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

May 10, 2010

The Guiding Light

Filed under: Identity Statement Series,World Declaration — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 5:20 pm

Over the last several months, I have used this space to discuss the two core documents for worker co-operatives: The Statement on the Co-operative Identity and the CICOPA Declaration on Worker Co-operatives. Worker co-operative practitioners need to read these documents. More importantly, they need to conduct their co-operative’s affairs and lead their co-operative with respect to these documents.

It really isn’t enough to post a sheet of paper on a wall with the words on them. While that is important, it simply doesn’t go far enough. We need, in our co-operatives, to invent ways to bring these documents to life. Co-operatives should adopt strategies such as including a statement with each policy proposal that details how this proposal expresses the identity of a worker co-operative in terms of these guiding documents. Trainings should begin with a review of the documents and how they interact with the training. Ultimately, even our operational decisions should reflect the guiding light of the co-operative identity and the declaration.

Unlike our competitors, our business must be intentional. We can’t simply throw pasta on the wall and see if it sticks. We need to consciously embrace the identity and infuse it into our operations, our planning, and our governance. If we aren’t really different from our competitors, then why co-operate? The way that we create that difference, a difference recognized world-wide, comes from expressing the collective values, principles, and identity of the worker co-operative. We don’t need to re-invent any wheels. We just need to make them turn.

March 1, 2010

#25: The Internationalist Nature of Co-operatives

Over the last 6 months,  I have been working my way through the Statement on the Co-operative Identity that the International Co-operative Alliance adopted at the 1995 meeting which also commemorated its first century of service. This statement solidified the Rochdale Principles as well as adding a list of values and ethics. In part, this was done to assure countries emerging into the world after decades of the Cold War, that co-operatives were not co-opted. That co-operatives that they experienced behind the Iron Curtain or as part of an attempt to shore up a rulers power in an emerging nation were not a true representative of the co-operative model. The Identity Statement also was a challenge to the western co-operatives as well. It was, and remains, a challenge to not rest of the laurels of the past, but to constantly struggle to improve our co-operatives and credit unions. The ICA created a true touchstone by which every co-operative and credit union in the world could be measured. That 1995 meeting may be the most significant moment in the movement’s 167 year history.

Dr. Ian MacPherson made these salient points in his background paper to the Identity Statement:

“It was a task much more difficult than the delegates of a hundred years ago knew. Overcoming the differences created by national perspectives and histories, coping with the ideological cleavages that swept the world in the Twentieth Century, recognising the biases each of us possesses, understanding empathetically the nature of co-operative experiences in non-European societies has not been easily accomplished. In the important book she prepared for Congress, Rita Rhodes has explained the deep tensions that made progress in creating a strong international Movement for most of the Twentieth Century difficult to achieve. It is a story worth pondering as we seek to understand how we can forge even stronger links among co-operative organisations spread around the world.”

In my days college days, we often challenged ourselves to “think globally, act locally”. We needed to recognize that the struggle of people is an international struggle but that we also aren’t saviors for those in other countries. To fix the world, we need to fix our local communities and share our story with the world. The Identity Statement embodies that ethos. As MacPherson notes, the co-operative movement exists as an international movement. The creation of the International Co-operative Alliance in 1895 was to help co-operatives world-wide and to share their stories. When workers in the Argentine factories succeed as running their own plants, they create a better environment for cab drivers in Madison, WI (and vice versa) by showing that workers can manage themselves. When Equal Exchange workers broke the Reagan Quarantine on Nicaragua with Café Nica. they helped farmer/workers the world over know that cold war politics could be defeated by workers and farmers uniting in a common cause.

The Identity Statement is our touchstone as a co-operative and credit union. It is an international document that makes our individual membership in our co-operatives and credit unions an international act of solidarity. Our membership in our organizations and our support for the ICA and the Identity Statement force us to “think globally”. By striving within our co-operatives to bring the Identity Statement to life, to “operationalize” the statement, we act locally. One of my projects over the last couple of years has been assisting in the development of something called the “Co-op Index.” It is a diagnostic tool to measure an individual worker co-operative against the Identity Statement (and the Mondragon principles). Ultimately, it will create a maturity index for worker co-operatives world-wide but in the short run, it will provide worker co-operatives with the information and tools that they need to become stronger co-operatives and create “best practices” for worker co-operatives in particular. It will be a means of improving our workplaces and the world at the same time.

