The Workers' Paradise

August 14, 2014

Welcome to the Discussion

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 12:38 pm

There is a new blog about worker cooperatives entitled “Owning a Better Future”.  The focus of this blog, judging from the first couple of posts, will center on the growing “union coop” model. This model engages both traditional labor unions and worker cooperatives. The author, Rob Witherall, works for the US Steelworkers and has been a big part of the collaboration between than union and Mondragon.

Part of building the worker cooperative movement in the United States involves building our visibility. We need more of us to get our message out as best we can. We need a discussion about where the labor movement is heading.

I look forward to reading Rob’s posts and am glad for the company!

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August 11, 2014

Can Worker Coops Engage True Rehabilitation?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 2:18 pm

Last May, I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Association for Study in Cooperatives. It was held at Brock University as part of the annual Congress of Social Studies and Humanities Research Council. There were, as usual, a number of exciting and fantastic papers matched only by the lively and open discussions.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating presentations was work by Isobel Findlay from the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan. I always enjoy her presentations as her work almost always examines how cooperatives can benefit and re-power the most marginalized populations in Western economics and culture. This presentation was no different as it considered the potential for worker cooperatives within the prison industry. This model would membership institutionalized women and provide them with the means to assist in the support of their families and maintaining a level of dignity during incarceration. It would also provide knowledge, skills and abilities that would be useful upon release.

People in the United States often see Canada as a euro-centric country that is “nice” and “pleasant’. Yet, far too often, it takes after the United States and its growing prison population is no exception. Canada’s prison population has increased 25% over the last ten years and the population of prisoners deemed “visible” minorities” has increased 75% ( Findlay also noted that Aboriginal women make up the fastest growing population with an 85% growth rate. She argued that “Marginality is too often a life sentence that takes the form of invisibility or hyper visibility. Over-policed and under-protected, it will cost Saskatchewan $13 billion over the next twenty years that could be used for better things.” She continued that if all citizens were truly treated equally (and by this I would understand that the incarceration rate for all groups would be equal to that of white men and women), it would bring $90 billion to the economy over this same time period.

Prison worker coops exist in other countries (mostly Italy) where those who participate have significantly lower recidivism rates. In one (and artist cooperative), one member said that “it made me realize that there are still people out there who appreciate who I am.” In Puerto Rico, there are three men’s worker coops and plans to start a women’s coop. Members learn the values and ethics of cooperation especially that of mutual self-help. It is clear that they also gain self-worth and confidence that they can succeed. These coops allow the workers to earn a wage that can be used to support their family and keep those connections strong.

Worker coops could create the support structures that the prison system currently fails to provide especially once people are out although this might require some amendments to laws that provide felons from associating with one another.

Findlay noted that this research is difficult because it challenges the command and control of the prison system and she noted that the “state” bristles when academics “commit sociology.” Nevertheless, it seems that the coop model could provide a means for true rehabilitation. I realize that has long ceased to be the focus of the prison system especially for those areas where it has been privatized and the inmates turned into product for the benefit of shareholders and for-profit corporations. However, as people can show that cooperation does more than simply provide a paycheck, society’s rulers might see a real community value to changing how we treat all members of our community.


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June 30, 2014

Supreme Court Creates the Partial Public Employee

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 12:54 pm

In a narrow ruling, the Supreme Court ruled  (5-4) that requiring “partial public employees” did not have to pay union dues. This case revolved around home care workers who clients pay them through Medicaid or Medical Assistance. This case had the potential to be much wider. Many feared that the Roberts’ Court would effectively overturn previous decisions and wipe-out requirements that non-members pay dues. Still, this decision does roll back the power of unions and in some states significantly hurts their financial standing.

