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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Park Slope Food Coop: The Ninotchkas of Union Street


“We work every four weeks, not every month. Does everyone understand the difference?” the woman with the projector said in a baby voice, enunciating every word. Not everyone did. Shifts were 2.75 hours, she continued, and every single adult member of the household had to do them. No buying out of it, no family plans. I realized I would be required to work my husband’s shift, too, as he worked full time at an office job and I worked from home.

I asked if I could have a nonphysical task because of back pain. She interrupted, “If you have a medical problem, your physician can give us a note.” I signed up to work two shifts in the office.

Two weeks later, I arrived at the Coop’s check-in desk with my new ID card for what I thought was my first scheduled work shift. One of the scanner people told me, “You’re on alert for work, and Tom is on alert for orientation.” I was flabbergasted. I knew my husband had shirked the new-member orientation, but I thought I was following all the rules.

“But I’m here to work my first shift,” I said.

“No, you missed your first shift,” the guy told me. “This is your second shift.” Now, I was told, I would have to work two shifts for the one I missed as punishment. Former PSFC Member

One recent morning, I went to the co-op office to check my status. A fellow member-worker pulled my file: a collection of index cards that highlighted every job and misstep since my initiation into the club. Next to me, an elderly woman was being grilled: “Did you tell your squad leader that you had a medical emergency?”

Another time, I watched a woman hold her forehead, her children clinging to her skirt, while a worker at the register called out over the intercom, “Does anyone know how to process food stamps?” Former PSFC Member

To the Hollywood of 1939 and 1940, Stalin and Hitler were still a bit of a joke. Charlie Chaplin did "The Great Dictator" about Hitler in 1940, and in 1939 Ernst Lubitsch did "Ninotchka," a comedy about the Bolsheviks that starred Greta Garbo. And today in Brooklyn, there is a bit of comedy playing on Union Street in Park Slope, starring scores of mock-serious Bolsheviks acting out a little Soviet: the Park Slope Food Coop.

Every member at PSFC must work at this coop. Want to pay someone else to do the work for you ? No no no. That would go against our spirit, our ideology. No work to do ? You must show up regardless -- there's lots of make-work we can dream up. And, oh yes, for those whose thinking is not right, there are a number of penalties: suspension, public ridicule, and the threat of expulsion. There are two committees that deal with politically-incorrect deviationists: a) the Diversity and Equality Committee, and b), for the most serious offenders, the dreaded Disciplinary Committee whose powers include expulsion. (Do you belong to any other organization that has such a committee ?) It seems that almost all members have had some brush with the FSFC discipline apparatus, at least for missing work assignments.

As is the case of all cults and political sects, the accounts of former members (such as the ones I have cited above) give insights into the working of the PSFC. But the frankest and most detailed information by far comes from PSFC's own Membership Manual. Frank, because it spells out, in almost so many words, the irrational and vindictive nature of the group's disciplinary procedures.

The most striking feature is the insistence that when a work assignment has not been fulfilled the offender must work two assignments for the one he has missed. Why two instead of one ? Surely one make-up session, and perhaps a modest fee to compensate the group for expenses, would make the Coop whole for any missed assignment. But making the group whole is obviously not the purpose of the exercise. Something else is clearly going on: the offender needs to be taught a lesson, he needs to be punished. And, the PSFC apologists will insist, if you don't like it, don't join. You knew what you're getting into at the beginning, you contracted to live by these rules. Reasonable ?

No, not reasonable. We are not free to enter into contracts that punish because punitive action is reserved to the government. In the legal literature, this discussion is concerned with the difference between "liquidated damages" (allowed) and "penalties" (not allowed). No contract that calls for penalties is enforceable. Among other problems, such would-be contracts are considered unconscionable.

I think that the unconscionable double-make-up rule of the PSFC is a potential legal Achilles' Heel for the group. An aggrieved member could, and actually should, sue the organization whenever it insists on double work as a condition for his continued membership. PSFC has been a feature of left-wing Brooklyn for quite a while now. No doubt it has been of some benefit to at least some of its members, mostly by providing leisure time sociability and an arena for self-righteousness. If it could shed itself of at least some of its vindictive disciplinary customs it could actually become a modest asset to the community. Here is my advice to any member who is suspended because of double-make-up: litigate through the courts and help to make PSFC a more positive force in Brooklyn.