The Identity Statement cannot just hang on the wall. We need to teach it in our co-operatives. We need to connect our actions to it. At my co-operative, we attach a “policy note” to each measure before the board that connects the proposed action to the co-operative’s vision, mission, core values and the Co-op Identity. It is a useful exercise that I think all co-operatives should adopt. The basic premise is that if we cannot explain why the proposal works from the vantage point of the Co-op Identity, then maybe it isn’t a proposal worth adopting.

On a final note, the Identity Statement is not a final document. It is, like the Rochdale Principles that it replaced, a living document. Each generation since 1843 has re-visited the co-operative identity and made adjustments appropriate to their time and place. In 1995, a strong movement existed (but eventually lost) to include a principle of co-operative management that would instruct co-operatives to manage in a different way and to create co-operative management schools. That effort didn’t fail, but continued and my imminent graduation as part of the 4th Cohort in St. Mary’s MMCCU program shows the power of that principle. It may be that the next incarnation of the statement will include management as stronger educational efforts on co-operative management have sprung up throughout the US and Canada to join existing programs at the UK’s Open University, Cooperative College and Spain’s Mondragon Univeristy. (These include the recent creation of an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, the CooperationWorks! Program, the Southern New Hampshire University program and the USFWC’s Peer Assistant Network).**   In addition to educating ourselves to manage from a co-operative framework, there is also a growing effort to expand the ‘concern for community” principle by adding a new principle specific to the protection of the environment.

The Identity Statement will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year. It has changed the dynamics of co-operation; it has given us an international touchstone that tells us that a co-operative in Sapporo, Buenos Aires, Winnipeg, Manchester, Madison, Bilbao, Bologna, Gdansk, Tel Aviv, Kiev, Dar es Salaam and Sydney all act under the same set of principles and values. The co-operative label is a label of trust, honor, and dignity for working men and women.

Next Week: This ends the series on the Identity Statement. I hope that people enjoyed it. I appreciated the comments on this site (and on Facebook where it mirrors). Feel free, as always, to use or redistibute my posts. I intend to keep the Monday entries going. The next series will be on a document that is just as important but little known: CICOPA’s World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives. Thanks for reading.

***Sadly, I have heard a rumor that there is some sectarian attacks on the Canadian programs coming from south of the border. The attack is jingoistic in nature (that the Canadian programs aren’t “american” and therefore not appropriate for US co-operatives. I haven’t had anybody say that to me directly (most likely because I would correct their opinion). It is a shame. Each program offers a means to manage our co-operatives according to the principles. I personally, would love to see the day when a co-operative undergraduate degree and the MMCCU are as ubiquitous in our universities and colleges as the business degree and MBA. We shouldn’t be fighting each other over our turfs, but co-operating to expand the educational opportunities for co-operative managers, directors and members. I chose MMCCU because it fit my life at this moment. In a different scenario, I might have elected for Mondragon, the UK, or SHNU. Had any of these programs been available to me when I was in college (1982), the path that my life took would be amazingly similar and different at the same time! It is my hope that in my lifetime learning of a young co-ed can earning their undergraduate degree in co-operative administration while working at a co-operative becomes a normal expectation and doesn’t require moving to specific part of the world.

February 22, 2010

#24 Concern for Community

Filed under: Governance,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 10:06 am

Concern for Community is the last of the principles listed in the Identity Statement. It is the expression of the value of solidarity and social responsibility. It creates one of the multiple bottom lines for co-operatives. It is not enough for a co-operative to be a profitable business. If it fails to be a leader for a more just, verdant and peaceful world*, then it has failed as a co-operative and might as well just be a group of greedy stockholders. Too often worker co-operators become insular and prone to naval gazing. Our structure is set up that way. We are predetermined (if we don’t act or create other structures) to focus on internal operations to the exclusion of the outside world. If we don’t engage this principle, we can fall into a pit of arrogance.

Because I worked for a taxi co-operative, I see this particular principle as all encompassing. Concern for community, to me, means: yielding to pedestrians, not tailgating, not speeding through residential neighborhoods, helping people with their bags, helping the elderly and people with disabilities manage steps and slippery walks.

