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

October 25, 2010

Please Help Food For Thought Book Collective

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 4:04 pm

The following letter was sent out today. Please help however you can. In this month of co-operative solidarity, we need to show it with more than a Facebook wall post. Please send whatever amount that you can.

John

Dear friends,

We are writing to you today to share an important update about what is happening with us because you are part of the community that has always made our collective a special place.  We are writing you today because that is what friends do when they need help: they turn to their friends first and ask for it.  We want you to know that we need your help now and that we are thankful for all the support that you have given to us in the past.

As many of you know, Food For Thought Books is a not-for-profit workers’ collective bookstore, the only one of its kind in all of Western Massachusetts.  We are also one of the last collective bookstores in the country today. During the thirty plus years that we have been part of the Amherst community, we have prided ourselves in being able to stay true to our mission of disseminating radical & progressive media in all its various forms as well as providing a space where voices and ideas silenced and ignored by the mainstream media can be heard, seen, supported and realized. As you can imagine, it has been no small task, in this capitalist world, to try and run a business that treats its workers fairly and that turns whatever profits it makes back over to the community.

Over the years, alongside our handpicked books and media, we have been able to offer thousands of events, author readings, workshops, reading groups, community resources, fundraising support, and much more – all for free.  It might surprise you to know that we have never received funding, through grants or other sources, to do this work.

The truth is that our bookstore has, for quite some time, relied on the generous support of professors at the local universities & colleges who order textbooks for their classes here. Our textbook business made for a reliable economic cycle and we have been most grateful for it. It allowed us to expand our staff and our store so that we could offer you an even wider diversity of interesting new books and media, not to mention a greatly expanded series of innovative events & programs.

We have been especially grateful for this support during the past few years when we, along with bookstores nationwide, saw an increasingly severe decline in trade book sales (trade books are “regular” books, as opposed to textbooks). Sadly, many independent bookstores have had to close across the country because of this decline. We have even seen this here in Amherst, once home to half a dozen bookstores – now there are just a few left. A variety of factors contributed to this nationwide decline: big boxes, Amazon, the rise of e-books being some of the more significant. Still, the textbook business allowed us to hang in and weather these economic pressures… that is, until now

This past academic semester we saw a precipitous drop in textbook sales, much more than anyone anticipated, despite having been able to discern many of the contributing factors.

And so, we have now found ourselves facing two great challenges:

1) Repay the sudden and extreme debt this loss in textbook sales incurred and,

2)  Create a new economic model that will sustain us into the future.

While these challenges are profound we know for certain we can rise to them.  Recenlty, we have begun to discuss what is happening with community members and we feel blessed to see how much our work and Food for Thought, as a community institution, is valued.  We see clearly what a tremendous and powerful resource we have in you. We mean that literally, because that’s what a real and vital community is made up of: people like you.  We know we can make it with your support!  So, we are asking for your help – both right now and in the days to come.

Right now, we need your help in order to remain open and continue our relationships with publishers.   We are working within the collective, and with a newly-formed “Friends of Food for Thought” group, to support and sustain Food For Thought Books as the community space and radical bookstore it has always been.  Here are some ways you can help:

Donate:

Help us reach our goal of keeping Food for Thought around for another 30 years by donating whatever amount you feel most comfortable with.  When we started off in 1976, we had “community contributors” who warmly supported us by making a $1,000.00 contribution; will you carry on this legacy?  If a $1,000.00 is too much, will you consider $500, $100, or $50?

Donations can be sent directly to:

Food For Thought Books

106 N. Pleasant St.

Amherst MA 01002

Checks should be made payable to Food For Thought Books.

Join the Friends of Food for Thought:

Friends of Food For Thought are supporting us in reaching our immediate needs and helping us create infrastructure to continue our work. They are also supporting us in fundraising- Do you want to plan or host a house party, special event at our store or something that you design?   If you want to talk to us more about this or any of the Friends of Food for Thought committees please feel free to contact tk- tk@foodforthoughtbooks.com.

Buy Books! Of course, you can always help us out by simply buying books. You can stop by, because we’d always like to see you and there’s always new books coming in that we’re sure you’d like to see as well. You can also order books online, day or night, in the comfort of your own home, at our nifty website: http://www.foodforthoughtbooks.com/

We know that this all may bring up many questions for you. Please ask them! As always, we are happy to answer any inquiries you may have.  We look forward to our collective future, all of us, with high hopes. Please help us make it a good and bountiful one!

In peace and solidarity,

Food For Thought Books Collective

Javiera, Matthew, Mitch, REC, and tk

October 18, 2010

Does Your Community Plan for Coops?

Filed under: 2040,Movement — John McNamara @ 5:58 pm

What will the worker co-operative movement look like in 2040?

It will look like whatever we make it look like. We need to start thinking today about the world in 30 years.

