The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

October 5, 2009

#6 Equity (Equality’s Counter-weight)

Filed under: Governance,Identity Statement Series,Worker Rights — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 11:36 am

The first lesson that I received about the concept of equity as a co-operative value occurred at the MMCCU student orientation from Tom Webb. He explained the difference between equality and equity as follows:

[We have delivered the orientation in a perfectly equal manner. Each student received the same information packets, saw the same power point presentations, and heard the same discussion. However, if a student were blind or deaf, the delivery of the orientation would not equitable as not everyone would be able to receive the information.]

Thus, equity is the other side of equality. It is the value that keeps equality from becoming a tyrant in our co-operatives.

The background paper on the Identity makes the following comment:

“Equity refers, first of all, to how members are treated within a co-operative. They should be treated equitably in how they are rewarded for their participation in the co-operative, normally through patronage dividends, allocations to capital reserves in their name or reductions in charges.”

In worker co-operatives, the value of equity must also apply to pay scales, benefits, and work rules. This is especially true in worker co-operatives that organize industrially instead of by trade. For a cab company, the rules and pay might really differ depending on the job (driver, mechanic, call center, billing, etc). In this example, the different types of workers have different expectations for their performance and their duties. For instance, an attendance policy that allows workers to call in for a day off an hour before their shift works if there are a lot of workers, but is an operational failure if the worker calling fills a key position that cannot be easily replaced or covered by existing workers. In this example, the value of equality needs to be balanced by equity to keep the co-operative functional.

We often focus on “equality” to the exclusion of equity. Equity seems like special treatment and anti-egalitarian. However, without equity in the mix, workers may be exposed to a level of exploitation by the majority of the workforce or the organization may find it difficult to meet the operational needs of the organization and the desires of the consumers.

To manage the push and pull between equality and equity, co-operatives should establish a set of core values unique to their organization. These values should be based on the co-operative identity, but also reflect the structure of their co-operative. My co-op created our core values the very same year that ICA adopted the identity statement. Like the ICA, we acknowledge the importance of “openness and honesty”. However we also went into greater detail with the concept of managing growth, membership responsibilities, and worker rights. Our core values do not replace the co-op identity, but add to that identity to create the Union Cab identity within the larger framework. Worker co-ops (and co-ops in general) are the creation of their members. Their identity is part of the larger world of co-ops but must also reflect the unique individuals who join and work.

As and added step, worker co-operatives should establish a code of ethics. The idea should be to recognize that different roles and jobs have different needs (in terms of pay and work rules) and have commonality in the basic approach to work. This can have very different applications. The values and ethics provide the basic approach to the job and allow for the equitable work rules that recognize the different types of work being performed.

An equitable workplace isn’t one that we think about much. Certainly, the Americans with Disabilities Act provides some basis for discussion, but worker co-ops must go beyond the physical disabilities.  Worker co-ops must also consider the different nature of the position. A cashier in a grocery store has very different stress issues than someone in receiving. A phone answerer in a cab company has different issues form both dispatchers and drivers. Addressing these differences has to be part of the discussion when we consider the concept “equal pay for equal work”. Perhaps the correct slogan is “equal pay for equitable work”?

Worker Co-operatives should avoid the false call for “equality”. Equality without Equity is a tyranny of the majority and undermines the worker co-operative identity.

Next Week: Democracy

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