I recently celebrated (well, maybe “experienced” is a better word) my twenty-fifth anniversary at my cooperative. In 1988, I was looking for a way to make money until I hit grad school. I was seriously tired of bar tending (it really isn’t the job for an introvert personality and neither Madison, nor the bars that I worked at, we known for good tipping practices). Instead, I decided to drive a cab and further decided that I would like to see what a worker owned company was like. Obviously, since I’ve been there for 25 years, it can’t have been too onerous.
Worker cooperatives offer a lot. They are even enjoying a certain amount of prestige these days as they have been discovered by academics such as Richard Wolff and Gar Alperovitz. They success of worker coops across industry have renewed a debate in this country about work, liberty and democracy. We certainly deserve to be at the table. The ideal of collective ownership goes all the way back to Jefferson and his vision of the yeoman farmer.
I often wonder why we aren’t more numerous. In recent weeks, I engaged in a discussion on some of the cultural issues regarding this. However, there is more too it that that. Part of our problem, as a movement, is due to our own shortcomings. Primarily, we fail to educate each other. More so, we fail to push ourselves to challenge the way that we do business. What I mean by this is that we ultimately fail to engage in education of ourselves and our fellow members and too often simply adopt industry standards and “best practices” as the only viable means of running our business.
I don’t mean, of course, the larger movement. The US Federation, the Democracy at Work Institute, Democracy at Work Network, and Cooperationworks! have committed to education about the cooperative model. Unfortunately, too often those lesson don’t get inside the actual cooperatives. It is in the cooperatives that education tends to take a second seat (or third) to operations and the crisis of the moment. This may be a “big” coop problem (coops with more than 100 workers), but I think it is a general problem (and I recognize that some coops do have extensive education programs). People engage the coop model for our personal reasons (lifestyle, politics, etc), and cooperatives tend to bring people in for the needs of the organization. Hopefully, the more inspired coops see propagating the cooperative model as one of their needs.
Education in a worker coop should go beyond job training. It should go beyond a class to understand financial statements or the basic operations of the coop. It should promote the history of the movement. It should challenge financial statements as a means of perpetuating a particular economic model. Is health care an expense or an owner benefit? Terms such as “efficiency”, “productivity” and “quality of life” need to be broken down and redefined for worker owned business. What is the meaning of being an “owner” in a worker coop? I often hear members say that someone doesn’t have to attend meeting to be any owner just do a good job. What does “doing a good job” mean as an worker-owner?
We need to take the time to explore these issues. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of measuring ourselves against our competitors and the race to the bottom begins.