I am not sure how useful it is to talk about the failure of capitalism. I say this for a couple of reasons:

  1. Capitalism isn’t failing. It is coalescing power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. That is what capitalism is supposed to do. Whether this is sustainable on a ecological scale has yet to be determined.
  2. Capitalism is a crisis-based economic system. It is supposed to have periodic crisis or panics in order to weed out the fakers and the weak. This is economic Darwinism.
  3. A societal failure of capitalism does not ensure a co-operative resurgence. It may bring in other systems: feudalism (its predecessor), fascism, and state-socialism.
  4. A failure of capitalism (if it truly fails) may well be linked to an ecological collapse. This isn’t a world that we either want to see or will be able to survive within.

What we need to do, it agree to some realistic, attainable goals regarding our communities and economies. In this regard, the worker co-operative movement has a lot to offer:

  • Workers won’t pick up and move for a better tax cut
  • Worker Co-ops tend to raise the bar on pay, benefits, and working conditions
  • Worker Co-ops help train workers to engage with their community

One way of looking at the economy is to consider the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). These are areas linked to general economic identity. Madison, my home town, currently ranks as 88th in the list of MSAs.

How many MSA in the top 200 MSA have existing worker co-operatives? What percent of the MSA economy do worker co-ops represent? Do the planning documents of the MSA primary municipality or regional planning authority promote the development of worker co-operatives (or even mention worker co-operatives)?

We need to answer these questions. We need to set goals.

I would set the following goals for 2040:

  • Worker co-operatives will exist in each of the top 150 MSAs in the United States.
  • Worker Co-operatives will account for between 0.5% and 5% of the GDP for the each MSA
  • Worker Co-operatives will be part of the planning documents for the regional and municipal planning departments in at least 1/2 of the top 150 MSA and in all of the MSA’s in which co-ops already existed in 2010.

Well, there is an end point, but how do we get there?

We need to start by creating the materials for municipalities to see and teach them about worker co-operatives. We need to start locally within our own group.

In Madison WI we have a unique opportunity in the next year. The entire City Council is up for election along with the Mayor and the County Executive. We have a local network called MADWORC. We need to educate each and every candidate on worker coops. We need to hold a candidate forum (or more than one) for each race. We need to make worker cooperatives part of the discussion on how to create a sustainable local economy. We need to get candidates to commit (or at least consider) the idea of worker co-operative development as a way to move the local economy forward.

We need to do this in every community where we currently have active worker co-operatives: Minneapolis, San Fransisco, Austin, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, etc. If we can get the cities where we are already active on board in five years, we can start moving to other MSAs.

I’m not talking about partisan politics. I am talking about educating the elected officials and the planning bureaucrats. I am talking about raising the profile of worker co-operatives. Showing the success of Mondragon and connecting their success to our success. What local public official would love to support the development of a business that puts locals to work, improves the community, and will never leave?

We have to start today.

***********

Please review the comments on some previous posts. Mark Rego-Monteiro has been making systemic comments on my series on the distributism, syndicalism and the future of the movement. I will be responding to his comments as well and hope that you do too!

October 11, 2010

Creating a Roadmap to 2040

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:48 am

In high school, one of my teacher, John Gray, would joke about giving a pop quiz in which the students had 5 minutes to write down everything that they knew. The joke was that given the enormity of that task, most people just freeze. The result is a blank sheet of paper without even the basic equation 1+1=2.

In a sense, that is what I did last week without thinking about it. How can we possibly imagine the worker co-operative world of 2040 just like that? Obviously, we can’t know what shape the environment will be in (although I think we will be closer to 350 ppm if there are more co-ops than if there are less). We probably won’t see a wholesale revision of our global economy without a major event. Of course, that event might be so cataclysmic that we could be focused on basic survival.  Nevertheless, I still think that we need to start thinking long-term and developing some ideas.

One area, for the United States, is diversity. there are approximately 300 worker co-operatives in the United States. About 70 of them are members of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives. I spent a few minutes categorizing them by sector the other day and here is what I found:

Grocery Coops 6

Design/Print Coops 5

Development, Bakery, Bike, Dayworker coops 4

Importer/Coffee, Media, ISPs 3

Cleaning, Finance, Bookstore, Landscaping/remediaton 2

Furniture, Industrial, Photovoltic, Cafe, Brewery, Tech, Engineering, Interpretors, Taxi, Childcare, home care,  1

One way to think about the future is to think about what industries we currently don’t operate within and how do we get there? What are the basic services that a community needs and can we find a way to develop a worker co-op to meet them? A large of of this has to do with the demographics of our country over the next thirty years.

As I mentioned last week, I will be 76 in 2040. I was born in the last year of the baby-boom. That means that in the next thirty years almost all of the baby boomer will have retired. Those that own business (small mom-and-pop shops) may not have heirs interested in running them. This group may be very interested in converting their business to their workers.