It doesn’t have to mean political action in the partisan arena. Indeed, I think that most co-operatives should generally avoid taking a partisan side until a political party based on the Cooperative Ideal comes into existence. It does mean caring about the community that we serve—not because they are potential customers, but because our co-operatives are part of the community and should be community leaders.

The ICA makes the short definition: “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.”

Mondragon, parses “Concern for Community” into two separate principles that unpack the term a bit:


“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience , as an expression of its universality, proclaims its solidarity with all those working for economic justice in the sphere of the “Social Economy”, championing the objectives of Peace, Justice and Development, which are essential features of International Cooperation.”

Social Transformation

“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience manifests its desire for social transformation based on solidarity with that of other peoples, through its activity in the Basque country in a process of expansion which will contribute to economic and social reconstruction and the creation of a Basque society which is more free, just, solidary.”

The term, Concern for Community, is a huge concept. It is sort of a giant stew of issues. It might be about being good neighbors, good drivers, and good stewards of the land. It might mean participating in social development projects such as affordable housing, micro-lending, The Basque see promotion of the Basque language as part of this principle. Providing health insurance in an industry that normally doesn’t provide could be another example. Ensuring a living wage for workers in a consumer co-operative (or encouraging unionization of a co-operative’s work force) might be another expression.

For the worker co-operatives, it should mean excelling in customer service, being good stewards of the land that we control, creating systems to help our membership develop and succeed as human beings. We need to accept our roles as leaders in our community. We should conduct ourselves in a way that the general public (the community) will appreciate. We should set the standard of how a business treats the community as a whole if for no other reason than it is our community. It is where we earn our living, but it is likely also where we live our lives. Even in communities that have priced working people out of the central area (like San Francisco), it is still the co-operatives’ community.

Working for a better community means working for security for our members, their families, and their friends as well as our customers, their families and their friends and all of the other stakeholders that depend on us (our vendors, their families and friends) . It would be interesting to create a stakeholder map that listed everyone connected to our businesses and their connections (sort of like LinkedIn) to see the effect that our businesses have of the community. We are the George Bailey’s of the business world after all. As workers, we touch so many lives and, because we owners and control our destiny, have the opportunity to change people in a way that other businesses simply don’t.

It is really a small world out there spinning around a small sun in a enormous universe. All that we really have are each other. The co-operative community recognizes that and part of our job as co-op practitioners is to make that principle come alive through our co-operatives.

*I know that I am stealing from the NPR statement for some foundation, but it is such a great line!

Next Week: A summary of the Identity Statement including an examination of the writing of Dr. MacPherson as well as the comments on the 10th anniversary by Johnston Birchall.

February 15, 2010

#23 Co-operation Among Co-operatives

Filed under: Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 8:57 am

I usually make the snarky comment that the only time that I hear about this principle is when some slacker co-op wants a discount or donation. . . that is horribly unfair, of course. Also, we should discount each other—we need to do what we can to keep the money inside the co-operative community!

This principle, however, brings the value of solidarity, caring for others and social responsibility into the principles. Co-operation provides the basic form of human survival. The Folks at Sesame Street get it right: Co-operation Makes It Happen!

The Statement on Co-operative Identity uses the following definition: “Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.”

This, of course, means that those of us in the North America should all join either the National Co-operative Business Association or the Canadian Co-operative Association as well as our sector. In the US, that would be the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives and in Canada, the Canadian Federation of Worker Co-operatives. We shouldn’t just join, but should actively engage these organizations. We also should put aside some biases.

One of the moments in my life that proved (to me) that I would never be a tele-marketer was when I fulfilled my duty as a USFWC director by calling members and checking in. This one high-tech co-operative contact told me that he wasn’t going to renew because he attended the New York Conference and thought that the workshop that he attended was allowed to be taken over by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ideologues. It didn’t matter to him that this was a third party organization or that other attendees should have the right to express their views. He wanted a workshop that talked about business, not this political crap.

Well, I couldn’t help but notice that he seemed to be speaking for the entire co-op even though I doubt that he actually presented a fair view of the federation to the other six members. I wonder if he even mentioned it. My interaction made me think that it was a “co-op” but that this guy was really the boss—which then makes sense that he didn’t want to hear from the IWW lest his fellow members catch on that co-ops should be a democracy.