This is a difficult case to think about because it involves home care workers who run the gamut of traditional employee working for a corporation to family members quitting their jobs to care for a parent. It is hard to imagine the justice in depending a cut of the meager Medicaid stipend given to a son or daughter who is providing 24 hour care for their parent. At the same time, a number of care workers also work solely with non-related private clients paid in cash that may indirectly come through medicaid or partially covered by medicaid. Of course, care workers for non-unionized firms who also receive medicaid for payment do not have to pay union dues.

This decision by the court and the minority opinion highlight the changing definitions of “worker” and “employee” in contemporary society. Until today, I have never heard the term “partial public employee” but I imagine we will be hearing it a lot now and expect that range to start growing as states start imagining ways of externalizing their costs onto workers. The notion of “the worker” is changing and is becoming quite muddled. In some cases workers are entrepreneurs in others strict employees. This makes the work of organizing workers frustrating and exciting.  May we live in interesting times!

While this may be confusing for those of us in the cooperative community, it is a clear threat for those organizations strictly regulated under the National Labor Relations Act or State labor relations acts. For labor unions, ruling such as this will only complicate their job. As more workers get redefined as “partial publics” expect that fight to grow on how to organize this group.


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June 2, 2014

The Cooperative Decade

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 1:05 pm

Over the last couple weeks, cooperators across North America have been meeting and discussing the state of cooperatives and the future. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a number of those discussions. Despite the geographical, sectorial, and ideological diversity, a couple of common themes ran through all of the discussions. As I start to filter through the presentations and key notes, I will share with you what I heard and how I heard it.


Time and again, we discussed in Canada and the United States that we need to build our “movement”. We need to be a bigger part of the economy. The oft-quoted number of “1 billion members” by the International Cooperative Community sounds great, but ignores the multiple memberships that people hold (for example, I am a member of four credit unions, a worker cooperative, two consumers cooperatives, a developer’s cooperative, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. I was recently a member of a healthcare cooperative. I represent 10 of those 1 billion people).

More importantly, we allow our message to be usurped by others. Cooperatives are the original sharing economy. Today, investor-owned tech companies operating on purely neo-liberal principles have managed to co-opt that idea to make profit by using other people’s capital and labor. We need to reclaim what a “sharing economy” really looks like. It shouldn’t be a person sharing their labor and capital to a tech firm so that the tech firm can take a 20-30% share of the revenue. It should be an organization where all the members share their capital and labor and equally share the surplus value that they create.

The cooperatives that do exist, need to be more visible. They need to make noise. They need to let their local, state and federal elected officials know who they are and tell their sotry. This has to be a part of the expression of the 7th Principle of “Concern for Community”. They also need to engage the “cooperation among cooperatives” in a meaningful way by helping to grow the Federation through membership and promoting sustaining memberships among their members, diverting funds towards the Worker Ownership Fund, and providing resources to the Federation to assist getting the message out.


Enhancing our visibility must involve measuring our impact on the community. We need to be able to show how a worker owned business does more than provide a decent wage. It builds resilience within the community by developing leadership, educating people, and creating added value for all the stakeholders, not just the members. This may mean developing skills in members that allow them to successfully serve of community boards and committes, it may mean working to create strong and vibrant neighborhoods, and it may mean building local and regional alliances as needed to create sustainable economies built around social justice.


It was pointed out that worker cooperatives, even at a high estimate, represent about 0.03% of the businesses in the United States. To get traction, we need more worker cooperatives. We need to stop seeing growth as a problem. Rather our cooperatives need to address the demand for our goods and services. We should be happy that consumers like the goods and services produced by worker cooperatives. This doesn’t mean a wild expansion of individual coops to the point that the community is lost and democracy reduced to electoral politics. As we scale up our businesses to meet the demand of consumers, we must also scale up our governance models to meed the demand of the cooperative principles and our members right to a truly participatory democratic workplace. A nine-member board that works for a hundred members may not be enough for a three hundred member coop, let alone a thousand member coop.

