Olympia Co-op – Consensus

I must admit to a feeling of bewilderment.

As those of you who have been following the Olympia Co-op boycott story on this blog know, I have taken for granted that the Co-op followed its own rules when deciding whether to take part in the latest BDS project to get food co-ops to shun Israeli products.

This is what critics of the boycott were told whenever they brought up the fact that the organization’s membership was excluded from that decision. In fact, I had even urged others to take boycott proponent’s word that procedures were followed properly, asking us all to apply the Principle of Charity in this matter, as well as other matters related to the controversy.

But recent information has come my way which forced me to do something I (possibly naively) chose not to do originally: take a close look at the co-op’s policies on the matter.

If you read through this document (which the co-op itself has posted in order to explain the policies behind its Israel boycott decision) you will see no role for the organization’s board in the decision-making process related to boycotts. Rather, the power to declare a boycott rests solely with the store’s staff and the threshold they must reach to declare an official boycott is consensus. In fact, the only sentence in the policy that specifies where decision-making power rests is the following:

“The department manager will make a written recommendation to the staff who will decide by consensus whether or not to honor a boycott.”

Now in the world most of us live in, consensus is defined as “an opinion or position reached by a group as a whole.” Under this definition, consensus is either/or. Either the group as a whole agrees to something and thus consensus has been reached, or it fails to do so, in which case there is no consensus.

The recent information I have received is that the staff, in fact, DID NOT reach a consensus on whether to boycott Israeli goods. One would think that, by the Co-op’s own published policies, no consensus translates to no boycott. But apparently in this case, no consensus meant that the board intervened to declare one on its own.

A fair-minded commenter on this subject pointed out that the Co-op’s bylaws establish as one of the board’s duties (#16) to “resolve organizational conflicts after all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted” and indicated that this by-law allowed the board to make the boycott decision in light of no consensus being reached by the staff. But this flies in the face of the boycott policy itself which seems to establish “no consensus” as a legitimate position which would translate to a “no go” choice regarding a particular boycott measure.

With all due respect to the person making the case that the conflict-resolution clause of the by-laws gives the board the power to make its own decision in the absence of staff consensus, if we take this proposition to its logical conclusion then anytime the staff cannot reach consensus to go ahead with a controversial matter that is allegedly its choice to make, the board can make that decision for them, a position that essentially makes the staff decision-making power established in the co-op’s boycott policies meaningless.

At this point, I believe everyone deserves a detailed description of what exactly took place within the Olympia Co-op to determine the level of consensus within the staff and (if relevant) what “avenues of resolution” were tried and exhausted before the board set the organization’s boycott policy on its own. Members certainly deserve this information, but so do we outsiders who are now dealing with Olympia’s decision as it is being broadcast around the world as a call for other organizations to also join the BDS program.

Co-op by-laws also include clause #14 which says board members must “maintain free-flowing communication between the Board, Staff, committees, and the membership”.

Let the free-flow of communication begin.

8 thoughts on “Olympia Co-op – Consensus”

  1. The staff might have reached consensus on not honoring a boycott; they might have reached consensus on honoring one. In this case, neither of those things happened – which Jon's argument here seems to blur over. When the staff can't agree either way on an issue about which the Coop needs to make a decision, the Board makes it. This seems pretty clear to me.

    I don't see why Jon wants to claim that this makes the staff's power to decide on a boycott “essentially meaningless.” They have the power, though it's delegated to them; if they had been able to agree on how to exercise it in this case, the Board wouldn't have had to make this decision.

    As I understand Jon's argument here, it would imply that whenever everybody on the staff can't reach consensus on a proposal (or agree to stand aside) that should result in a decision to reject it. That would put a great deal of power to block proposals into the hands of each individual on the staff, and seems like a pretty unworkable way to run a multi-million dollar grocery business to me…

  2. Maybe I can put this more clearly by saying that in Jon's version of how the Olympia Food Coop is supposed to be running itself, I can't see any possible situation in which Item 16 of the Board's duties would be applicable. On his reading, it seems that if the staff can't agree about an organizational issue, they've agreed to do nothing about it, and that should be the end of the matter…

  3. Thad – Your second question is the simplest answer, so let me start there.

    The board duty specified in the bylaws (#16) to “resolve organizational conflicts, et al…” makes perfect sense in the context of ordinary decisions made in the everyday running of the business, just like the rest of the board responsibilities and staff responsibilities listed in those by-laws.

    Every decision made on a day-to-day basis (from where pricing labels are stuck onto jars to how to deal with interpersonal conflicts) does not require full staff consensus. In the context of “ordinary” business, the staff is meant to do their jobs and work out their issues with the board being there to step in if there’s a problem that the staff can’t figure out how to solve itself.

    As the co-op is discovering, the decision to begin a boycott is clearly not a run-of-the-mill, part-of-doing-business, everyday choice (which is why the method for beginning a boycott has its own policy). It is an extraordinary decision which I will deal with in my next comment.

  4. I did consider the framework you describe (in which either a positive or negative consensus must be reached regarding a boycott) when composing this entry, but it struck me that this could not possibly make sense.

    After all, NOT boycotting basically means a non-interruption of the status quo. The co-op’s shelves are full of products that are not being boycotted and no decision (by consensus or any other method) is required to continue selling products that are already being sold.

