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

November 9, 2009

#10 Social Responsibility

In my office, I have the Identity Statement posted where I can easily refer to it (along with Union Cab’s vision, mission and core values). I have a version that is based on the background paper, but includes other commentary.

This version describes the ethical value of Social Responsibility as follows:

“Social Responsibility—the interdependence of people and recognition of their dignity leads to a realization that individual and group action has profound effects on individuals, groups and their relationships.”

Clearly, this ethic ties into the values of solidarity, mutual self-help, and self-responsibility. It is, however, an ethic that has been co-opted by the corporations under the ideal of “corporate social responsibility” or CSR.

Of course, a lot of corporations do engage in a more humanized version of capitalism and that comes from a true belief that capitalism and an ethos of humanitarianism may be compatible. This group still pales in comparison to the clout and numbers of the neo-liberals and neo-cons; in fact, they are teaching those groups how to put a smiley face on their corporate actions. In some cases, they are also teaching the leaders of co-operatives without decent co-operative management theory the wrong ideas about management. In the corporate world, CSR is often about charity and marketing. Support a local little league team, clean up a highway, and sponsor the Komen Race for the Cure will offset the exploitation of developing countries environment and swear shop labor. Getting accreditation though SA8000 puts lipstick on the corporation that might also lobby the host governments to codify exploitation through ridiculous minimum wage laws ($2/day).

In the co-op world, social responsibility shouldn’t be about marketing. It should be about a genuine concern for the community and building a better world. This means to work to avoid or minimize the effects of exploitation. That includes exploitation of the earth and exploitation of labor. In the consumer co-ops, working with local producers and vendors, concentrating on fair trade (and fair production as fair trade is being co-opted). It means reducing waste, encouraging environmentalism, supporting worker rights.

In worker co-ops, social responsibility means the above as well, but it also means working to overcome the tendency to focus on the internal process of the co-operative. Worker co-operatives need to reach out to the stakeholders of their organization who aren’t members: consumers, suppliers, and the community as a whole. But how does the Worker Co-op Social Responsibility differentiate itself from CSR?

If WCSR means sponsoring benefits, cleaning up highways, and supporting little league teams, then worker co-ops aren’t really doing much different from their corporate counter-parts and failing to create the co-operative difference. Without a co-operative difference, the co-operative advantage fails.

How should we engage the public in our co-ops? For the retail outlets, consumer education offers a lot of value, but we need to go further. We need to be willing to be a voice in our community (especially around our specialty). We need to accept a role as community leaders because we are just that. By choosing the model of co-operator for our business (a model that says that workers don’t need bosses, but can manage their own affairs), we have chosen a model that promotes the worker as a community leader. Transportation co-ops should be active in promoting sustainable transportation systems even if it means promoting options other than what the co-op offers. Grocery Co-ops in promoting food security and sustainable living. Sex worker co-ops in promoting healthy choices affirming our humanity without the dogma of morality. All of us should be supporting the dignity of workers and the rights of workers to choose their representation (even if that means actively supporting and encouraging the unionization of the consumer and producer co-ops).

For the most part, most of the worker co-operatives that I have come into contact with do a good job on social responsibility. Although I have met some who don’t really support worker rights (they tend to be co-ops in a high-tech field or who see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than identifying as workers. Of course, a key part of WCSR is joining your federation of worker co-operatives. There really isn’t a good excuse not to do so. We need to start measuring it, however. The corporate world is measuring their success through SA8000, the WorldBlu Democratic Workplace, and other means.

The Co-operative, in the UK, has an extensive system of measuring their values. I am part of a research group through St. Mary’s University that is creating a similar tool for worker co-operatives. We want to create an index for worker co-ops that will create a score for them along the lines of the Identity Statement.

Ultimately, social responsibility is about more that patting ourselves on the back, but in accepting our role as community leaders, creating the change in our communities needed to develop a more sustainable and just society.

Next Week: Caring for Others

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