More than Money

We must commit to being about social justice and creating a world based on our values, ethics and principles. If we are only about creating jobs with decent pay and benefit, then our success will be illusory and subject to the whims of a marketplace in which our businesses will eventually succumb to the downward pressure on wages and benefits that is built into the investor-based market economy. As the Rev. Martin Luther King jr. is often quoted as saying, “we must be the change that we want to see.” Arizmendiaretta also saw the role of the cooperative as a means of assisting people to their full realization as a human beings (perhaps-riffing off of the movie Little Big Man–that is the real term that we should use instead of worker-owners or members).

These four themes were present and actively discussed and debated at all three conferences that I attended (in three different cities and two countries) between May 22 and June 1). We clearly acquired a lot of energy from the Year of the Cooperative in 2012, and that energy is pumping through our organinzations. We need to harness it. The ICA has called for creating the Cooperative Decade. This must happen or we will watch this energy siphon off to who knows where. For it to happen, we need to begin using it now, today, in our coopertives, our cooperative organizations, our local networks and community organizations and with our policy makers at all levels.

I hope you join me as I start writing up my notes form the conferences. I have always wanted this site to be a discussion, not just my musings and rants. You are welcome to submit your own posts (just let me know and I will give you access). We need a national discussion that is outside of the annual conferences or only among a small group of people.

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May 28, 2014

How Do We Measure Coops?

Filed under: Education,Movement,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 7:51 am

Last week I attended the Tools to Measure Performance and Impact at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. The conference was part of a several year research CURA known as the Measuring the Cooperative Difference. Part of my role with this group involves reporting out of the conference–this will be done by the end of June in time for the ICA Research Committee’s conference in Croatia.

The central question and scope of the work has been to find viable measurement tools for cooperatives and credit unions that specifically address the nature of cooperatives as democratic social enterprises. Using standard data such as debt/equity ratios and return on equity may tell us how coops fare when compared to the investor owned businesses, but they don’t tell us how coops are doing as coops.

Vancity Credit Union in British Columbia found the need to create new measures since they invest in what might be called the “real economy”. When using data around local investments in actual businesses (not artificial constructs such as the derivatives of 2008 fame), credit unions tend to out-perform banks. They are part of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GOBV).

One of the speakers from Cooperatives America, argued that we need to stop using tools designed for capitalist market economy and create tools for the social market economy. Others argued that we in the cooperative community should quit trying to compare ourselves to the investor -owned competitors, and start presenting ourselves as the model and let the investor-owned organizations compare themselves to us and justify their existence. It was a bit of a feisty crowd for Canadian academics!

In all seriousness though, a number of incredible tools have been created to measure cooperatives as sustainable and resilient organizations. That last bit is important as one of the presentations presented the harsh realities of climate change and carbon in the atmosphere. It is unlikely that anything will stop humans from permanently altering the environment in a way that is quite negative for the species that have adapted for its current format. Today, as I post this, I see headlines that North America has hit the 400 ppm mark for carbon in the atmosphere (450 ppm is the “point of no return” mark). It is unlikely that coops can scale up to a point to reverse this trend, but we can be there for the aftermath.

The tools being developed now will be able to assist us in tracking our success and helping to point the way forward. It won’t be on the maximize profit model, but on the maximize community model. Over the next several posts I will discuss some of the models.

I am currently at the Canadian Association for Study in Cooperatives (CASC). It is being held at Brock University (just west of Niagara Falls) and named for Isaac Brock the Canadian general who gave his life repelling the US army when they attempted to invade Canada during the War of 1812. More to come!

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May 19, 2014

Conference Season Starts

Filed under: Movement,Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 5:20 pm

This is a just a heads up to those who still check-in here occasionally that that it will pick up a bit over the next couple of weeks. I will be attending not one, not two but three cooperative conferences over the next two weeks.

The first is a conference at St. Mary’s UniversityTools to Measure Performance Conference sponsored by the Centre for Excellence in Accounting for Cooperatives. This includes tools such as the Coop Index but others as well.