    Boycotting, as noted in my last comment, is a decision to behave in an extraordinary way. It has widespread ramifications which (unlike personal boycott decisions) will have impact well beyond just the decision makers. This is why most co-ops have explicit policies in place regarding who gets to make these decisions and how. Whether such a decision is made by a board, staff or members, these policies are put in place to serve as a brake to hasty or ill-conceived or ill-informed action.

    So the policy Oly has in place for this extraordinary decision places decision-making power specifically with the staff. And it spells out exactly how that staff is supposed to arrive at a decision (by consensus, a higher barrier than a simple majority vote). If the staff cannot reach a consensus to begin a boycott, then the barrier that’s been put in place has not been overcome.

    If you presume that a failure to reach consensus to start a boycott means there is also not a consensus to NOT boycott (which automatically triggers board intervention), then the only possible cases in which the board would not always be the sole decision maker (a role for them that is not specified anywhere in the policy or by-laws) would be those where a boycott receives a unanimous yes or a unanimous no. Any other option (including the one you describe involving a single spoiler) means the decision gets tossed to a board that is not specified as authorized to make such a decision in any co-op policy.

  5. It strikes me that you and I are simply speculating on how the boycott policy and by-laws have intersected to cause the current situation. As with many such cases, it’s probably best if we both talk with a full understanding of the concrete steps that led to this specific decision.

    For example, it would be good to know exactly how the staff went about trying to reach consensus on this issue. The boycott policy states that only staff members in departments that sell the product being considered for a boycott will be part of such a decision, but it would strike me as odd if only the staff of the dry goods department (i.e., the folks who stock Israeli ice cream cones and crackers) were tasked to make this decision. But then that opens the question as to how it was determined which staff was involved in finding a consensus.

    Was that consensus (or lack thereof) reached after a series of meetings and discussion? Who was involved in those discussions? What information was provided and who got to determine when consensus was and was not reached.

    If we take it as given that the board acted based on its by-law responsibility to resolve conflicts after exhausting all possibilities, we should know what exhaustive steps were taken to resolve this matter and who got to decide that all avenues for reaching consensus was exhausted.

    As you know, I’m not a local so I cannot get answers to these questions which I think are vital in determining if this decision was made based on following internal policies or arbitrarily. It’s too much to ask you to find out as well, although it might be worth asking a board member (especially if you see one at a table the next time you’re at the store) to come join us and describe exactly the steps that were taken so that we’ll no longer be talking about this decision in a vacuum.

  6. Jon – with all due respect, I think your tenacity is leading you to untenable territory here. You seem to say that the point of Item 16 is to allow the Board to make decisions if the staff can't agree on how to price beans, but that it certainly shouldn't imply that the Board's duties include making any important decisions hat the staff can't agree about.

    You conclude above by saying, “the decision gets tossed to a board that is not specified as authorized to make such a decision in any co-op policy.” It is authorized to make decisions when the staff can't agree, as a general principle in the Coop's governance, in Item 16 of the Bylaws. You seem to want to say that this has to be specified in every particular Coop policy which says anything about the staff making decisions in order to be specified at all.

    I'm afraid that the research you'd like to have done on exactly what happened over the two years since a member proposed this, and at the staff meetings at which it was discussed, and at the Board meetings at which it was on the agenda seems more exhaustive (and more exhausting) than I'm interested in being… Personally, I think that some of the other arguments being made against this step are significantly stronger than the one you've been diligently pursuing in this thread.

  7. As you might have noticed from my most recent posting, I’ve gotten a little bored with this line of reasoning myself over the last 24 hours. I suspect I got a bit indignant when I learned (not just from possibly over-reading into your comments, but from information from a number of others as well) that the story I had accepted (willfully and publically) as true (that the co-op followed its procedures diligently when making this decision) might not be the case.

    As you and I demonstrate, there are many legitimate avenues to debate this subject. I do suspect that when the smoke clears and the story finally comes out, that the decision to boycott was made by certain members of the leadership working in collusion with affiliated and unaffiliated BDS activists and that attempts to follow procedures will turn out to have been window dressing to a foregone conclusion.

    But however that story turns out, you’ve still got a situation where members woke up last week to discover that their co-op was embracing a political stance they found abhorrent. And you still have a situation where those members will only be allowed into the discussion weeks after the press releases went out.

    As I said when I thought the co-op followed the rules (something I believe less now, but that’s of no consequence), there are ethical requirements of a member organization such as the co-op which were abandoned, even if “the rules” allowed for a decision this hurtful to many members to go through without their knowledge (much less input).

    However the decision was made, and however the matter is resolved, the damage has been done. Not to Israel’s reputation or citizens, but to the Olympia Food Co-op and its membership.

  8. BDS (whoops, I mean PS) – Check out the comment by Avishai (#115) which appeared at noon on the co-op's own bulliten board (http://www.olympiafood.coop/forums/viewtopic.php?pid=280#p280).

    He doesn't present himself as an opponent of boycotts in general (although I suppose this could be a pose – but I'm going to take him at his word), but seems to have summed up the genuine issues co-op members should be thinking about when they look at how this decision was made at OlyCoop.

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