Co-op Challenged by Member Boycott Request

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The views and perspective expressed are our own, and not necessarily those of the co-op members, the co-op staff, or the board of directors of People’s Food Co-op of Ann Arbor Michigan.

In the beginning of 2007, the People’s Food Co-op (PFC) board of directors was asked by a group of co-op members to show humanitarian support for Palestinians by initiating a boycott of Israeli products. The issue is complex. In addition, a number of problems were encountered in determining the board’s response to the request, when and to what extent to involve the entire membership, and under what timelines. The experience provided some valuable lessons.

Perhaps most notable among the learning points was the lack of a clear boycott policy to work from. A detailed boycott policy had existed, but it was omitted when the PFC board of directors switched to Policy Governance. While that former policy provided a model for how to proceed, we actually had no boycott policy in place.

In addition, at that time the board was in a state of change and difficulty. The seven-member board had had two recent resignations with no replacements. The general manager of more than 15 years had recently resigned; we had an interim general manager while searching for a permanent replacement.

Member requests were rare, and the petitioning group was dedicated and persistent in requesting the boycott. Based on the past policy, the board agreed that such a significant and potentially controversial decision belonged with the membership and not with the board of directors.

While the board could have decided to place the item on the ballot, it decided to ask the group requesting the boycott to go through a petitioning process outlined in our bylaws. This was done to determine whether there was member support to put a referendum to a vote: PFC bylaws require at least 7 percent of the members’ signatures on a petition for a referendum, a number that was eventually achieved by the petitioners.

What went wrong

The initial petitioning process lacked direction from the board, and the petition language had to be modified after it had already begun. The co-op managers began to hear complaints of aggressive tactics from those collecting signatures, and concern about the co-op taking up this issue. The petitioners continued to attend board meetings, making the case for a boycott and reporting positive responses from the membership.

At the same time, our board of directors election cycle began. The seven-member board had two previously elected directors; it made two director appointments to fill the vacancies just before the annual meeting; and three new directors were elected. Consequently, of the board members who had begun this process we had two remaining, along with five directors who were new to the process.

Orientation for the incoming board and the presentation of the completed petitions came at nearly the same time. The petitioners complained that they had had to go through months of delay, yet most directors were just beginning to understand the scope and concerns of this member drive. We jumped in, lacking policy to guide us and with a flawed process already in progress.

A list of errors

The list of our errors is long but helpful to impart. Our lack of policy on boycotts is certainly at the top. This was remedied immediately after the vote took place. The petition language was flawed, as even the petitioners agreed afterwards. When we sought an informal legal opinion, we were told the petition could not be altered after it began to circulate.

The board had also agreed by default to allow a mid-cycle director election. This also was corrected in later policy; the cost and disruption for the staff and board work cycle was significant.

As the vote was approaching, the board and staff began to hear from members, some urging the boycott, others upset that the co-op would even consider such a move. A member outburst at a board meeting accusing the board of being directly involved in the deaths of Palestinians resulted in our losing our free meeting space. For the next eight months we not only had the boycott issue to deal with but had to scramble to find meeting space each month. Members found it more difficult to track when and where the board was meeting, and we often didn’t know until the last minute.

The board also received an unprecedented amount of mail, email, and phone calls from members. The vast majority of those communications were opposed to this boycott. The board was also conflicted about drafting pro and con statements to accompany the ballot initiative. In the end there were three statements, one by the pro-boycott group, one by an ad hoc anti-boycott group, and another from the board addressing the possible impact on the co-op. We heard from members upset about this process, some even upset that the co-op had allowed these essentially unedited statements to be released under the co-op’s name and expense.

A final controversy was the lack of observers to oversee the ballot counting. In this case we did have extensive policy on how voting is to be conducted, from the collection of ballots, validation and the actual count. However, there is no mention of member oversight of the ballot count. The board voted on the question and declined to allow member participation.

When the boycott was defeated, the issue of ballot count oversight became a hot point for the boycott supporters, who accused the board of manipulating the vote or claimed that ballots must have been stolen and manufactured. No formal charges or evidence were ever produced, but the accusations persist. The board has since passed an observer policy allowing limited involvement.