The second conference is the Canadian Association for the Study in Co-operatives at St. Catherine’s (Brock University). I’ve gone to this incredible conference several times, but this will be my first trip since 2011. I’ve previously blogged about it on my other site:

The finally of my Cooperative Odyssey will be the US National Worker Co-operative Conference in Chicago. This biannual conference marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and promises to be the biggest and most exciting conference yet.

So stay tuned! I will be reporting as live as possible from all three conferences with write ups of the sessions that I attend and news. For those of you who are also attending any of these conferences, consider signing up with this web site and joining on with your observations.

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March 10, 2014

The Things We Know

Filed under: The Things We Know — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 7:00 am

This weekend I noticed a posting from a friend, colleague and mentor of mine: Tom Webb. He had found an old write up called The Things We Know. I am not sure of the source of this document, but if it comes from Tom, it probably has a rich history within the Canadian Maritime Cooperative Movement. I am sharing it today, but will spend the next few weeks, discussing each bullit point in more detail. So tune in, comment, and let’s have a great discussion about our coops (warts and all).

  • The successful cooperatives of the world are those that have grown out of the efforts and determination of the people themselves. It is not enough that coops be for the people, they must be of and by them as well.
  • The best coops are those that had dedicated and courageous leaders either in the very beginning or in their early) history
  • The capital created within the working of the cooperative is vastly more important than the financial resources of the members in the beginning
  • Coops make their best contribution to human welfare and social progress when they initiate policies and practices different from those of old line businesses
  • There comes a time in the development of every cooperative enterprise when it must have managerial ability of a high order
  • Coops that stand for something more than financial gains have amazing powers of survival in times of stress and difficulty
  • Coops that isolate themselves from other coops and refuse to join the bigger cooperative movement tend to shrivel up and die
  • Coops can withstand prolonged attacks from without, but they can’t survive weak or dishonest leadership within
  • Too much aid from government or paternalism of any kind will blight cooperative effort
  • Cooperatives with weak leadership resist change
  • There is no type business too big or difficult for the cooperative way
  • Too rigid a structure in organizational set up is a serious obstacle to progress in cooperative development, especially in a period of rapid change
  • Coops in which control narrows down to fewer and fewer hands tend to behave more and more like old line capitalism
  • A cooperative with no education program is in mortal danger
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February 24, 2014

The Big (Wide) Tent of Worker Ownership

Last month, I flew to Washington DC for a day to represent the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives as a member of the organization. The event was a series of meetings on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC)We met with staff from US Representative Chaka Fattah (PA-2), Senators Harkin (IA), Franken (MN), Warren (MA) and Bennett (CO) from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). We wrapped up the day with the main event: a meeting with Assistant Secretary of Labor (Employee Benefits Security Administration) Phyllis Borzoi. Along with me, representing my coop and the USFWC was Joe Rinehart with the USFWC, and representatives from Eileen Fisher, Dansko Shoes, and New Belgium Brewing. The latter organizations are all 100% worker owned Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) enterprises. We also had people from the National Coop Business Association and Mondragon USA.

It was, as the title suggests, a Big Tent for worker ownership.

It so happens that I am reading The Citizen’s Share (Blasi, Freeman and Kruse) right now. This book chronicles the varied and rich history of worker ownership in the United States from the earliest days of the revolution until today. It notes that 47% of US businesses have some sort of worker ownership from the 100% owned companies named above to Google and Microsoft in which all workers have the opportunity to participate in the risk of the company (apparently Bill Gates’ ownership stake is now only 6% of the company he founded).  The message of the day was to discuss the importance of worker ownership as a sustainable model for economic growth in the United States.

I enjoyed this group and the approach. Too often, the concept of sustainable business only gets used to discuss environmental issues such as climate change. The plight of modern day employees tends to be ignored. This allows organizations engaged in Union busting tactics to present themselves as good corporate citizens. I would argue that sustainability (both for the climate and the economy) can only occur if workers are treated well and get a share of the pie that they create.

