Firing, Strike, Rehiring Made For Summer Of Strife
The voices and demeanor of the staff, board members and owners of Ozark Natural Foods still show signs of hurt and frustration from the turbulent events of the last few months.
Despite the wounds that are still healing, one thing is for sure, said several staff and board members: If the co-op is to survive, those involved in its ownership and operations must stand together.
That is why the common theme, when discussing what the future holds for ONF, is one of mending relationships and moving towards more open, clear and understanding communication between all involved.
ONF was closed for only one day — June 11 — due to the staff strike, but the affects of their decision have rippled through the community as the more than 9,300 owners struggle to understand what happened.
When the ONF staff voted to go on strike, they had specific demands — that Sue Graham and Linda Ralston be removed from their positions on the ONF Board of Directors. Since that time, and most likely before, speculations abound as to why these two members were targeted.
Alexa McGriff, marketing director for ONF, had a simple explanation. McGriff said the feeling she received from most of the staff was about Ralston and Graham’s actions during and outside of board meetings following the July 2011 decision to move forward with the mortgage payoff. Some would call it “obstructionism.”
“A lot of people think that people don’t like Sue and Linda because they disagreed with the debt payoff decision that took place last July … I don’t think the majority of people had the problem with them because of that, because the debt payoff still passed whether or not they voted against it. The issue arose concerning how they acted after that decision was made. They began to act uncooperatively,” McGriff explained.
The problem began, McGriff said, when the pressure the two felt to vote for the mortgage payoff led them to treat ONF General Manager Alysen Land and other staff members in a way that obviously made people feel uncomfortable. Staff then began filing grievances against them and slowly things got worse.
Once a special mediation meeting was rejected by the board and Land was let go in a closed session on March 27, staff and owners felt the board had gone too far with what they saw as arbitrary decisions made by people with agendas other than what was best for the co-op.
This may be obvious to people paying close attention to the events of the last year, but what’s important now is that, despite Ralston and Graham not being removed from their positions, the staff has high hopes for mutual cooperation and letting the past lie, McGriff said. That doesn’t mean all of the staff and owners are on board with letting the wrongs they felt go unpunished, but McGriff said most of the staff are willing to try.
“The staff’s split 50/50. Half the staff is just glad (Land is) back and they’re ready to move on. I think they’re willing to work with (Ralston and Graham) and move on and stop living in the past and dwelling on what’s happened. I think the other half of the staff is glad (Land is) back but they still feel like (Ralston and Graham) have wronged the co-op so much and they’re frustrated.”
As for the strike, many owners were upset staff took it upon themselves to close the store to patrons, and make a request that wasn’t within their rights to make.
“There were definitely a few very vocal owners who were unhappy we went on strike because they didn’t feel like it was our place to say who was or wasn’t on the board. The influx of owners that were angry, the main reason was because we closed the doors and they couldn’t access their food,” McGriff explained.
Many staff, including McGriff, can’t imagine another way they would have received the attention they sought to address the issues they faced.
“I really don’t know what else we could have done besides keep the doors open and not do anything. If we voted to not go on strike we wouldn’t have been able to mend our relationships with the board. That’s really the only positive side of it — that if we hadn’t have done this we would still be in the same place,” McGriff said.
McGriff admitted that it will be a process, but that new Board President Joshua Youngblood’s good relationship with Land and the rest of the board is helping to bring everyone back together to work towards the good of the co-op.
Returning To Land
Since the board voted to throw out all requests for dismissal of Graham and Ralston and reinstated Land as ONF general manager, Land has been making a list of wants and needs, first and foremost to pay off the mortgage that will allow more flexibility within the co-op.
But bringing back Land was no easy decision, said Youngblood. It was one the board took several months to make, and it contradicted their earlier decision that Land’s employment was causing rifts within the co-op.
“The ownership as a whole didn’t know about the issues, unless you’d been attending a board meeting for the two or three months before that. They were really tense, they were hard to get through. Board and management were not communicating before the meetings and certainly not during the meetings,” Youngblood said.
Although he couldn’t say exactly why Land was let go, he wanted to make the report of why they re-hired her more public. Mainly, he said, the reasons why they originally let her go could no longer be justified.
“I didn’t report all of the discussions we had, because I didn’t want to hold board members opinions up to public scrutiny. Out of our deliberations which took two and a half months, the majority of the board came to the decision that we needed to hire (Land) back because she fit the organization best right now — that we need stability in our organization,” he said.
The Future Of The Co-Op
Youngblood and Land both said the $1.6 million left to pay on the mortgage, which costs the co-op $15,000 a month, is set to be paid off by October using the money that the co-op holds in reserve. This will allow the co-op to follow long-term visions, build infrastructure, invest in community projects and adjust pricing.
Land said pricing currently is in line with other similar stores, such as Whole Foods — which is set to move into Bentonville — other local stores such as Harps and co-ops around the country.
Youngblood explained the main reason for ONF’s large profit margins are not that prices have been raised, but that outgoing expenses like staff vacation and professional affiliations have been cut in order to put money in reserve. In the last couple of years, prices have gone down 2 percent and Land hopes to take it down another 1 percent as soon as the mortgage is paid off.
Land said what she sees for the future are setting prices to where more people in the community can afford to shop at ONF, and to be a part of Fayetteville for many years to come. She and Youngblood want to see more ownership communication through quarterly owners meetings, a more open board meeting format, exploring ways to get board meeting minutes more readily available to owners and to continue the management style that has been at ONF for years.
Youngblood also wants people to understand how important this co-op is to the community and its model to the country.
“Co-ops are the best businesses in this country. It’s a workable business model that can be ethical in its decisions. They should have a bigger place in this country and with a co-op as successful as ONF it would be a sin for it to go away,” Youngblood said.
As for Ralston and Graham, they’re ready for ONF to become a true co-operative once again. Graham said she’s glad everyone is ready to look forward and that communication has been opened by this ordeal, while Ralston said she’s hurt by being targeted, but also ready to move on.
The answers may never be clear, and the future may be uncertain, but most seem to be optimistic about what it holds.