One of the most disturbing parts of the process was a small splinter faction who were eventually excluded from the initial group promoting the boycott and who regularly “picketed” the co-op with signs including swear words and swastikas and with inflammatory flyers. Counter-demonstrations were also a part of the weekly scene. The board president wrote a statement denouncing the use of swastikas and inflammatory language that was published in the newsletter, and many spoke out against this highly visible (yet legal) demonstration.

What we did right

Throughout the process, the board president and the PFC outreach and education manager were dedicated to responding to each complaint, every email, and all the phone calls. Dealing with hundreds of communications was time consuming, and it certainly was difficult, being at the forefront of accusations and angry people. But we remained engaged and involved with every member who contacted us and tried to enhance every personal encounter with concerned member and even nonmembers.

Members who threatened resignation were convinced to wait, angry messages were responded to, and many of those callers turned into active and helpful participants. In the end, relying on the democratic process was the best we could have hoped to achieve as well as an organization-wide mantra that helped us keep our focus.

As previously mentioned, this issue drew a great deal of attention beyond the membership. Statements to the press needed to be carefully worded, and staff needed support and direction on how to respond to questions or when confronted by angry shoppers and protestors. Point people were designated, and talking points and press releases were prepared.

While this has been a narrative of key points of this process, you can’t help but notice that there has been no mention of some of the issues involved. Should the co-op carry products from Israel? What about Palestinian products? Are there joint peaceful efforts to support? The board was asked to be a part of efforts to resolve the conflict in the Middle East, a task we were not prepared for.

The decision to ask the membership to decide was the right one. The board opinions were many and varied, from full support of this boycott to complete opposition. There were also nuanced positions in between, supporting a modified boycott or wanting the emphasis to be on a peace building processes. The board chose to remain neutral. For the process decisions, the board achieved consensus in nearly all of the decisions and in all the public statements. The board came together while under attack and found it to be a unifying rather than splintering process.

Throughout the process, the question was repeatedly raised, “Who or what exactly is the co-op?” At various times and in various contexts the term was applied to the board, the staff and management, and to the facility. Various members were upset “the co-op” would even entertain such a boycott notion. Others were upset at the board’s neutrality and wanted “the co-op” to make a strong statement one way or the other. They seemed to view themselves as somehow apart from “the co-op.” Until the votes were counted, the appropriate message was clearly that “the co-op” collectively was in the process of determining what that final statement or stance would be. The referendum was initiated by members and driven by members, and the outcome was in the hands of the membership.

Administering just the process of the balloting and voting nearly eclipsed all other board work and focus for about six months. While the board had no intention to minimize the importance of this issue, the directors also had determined we didn’t have the resources to give it the careful thought and attention that taking a stand would require. The People’s Food Co-op was also asked to take a specific position on the issue rather than begin a dialogue or debate. The extent of the boycott, when and who would call it off (not PFC), were already set into a “yes/no” format included in the larger question of boycott.

Members reject the boycott

The boycott measure failed overwhelmingly: 77 percent of the membership rejected it, in a vote that brought out participation from a larger number of members than we had ever experienced. At the same time, sales and membership both increased. We had reporters from numerous publications contact us about the vote and even had some accurate and fair stories printed.

The pickets continued for a month or so and then faded away. We still receive monthly condemning emails from one member asking us to overturn the democratic process and instigate the boycott against the members’ wishes; a couple of Palestinian members have said they no longer feel welcome shopping at the co-op and have decided to shop elsewhere.

While a true educational process was beyond our abilities, many of us learned a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly the awareness of this issue is now greater than ever in our co-op community.

The board of directors has passed a series of policies to ensure that the next member initiative is undertaken with a clear process. After a few months of recovery, we are back to the annual election cycle and catching up on the work that was delayed.

The co-op went through one of the most challenging few months of its 30-plus years of history, and it is nevertheless thriving. The conflict in the Middle East, however, remains as difficult and challenging as ever.

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At People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Linda Diane Feldt is president of the board of directors at Kevin Sharp is outreach and education manager.

See other articles from this issue: #136 may - june - 2008