In any event, the point of building the movement isn’t to bring immediate gain to one’s co-operative. It is to build the co-operative image as a valuable community asset. Arizmendiaretta noted, “It is a mistake to each a co-operative a closed world. We must consider inter-cooperative solidarity the only resource to be used to forestall other problems of growth and maturity: we must consider a growing development adapted to circumstance.” The reality is that we (worker co-operatives) have a lot to teach each other. Mondragon speaks of the concept of Inter-cooperation. They define this principle as a specific application of solidarity and a requirement for business efficiency. While it is great to be able to do business with each other, it is even better to support each other by trading concepts, trainings, and skills.

When I was younger (pushing 30) and president of Union Cab. I remember proclaiming that worker co-operatives in the US co-operative world and a blue-collar cab co-op was unique among worker co-ops. The upshot is that there was nothing to learn from the other co-ops. We were alone in the world and had to find our won way. I was young (and arrogant)—and there weren’t a lot of other worker co-ops known to us in the early 90’s. I hear our young leaders say that today and make a mental note to take them aside and have a talk. I also hear people lament our membership dues to NCBA and USFWC and The Co-operative Network wondering what our co-op gets out of our membership.

Well, we (individually and through our co-operatives) help build the movement. We help government officials understand what a co-operative is. We help each other learn how to co-operate better. We help other co-op sectors understand the importance of treating their workers well. We get back what we put into these organizations, but even if all we do is write a check, we help build the movement. This doesn’t have to mean just giving each other discounts. We should share our policy manuals, help each other find new ways of working together. In the US, we need to find a way to pool resources to provide some of the things that our individual co-ops cannot achieve on their own: affordable health care, pensions, retirement plans, etc.

I think that this principle needs to be expanded. Yes, the apex organizations can do a lot. However, we need to create local networks, marketing campaigns and even our own banking system. Even the casual observer of Mondragon recognizes that the Caja Popular had a significant (if not vital) role to play in the rise of Mondragon. The Cooperative Warehouse Society and the Co-operative Bank clearly played the same role in making The Co-operative* the largest consumer co-operative society in the world.

We all need each other to make the co-operative model succeed. I don’t want to limit this to just the co-ops either but to the other legs of the stool as it were. We need the academics who study and propose new concepts in management, who help educate as developers, or teachers, or professors. We need the politicians who help protect the co-operative model.

Co-operation among co-operatives starts with the individual but quickly moves on to the entire world. Our co-operatives need to educate the membership and help them to realize that they, but joining their co-operative, have joined an international movement of 800 million people. We aren’t in this alone, but together. If we can’t see the commonality between our worker co-operatives and the consumer co-ops or large Agriculture co-ops such as Land o’ Lakes, then we aren’t really seeing the co-op movement in its entirety.

When we take the time to understand the dynamics of a water co-operative in rural India, we make our individual co-operatives stronger. When we support the efforts of defending the co-operative movement in Bolivia and Argentina, we make the co-ops in the United States and Canada stronger. This isn’t a zero sum game where we take resources from our co-ops to give to other co-ops. Social capital, like fiscal capital, gains velocity as it travels. Both forms of capital, in the famous quip, are like manure, they only create something worthwhile if they get spread around.

*Normally, I hate it when organizations use a definite article in front of their name. I refuse to call Ohio State University, “The Ohio State University” and not because I’m a Badger through and through. However, if any organization deserves to use the definite article it is The Co-operative.

Next Week: #24 Concern for Community

February 8, 2010

#22 Education, Training and Information

Filed under: Education,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 1:27 pm

“It is said that co-operation is an economic movement that utilizes educational activities, but it can also be said that co-operation is an educational movement that utilizes economic activities.“–Don José María Arizmendiarreta

A fun exercise, well maybe interesting more than “fun”, at co-operative gathering centers around the principles. Ask the co-operators present, “Which is the most important principle.” If there are more than seven people in the room, you will likely get about eight different answers.

People often focus on the user principles and democracy as being the principles that separate co-operatives from other businesses. Of course, in my opinion, the best answer is that they are all equally important and feed into each other. Case in point: how strong can democracy be if the electorate isn’t educated or informed?

Education, training and information play a vital role in co-operatives. It requires transparency. It requires honesty and openness. These three qualities feed the democratic nature of the co-operative as well as informs the abilities of the members to maintain economic control. They help the co-operative movement grow. The Statement on Identity describes this principle as follows: “Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.”