ASBC’s role is to bring together the worker owned businesses and unite the ownership movement. One of the problems is that there are some bad actors that use the image of worker ownership without providing the benefits to the workers. This is not unique to our country, but the lack of Federal understanding of worker ownership and a corporation laws that vary from state to state make it difficult to understand when workers really benefit from worker ownership.

For example, the US government clearly recognizes ESOP, but has no understanding or definition for a worker cooperative. The USDA recognizes Producer Coops and this language tends to be used by the IRS to determine if a business is a cooperative for federal tax purposes. ESOP really aren’t a type of business as much as they are a retirement plan. That is an important distinction between and ESOP and worker cooperative (and an area where the two concepts could create a lot of synergy). Ass’t Secretary Borzoi remained skeptical from her experience policing ESOPs that have used the structure to evade the Fair Labor Standards Act, but was impressed with the group at the table.

In January, we began a discussion with the Federal Government about worker ownership in the modern economy. It was clear to all of us (at least in the practitioner world), that the Wagner model of industrial relations has become outdated. We need new rules and definitions that help guide a national economy in which cooperatives and ESOPs operate across state lines (thus triggering Federal oversight) and engage in worker ownership and control of the workplace. We need to create laws that address a large workplace in which the workers really control the means of production through a one-worker, one-vote method (regardless of the type of organization). We, in the coop world, also need to strengthen the social definition of worker cooperatives (promote the CICOPA Oslo Declaration) and raise our profile. We can’t and shouldn’t be constrained by the legal definitions of the individual states. A democratically run ESOP with 100% worker ownership (even with workers having different shares of ownership) is as much a cooperative as Ch. 185 coop in Wisconsin with only 60% of its workers as members.

My only disappointment was that we did not meet with any GOP connected staffers. I truly believe that our movement is non-partisan and resounds with all of the political parties in this country (major and minor). If we are building a big tent, it will be necessary to look beyond party labels.

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January 27, 2014

Block of Cheese–#AsktheWH

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 9:39 am

As legend has it, in 1837, President Andrew Jackson threw open the doors of the White House to invite the people to come sample a 1,400 pound block of cheese. Presumably, they also petitioned the government while they were noshing. For fans of The West Wing, it may be one of the top episodes.

On Wednesday, January 29, President Obama is holding a virtual “block of cheese” day. It is a day in which the public is encouraged to tweet or post on various social media questions for the President or his administration to consider. Using the hashtag #AshtheWH, and 143 characters, we have the opportunity to raise the profile of worker ownership and worker cooperation within the administration as it engages in its effort to affect the income inequality in this country.

To have any hope of an impact, however, our message needs to rise above the likely millions of tweets. This means using the phrase “worker ownership” or “worker cooperative” and (if there is room) noting the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives or another group, the American Sustainable Business Council.

I have come up with a few tweets that I am happy to share (in fact, I hope people take the opportunity to send them along):

  • Worker Ownership creates a sustainable economy, will POTUS make it part of the agenda? #askthWH #ASBC #USFWC
  • Washington and Jefferson used worker ownership to rebuild the cod industry, will Obama use it to build a sustainable economy? #askthWH #ASBC #USFWC
  • Worker ownership promotes income equity and a sustainable economy. Make worker ownership part of the economic agenda. #askthWH #ASBC #USFWC

Feel free to come up with your own, edit these, or what have you. Please post tweets here as well in the comments. The more of us doing this, the more likely that the idea of worker ownership might get noticed.

The Block of Cheese event isn’t going to change the world, or even change Washington. I certainly don’t expect any sort of sea change to occur because of this, but we need to do even the small things to raise our profile and this is one that all of our members can do from their phones, tablets, and computers.


Next Week: More on the American Sustainable Business Council and the Big Tent of Worker Ownership

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December 9, 2013

Education’s Role

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 5:52 pm

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.



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