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

November 2, 2009

#9 Openness

Filed under: Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 8:30 am

What does openness mean?

At one level, it is an ethic that relates directly to the first principle of co-operatives (voluntary and open membership).  At another, it suggests a way of being and communicating with each other. Perhaps deeper still, openness suggests transparency in all of our actions within the co-operative.

I think that all of these senses should be part of the co-operative meaning of openness. If members engage in hidden agendas they aren’t being very open. If members engage in hidden vested interests, they aren’t being very open. Finally, and this might be a very tender point, if people engage in hidden relationships (real or imagined), they aren’t being very open.

How far does this go? Is it an obligation of two workers who start a sexual relationship to make that open to their co-workers? Should that be anyone’s business? What about a less complicated friendship?

This isn’t just about individual rights to privacy. In a worker co-op, the relationships can get very complicated. If the friendship or relationship goes bad, it can create a social rift in the organization and reduce or even destroy the social cohesion necessary for an effective co-operative.

A lot of the conflicts around openness can be resolved through the creation of checks and balances on power, on limiting the ability of any one person to be the “decider” on another person’s advancement or discipline, and by creating a culture of equality and equity that would make hidden relationships meaningless. However, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

I raise this point mainly because of an interesting article in a local business journal, In Business. In an essay, (I forget the author’s name, but will update when I get the chance), an experienced HR consultant suggests that companies should avoid creating any more “protected classes.” Madison, he mentions, has 20 protected characteristics (the standard Federal and State protections against discrimination as well as those unique to Madison such as status as a student, gender identity, criminal record, etc). He suggested that businesses have enough “protected” employees and don’t need to create more through conflict avoidance and favoritism. Creating an open work place means, in part, creating a system in which “what you know” and “how you do it” outweigh “who you drink with.”

Of course, openness isn’t just about personal relationships. It is also about communication between the leaders and the rank-and-file. If the members don’t know a proposal is coming up for a decision until it is too late, that isn’t a very open process and hurts the democratic nature of the co-operative. If the rumor mill is the main source of communication in the co-operative, that isn’t a very open process either.

We get told that we live in an open society, but the level of state secrets is high. We have 24 hour news that doesn’t seem to tell us anything that is really going on. Conspiracy theories get held with the same regard as the rest of the news while the actual activities of corporate America get ignored or lost in the hubbub over ACORN, the latest star scandal, or the weather while the people who have actually engaged in crimes against the nation and corporations who use their money to write the laws get ignored.

We have a lot of culture to work against in creating truly open environments in our co-ops. Part of the debate over privacy is likely because we have so little of it in the world outside our co-ops. Too many people seem to want to use information about ourselves in order to manipulate or attack us. How do we create an ethos of openness inside the co-operative without destroying people’s right to privacy and protect their privacy from those outside the co-operative?

Each co-op will be different, but clearly focusing on the job performance and creating clear rules on behavior will provide a foundation. Flattening that hierarchy so that no one person gets to make decisions about another person should provide a lot. We need to create good communication outlets that provide a safe means for people to discuss issues facing the co-op and present ideas (even if they aren’t popular). Mostly, as members, as individuals, we need to live this value. We need to be willing to stand up in the break room and tell someone that they shouldn’t be gossiping. We need to be willing to tell our friends that they are wrong. We need to defend another member’s right to express their opinion even when disagreeing with it.

As much as I’ve tried no to make this about personal relationships, that tends to be where a lot of worker co-ops hit the skids (and that shouldn’t be surprising as these of people based organizations), but one co-op shows just how powerful and economical openness can be.

Just Coffee decided that they weren’t going to worry about certification through TransFair anymore. The Fairtrade Coffee Roaster is a worker cooperative in Madison, WI.  Here is what they have to say about financial openness:

“A fair economy should be based on total transparency. Way too often when activists and consumers try to find out how companies deal with suppliers and customers, they are hit with tired rhetoric about “trade secrecy” and “sensitive information”.

“We at JC feel like any information about our books and contracts should be out there for our customers and allies to see. That is why you can find our contracts online and why we will eventually have our annual financials available on our site. If you have questions that are not available through our site, please e-mail or call us and we’ll do our best to get you the information that you are seeking.”

They eventually want to create a system on their website that will allow consumers to enter the bar code from their bag of coffee and find out the entire history of those beans (who grew them, how much the seed cost, how much they sold for (and to who), the cost of roasting, shipping, etc). When we toured their last summer, they mentioned how some see their action as a competitive disadvantage, but they see it as an advantage. Let Maxwell House meet our contract, they challenged. The farmers will still win.

So there we have it. Openness needs to be a critical part of our co-operative structure. It is an ethical value that influences our social cohesion, our democracy, and even our financial relationships. Openness requires a lot of trust within the organization. That should make it a perfect fit for a business model based on mutual self-help, self-responsibility, equality, equity, democracy, solidarity.

Next Week: Caring for Others

1 Comment »

  1. For a different take, check out Roy Williams Monday Morning Memo® at http://www.mondaymorningmemo.com/?ShowMe=ThisMemo&MemoID=1843

    Comment by John McNamara — November 3, 2009 @ 10:17 am

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