Before returning to the discussion of the Olympia Co-op, the only food co-op (and possibly the only retailer) in the country that has enacted a boycott of Israeli goods: a couple of points.
First, as my regular reader knows, I’m not the biggest fan of legal remedies (legislative or judicial) applied to political disputes, if only because they tend to create precedents taken advantage of more frequently by the unscrupulous than by those seeking justice. That said (and as the Olympia BDS cru has told me on more than one occasion), I am not an Olympia local and thus cannot claim to know what options have been closed off to the people who decided their only choice was to take the co-op to court.
Second, I think we can rather quickly put aside the BDSers argument that a lawsuit about process is hypocritical since it’s really politics (specifically Middle East politics), not process issues, that motivates the plaintiffs in this case. Given that it was the co-op that allegedly violated its own rules in order to take an official stance on a hot-button political issue, they cannot now turn around and cry foul just because other people who care about this same issue have risen up to challenge them.
My use of the word “allegedly” signals that we’re now entering a legal discussion where careful use of language is critical. And if this case is allowed to continue, one of the main issues is whether the co-op followed its own rules when enacting this particular boycott.
Now food co-ops across the country have varied governance structures and rules, with the process for enacting boycotts varying particularly widely (for reasons I’ll discuss shortly). Some co-ops require approval of a governing board to begin a boycott, others a vote of members. Some erect very high barriers to such activity while some ban the practice entirely.
In the case of Olympia, bylaws place responsibility for boycott decisions not with the membership or the board but with the staff. And the process required of the staff is not a majority vote but the achievement of consensus. And when a boycott motion was first brought to the staff two years before the boycott was enacted, that led to two years of on and off debate on the subject during which a decision (i.e., consensus) was never achieved.
Now to most of us, if staff consensus is the barrier a boycott decision must overcome and a consensus was never reached, then one would think the rules dictate that a proposed boycott cannot go forward. But the by-laws also allow the co-op’s board to mediate in disputes among the staff and, in this one case, the failure of the staff to achieve consensus was not treated as the end point in the decision-making process but rather as a dispute which the board could settle by bypassing the staff and passing the boycott on its own.
How did they make this leap? Well according to one Olympian I debated on this subject, failure to achieve a consensus on accepting a boycott also meant there was a failure to achieve consensus on rejecting a boycott. And since the staff was paralyzed between these two failures of consensus, the board was free to use its dispute resolution to decide the issue.
Personally, I found this argument to be a bit of a stretch, if not outright absurd, before eventually becoming bored with the whole legal debate. But if this case ever does go to court, one useful outcome (in addition to some interesting discovery) will be a legal determination of whether this mixture of the boycott/consensus and board dispute resolution was legitimate or a breach of the rules (not to mention an abuse of power).
The reason I got bored with a legal debate is that there is a moral issue that transcends bylaws, rules and regulations, notably: does a percentage of the population of an organization (particularly an organization like a food co-op founded on principles of cooperation) have the right to do something that would anger, hurt and appall another percentage of the population of the same organization/community in the name of an external political cause?
The board of the Olympia Co-op knew full well that their boycott decision would represent a heavy dose of saliva in the face to many, many fellow members. Which is why they passed their boycott vote behind the backs of the membership, at a meeting attended only by the board and dozens of BDS activists.
The reason many co-ops have loose rules regarding boycotts (and other matters) is that they make an assumption that people joining the organization do so for the good of the community as a whole and will not inflict damage on that community and pain on its members, even for a cause that some (possibly even many) members feel is important.
What these co-ops failed to understand was that there was one political movement, BDS, that could not care less about these organizations or their memberships, beyond their usefulness in propagating a propaganda message by stuffing their “Israel = Apartheid” accusation into the mouth of every man, woman and child in the co-op, consequences be damned.