Could we, as a movement, plan to triple the number of existing worker co-ops each decade? That would create a population of 8,100 worker co-ops by 2040. Part of this can be accomplished through succession planning, but it can also be done through replication. The Arizmendi and WAGES models have already more than tripled their original size in just 15 years or less.

I’ll spend the next couple of weeks on this theme of 2040: how do we grow the movement? how do we make it an actual movement? How do we support each other? How do we create a path to 2040 and what do we realistically want to see when we get there?

October 5, 2010

American Worker Cooperatives

Filed under: Education,Movement,Site News — John McNamara @ 7:56 am

For those of you who check the links on the right hand side, you will notice a new entry: American Worker Cooperatives. I was asked to add it and am happy to do so. According to the “About” page by Arizmendi veteran Joe Marraffino,

“This website is a weblog that anyone can comment on.

The goal of the site is to assemble a contemporary history of the worker cooperative movement in the United States, first by accumulating an inventory of people, organizations, writings, media, and eventually through some sort of synthesis.   When I first became interested in the movement I would have loved it if there was a site that drew from all the disparate participants to show its scope and context.  So that’s what I’m trying to put together.

Thanks for visiting, and please feel free to add your comments.”

It is a very great collection already and will certainly be a resource for all of us.

October 4, 2010

US Worker Co-ops in 2040?

Filed under: Movement,Uncategorized — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 4:21 pm

What should our movement look like in 30 years?

30 years ago, the modern US worker co-operative movement was in its infancy. The Anti-War, Second Wave Feminist and Civil Rights movements were starting to move their way into mainstream society by questioning the post-WWII paradigm of the Cold War. At the same time, the neo-liberals were in full assault mode (working mostly in South America), but have made significant political gains with the election of Margaret Thatcher and (30 years ago this November) Ronald Reagan.

Co-operative Home Care and Equal Exchange joined the party a few years later and then it was fairly quiet for a decade or so. . .until activists on the coasts started creating regional networks such as the Western Worker Cooperative Conference and the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. In 2003, Madison hosted the first (and to date, only) Midwest Worker Coop Conference creating the ground work for the formation of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives in Minneapolis in 2004. Now, six years later, the USFWC is on the verge of launching the Democracy at Work Network (DAWN) of peer advisors and creating the Democracy at Work Institute as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization.

DAWN will be providing something that our movement needs. Business consultants who understand the worker co-operative. As peer advisers, this group (and am one of the first cohort) will not be co-operative developers per se, but true peers who can assist worker co-operatives in the on-going development of their business model. This will help worker co-operative with affordable advice based on the TA’s knowledge and experience. The creation of DAWN was a key part of building the infrastructure for our movement.

Using the time-honored house imagery: if we see 2004-2008 as the creation of the foundation of our movement, DAWN is the basic infrastructure (the pipes and framing). Over the next 5-10 years, DAWN and DAWI will be working with the USFWC to create the basic shape. At the USFWC board retreat we discussed our future. We settled on a basic three year plan, but the larger visionary discussion was put on hold. We need to finish the foundation and frame (make sure that the gas and water lines are connected) and that will be the main focus of the next three years. Members of the organization need to start seeing tangible benefits (which DAWN should provide). All of this is vitally important, but we also need the vision discussion.

Where will our movement be in another 30 years? In 2040, I will be 76 years old. Chances are, if I am still alive, I will be hopefully still be blogging (or whatever the kids will be doing in those days) but I will likely not be fully involved in the movement or physically working a 40-50 hour work week. Almost all of our current leadership will be in the same position. The current crop of  Toxic Soil Busters will be pushing 50 (like I am now). What should our movement look like in that age?

I have to think that we will be far advanced from our current state. At the retreat, one director suggested a vision in which our movement is the dominant part of the labor movement (that we are effectively the Department of Labor). I look at the momentum of the last 30 years and fell hopeful that we can take that and create a really incredible movement. I believe that I will leave this world in better condition for workers than I found it. To achieve that will take a lot of work.

We need to do a better job of educating our members on worker co-operatives. In the larger worker co-ops, people come to the co-op because we are generally the best job in the industry. However, if we don’t connect that to the co-op movement, then we allow the dominant ne0-liberal paradigm to corrupt our movement. Ultimately, we need to create a vision of where our movement should be in 2040. What should the worker co-operative movement look like in the United States? In Canada? in North America? How should it relate to the traditional labor movement?  How should it engage the nation (s)?

I’ll be continuing this discussion over the next couple of weeks, but I really want to hear from you. Imagine yourself as a young person about to enter the workforce in the United States of 2040. One hundred years after the start of WWII. 50 years after the end of the Cold War. 135 years after the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World and 36 years after the creation of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives.

What does that world look like for the young person going to work? What are his/her choices? What support mechanisms exist? Most importantly, how do we create a road map to get there?

[There are about 400 readers of this blog, so I would love to just get 2.5% of you to write in. One sentence of what you want to see–let’s have a discussion]

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