In the background paper, Ian MacPherson focused on the role of educating the youth:

The Fifth Principle refers to the long-standing and vitally important commitment to education. In many ways it is similar to the 1966 version except that it specifically mentions the need for co-operatives to inform young people and opinion leaders about ‘the nature and benefits of co-operation’. The reason for making this addition was a perception that the Movement was limiting its future by ignoring youth and failing to explain well enough the values and purposes of the Movement to such people as politicians, public servants, educators, and commentators; the result has been a decline in the public understanding of the organised movement.”

I have to tell you that attending conferences, one can really see what Dr. MacPherson was talking about. In 2008, I was a panelist for the Co-operative Issues Forum and then a week later I went to New Orleans for the US Federation’s Democracy at Work Conference. The first event was a cross-sector (which in Wisconsin means Ag Co-ops and everybody else), the second was mainly for the worker co-operatives. With the exception of a handful of people (mostly from my co-op), I was one of the youngest people in the room for the Wisconsin conference.  Looking out over the audience, it was a sea of gray and graying heads! In NOLA, I was one of the oldest.

Fortunately for me, my age in the worker co-op movement is matched by 21 years of experience. That isn’t always the case. Often older workers coming into a worker co-op are recovering wage slaves and have to unlearn all of the bad habits from the other economy. We need to have strong methods to re-orientate new (older) workers as well as to orientate workers new to the workforce. Hiring from the outside in a worker co-op means hiring someone without the culture of co-operation in the workplace. It means bringing in bad habits and misdirected fears from other work places. These issues have to be dealt with, but can be even more dramatic if the person is being hired into a position of power and authority. This is just one unique way in which ETI plays out in worker co-operatives.

As the good people of Mondragon point out: “Co-operation emerges therefore as a defense of its own identity, determined that the social model which arises from its principles shall not be erased by the insensitive penetration of other forms of social behaviour in which profit is the central motive.” All worker in a worker co-operative need to learn their industry, the history of the co-operative movement, and the means to answer their questions.

Another issue for worker co-ops comes from our need to hire internally and manage our own company. A consumer or ag co-op can hire from outside the co-operative world and still get an effective manager for their industry (see The Wedge in Minneapolis). This is much harder to do in a worker co-operative and might even be impossible. If we are going to manage ourselves, we need to educate ourselves on how to do it properly. At this point, there is only one viable means of receiving a formal education in co-operative management through St. Mary’s University. Too often, hiring a consultant means training the consultant in the nature of worker co-operatives. Worker co-ops need to develop education and training programs that unique for the industry and co-operative structure. Fortunately, the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives, through the Democracy at Work Institute will be creating a peer advisory system. This low-cost system will allow worker co-operative to gain from the experience of other worker co-operators. It is an exciting project and will begin this year. Check out the US Federation’s web site for more information.

I haven’t spoken a lot about information, but transparency should be the watchword in a worker co-operative. The members must have full access to the co-operative to make good decisions. Without it, rumor mills run wild and suspicions mount. In other sectors, there might be a “need to know” level of secrecy. I still disagree with that concept. I think that any member of any co-operative should have access to any information about the co-operative that they feel is important for their ability to understand how the co-op operates. Just Coffee in Madison takes this concept to the highest level that I have seen. I have written about this before, but Just Coffee has eschewed “fair trade” for “transparent trade”. They post their contracts with the farmers on their web site and dare their competitors to meet their price. Maybe all worker co-ops should do that.

While the principles of co-operatives work together, the role of Education, Information and Training provides a means for members to understand and to grow. Members may come into the co-op with little more than a “you’re not the boss of me” attitude. Through education and access to information, they can move along the maturity curve to understand the unique society that they have joined and how that society interacts with similar societies in their city, state, region, nation and even across the world. A strong commitment to this principle keeps the co-operative spirit strong and vital. A well trained, informed and educated workforce may be the best marketing decision for any co-operative. For worker co-operatives, these qualities build solidarity and a commitment to the success of the co-operative and its members.

There may not be a “most important” principle, but Education, Training and Information certainly provides an undercurrent vital to expressing the others.

