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

September 21, 2010

The Agency Dilemma in Worker Co-operatives

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

Last week at my other blog, Breathing Lessons, I discussed the Rochdale cul-de-sac as it applies to consumer cooperatives. This week, as part of this discussion over the future of US worker cooperatives, if not the labor movement in the United States, I want to put the spotlight of the Agency Dilemma on our movement.

It would be a mistake to presume that worker cooperatives, by their nature, enjoy an immunity to the agency dilemma. Race Matthews notes that even Mondragon has its issues. In the US, we have a lot of issues that arise from our culture as well as from the Agency Dilemma.

A More Critical View of Mondragon

First, while I am impressed with Mondragon and loathe to point out the cobwebs up in the corners, it is worth mentioning that perfection is a goal that we strive for, but can never attain. Thus, the criticism of Mondragon (and our own co-operatives) should be accepted in the effort to make them better.

The single biggest criticism of Mondragon has been their outsourcing labor to the developing countries without developing worker co-operatives. This not only runs counter to their principles but invokes the legacy of Spanish imperialism especially when they are engaging the South American economy. However, even within their co-operatives, Mondragon can succumb to elitism and a class separation among their workforce. Matthews cites research conducted by groups within and without Mondragon. Specifically the work of Cornell University anthropologist Dayvydd Greenwood and the ethnography of Sharyn Kasmir . Matthews also taps the work of Mondragon insiders José Luis González (at the time, the Director of Human Resources at FAGOR), and  Mikel Limenez. The work that Matthews uses is from his 1990 position as the Director of Sociological Research for Ikasbide, the predecessor of Otalara Institute. Mikel generally leads the tour groups.

While the workers love their co-operatives and appreciate them, they also recognize that there are “those above” and “those below” (Matthews, 1999, 225) They also speak of issues that should resonate with those of us in the United States, “we are less equal among ourselves than the workers in a capitalist firm; being members, many of us often have to put up with things that workers in other firms would not tolerate.” (Matthews, 1999, 225) Certainly, the 1974 strike revealed a very real rift along gender lines in the co-operatives. While the official discussion of the strike resulted in limiting the size of co-operatives (the factory co-op that suffered the strike had over 2,500 members), it did not talk about how the strike leaders were treated. According to Kasmir in The Myth of Mondragon, twenty-four leaders from the strike were fired (2/3’s of them women). Twenty-two were re-hired except for two women. They were unable to find decent employment in the Basque country for almost five years (public pressure finally forced their re-hiring). (Kasmir, 1996, 110-120) Kasmir’s work provides a Gramsci-esque critique of Mondragon. I can tell you that it is not well received by academia and considered flawed. It is an ethnography so her work does have certain limitations, but I think that it does raise some issues that shouldn’t be ignored.

The point is that our co-operatives can easily succumb to the dominant paradigm of capitalism. Even Mondragon can create an environment where mental and physical labor has separate value within the organization. We are not immune from creating agency theory. If our Human Resource department only has the corporate world of human resources to use for educating itself, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our HR departments talk and act like other corporations. Unless we create a structure that either flattens hierarchy or contains and channels its power, we are susceptible to it overcoming our democracies. If Mondragon cannot eradicate it despite their principles and culture, then it will be doubly hard for our US Co-ops.

The US Agency Dilemma

Our coops have few, if any, resources as worker cooperatives. While the Worker Co-operative conferences offer some skill sets and workshops, it can be difficult to translate between industries. We often have to turn to our industry and their “best practices.” As I have mentioned before, we need to critique the “best practices” rather than simply accept them. In whose interest are these practices best? My guess is that they work best for the managers first and the stakeholders second. The workers are far down the pecking order.

Because US culture bases itself on control and power, it creates an environment where it can be quite easy for our worker co-ops to mimic them. We often haven’t the time or energy to explain and debate every detail of the operations to the membership. It is easier to let individuals specialize in their area and run it. However, that needn’t take away from the democracy of the organization. For the smaller co-ops, it is easier to maintain a collective attitude; however, as co-ops grow, they cannot always follow the Rainbow Grocery or the Arizmendi models due to the needs of their industry. These co-ops do need some level of structure and we shouldn’t see hierarchy as an automatic failure or example of Agency. We shouldn’t simply hire managers to run our co-ops and then complain about their decisions.

The Danger of Agency

One of my current fears regarding the Agency Theory and US Labor Movement comes from the two sources. First, the traditional labor movement has largely given itself over to Agency long ago. Corporate officers and union leaders make as much as the CEO and have little in common with the rank-and-file. SEIU’s growth strategy has resembled Wal-Mart more than a people’s movement. In our movement, we are seeing social workers and “community developers” find ways to co-opt the movement to include well-heeled consultants and advisers. Elsewhere, worker co-operatives are being created to outsource unionized government services with lower paid and benefit-poor positions.

The Cleveland Model offers hope, but also offers dangers. It is an agency development model that focuses on good jobs and keeping the neighborhood intact. However, it is based on the benevolence of a couple of large institutions and has a control structure that will fill the key decider roles from the established philanthropists (at least initially). Capital, in Cleveland, is creating worker co-ops to serve it, but doesn’t really adopt the concept of the sovereignty of labor or the subordinate nature of capital. This might end up being a revolutionary act and greatly aid the development of large scale co-operatives, or it might be a wonderful act of charity that really can’t be replicated (and subject to the goodwill of the benefactors). The real test of this project will come when the primary financiers step aside and allow the workers complete control over their destiny.

How Do We Move Forward?

We need to create a set of best practices for worker co-operatives regardless of their industry, size, and structure. Certainly, the CICOPA Declaration on Worker Co-operatives can provide a lot of guidance in this effort. Worker Co-op Best Practices need to be aimed at diffusing the control and power of elite groups within the organization as well as preventing cliques and informal processes from overcoming the democracy of the organization. This can and should be a role for the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives or its “project” the Democracy at Work Institute.

We need to recognize that few workers come to our co-operatives with the illumination of the co-operative movement. We need to create the means for them to understand and develop. We need to follow Arizmendiaretta’s belief that our movement is an educational movement with an economic basis. We can’t simply teach people how to read a balance sheet or write a cash-flow statement and think that we are done. We need to teach critical thinking an analysis. We need to develop a work force where every member has the knowledge and intellectual skill to engage as a fully vested member of the co-operative.

This means working to overcome our culture of treating people and labor as mere machinations of the marketplace. We need to find a way to develop a new path through our co-operatives that provides a real answer to neo-liberalism. If we only try to democratize capitalism, then we really fail. We can only be a parody of our capitalist competitors: children playing dress-up as opposed to engaging as a true adult and providing a counter-weight, a true Third Road to Socialism and Capitalism.

To overcome our Agency dilemma and develop a true Distributist society, we will need to challenge our institutions and our co-operatives to step forward, to be leaders of the labor movement. My next post will discuss the idea of how to do that and creating a neo-syndicalist movement to counter the neo-liberals.

References:

Kasmir, Sharyn The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, State of University of New York Press, Albany, 1996

Matthews, Race Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society (Alternatives to the Market and the State), Comerford and Miller and Pluto Press. Syndney and London. 1999

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