that seems to be ever growng at the Corp.

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  12. Julie

    Oh Good Lord! This is ridiculous! The DOL records are open to the public. Why all the secrecy? Why has the Board not informed us that they are having a meeting with the DOL? I sincerely hope that the Membership votes out the Board AND the Leadership Team. they call it leadership but we all know we are on the leash. Enough of this!

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