Next: Co-operation Among Co-operatives

February 1, 2010

#21-Autonomy and Independence

Filed under: Identity Statement Series — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 10:36 am

This is a good week for a discussion about the 4th Principle of Co-operatives. On my other blog, Breathing Lessons, I discuss the role of co-operatives in the race for Governor in Wisconsin. We, in the co-op movement, get pigeon-holed pretty quickly. Even amongst ourselves, worker co-operators get slammed as “commie hippies”. Even Michael Moore expressed shock on numerous occasions that the workers of Isthmus Engineering looked “like Republicans”.  I imagine that  lot of us in the worker co-operative world see farmer co-operators as red-necked, right-wing social conservatives. Of course, there isn’t any sort of litmus test for any sector. I’ve seen anti-choice and even “W” bumper stickers at the food co-op and even in the parking lot of Union Cab and the long haired George Siemon, “C-E-I-E-I-O”* of Organic Valley certainly changes the image of Ag Coops.

Of course co-operatives aren’t so monolithic, however, they do comprise themselves of self-selected members who have common social, economic, and cultural needs and connections.  They are also organizations that should have a degree of independence and autonomy from other groups. The 4th Principle of the Co-operative Identity says this:

“Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.”

Depending on the memberships interpretation of this principle, it might mean that the co-operative focuses internally and severely limits its effect outside of the membership. For worker co-operatives, which already have a tendency to focus too much on internal issues to the negation of customer service and market forces, this can be a dangerous sentiment. Our boards, however much they may want to feel the power, can’t really tell other organizations what to do. They generally cannot dictate terms to the banks or (for those in government regulated industries) to the government. In terms of the Federations, well, if one co-op dominated the Federation, then the other member co-operatives would be violating the principle just by joining, right?

Ian MacPherson wrote on this principle: “In a way, it is a restatement of the Rochdale commitment to political neutrality with an added emphasis on autonomy, whenever co-operatives associate themselves with other organisations. It is a reminder of how necessary it is for co-operatives to guard at all costs their capacity for independent action. It is only when co-operatives are genuinely autonomous that they can follow the wishes and meet the needs of their members energetically.’

The desire for autonomy and independence runs deep within us as humans. It drove the expansion of Europeans into the Western Hemisphere and beyond. It is, perhaps, the driving force of conflict between peoples as one group seeks the resources of another. Sometimes, once autonomy and independence are obtained, the oppressed too often become the oppressors. The following clip is  a nice discussion about the role of autonomy and indenpendence in a community (and I recognize for my UK friends that this only tells one side of the story):

Being Master of our Destiny is the heart of the co-operative movement. From the first Pioneers of Rochdale, the drive to throw off our economic and political masters became the motivating force to establish an economic system respectful of individual autonomy as well as the democratic decision making process required for group action. Co-operatives, by nature of their identity, exist as peer organizations. Regardless of our standing outside the co-operative, within it we are equals. Barack Obama is the President of the United States and a member of Seminary Book Co-operative in Chicago. His membership in the co-op makes him an equal member of the co-operative entitled to the same dignity as any other member regardless of his other job.

The point is, that we want to control our destiny but to succeed we also have to find a way for our organizations to work together. Autonomy and independence are important parts of the co-operative movement, but so is the root word, “co-operate” or “work together”. Our co-operatives gain strength from respecting our individuality while also requiring members to participate. The movement gains strength from respecting the autonomy of the organizations, while developing ways for them to work together and create synergy.

As Dr. MacPherson notes, our actions as co-operatives need to express the will of our members and protect the co-operative from co-optation by other sources. For worker co-operatives, this can be significant as they could easily end up as the employees of an organization rather than the owners, or so associated with political or social movement that they begin to falter as a business. It is important for us to consider these issues as we interact with other co-operatives and non-co-operatives. It is a lot easier to keep one’s co-operative autonomous and independent than to get that independence back.

*If you don’t get it, simply refer to the song.

Next Week: #5 Education, Training and Information

January 25, 2010

#20 Payment Solidarity

Filed under: Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 1:50 pm

The Mondragon Co-operatives maintain the concept of wage solidarity. From the beginning, the ratio of the highest paid position (manager) and the lowest paid (new worker) was locked at 3:1. In the 80’s this changed and today there are some positions that earn a 6:1 ratio and one (the CEO of the International MCC) who receives 9:1. Even with the tripling of the upper end of the ratio, it is still a far cry from the 150 or even 300:1 ratios that modern stock corporations tend to employ.

What interests me about this principle (and I think that it should be in the Identity Statement as well), is that Mondragon expresses the co-operative value of solidarity. It puts solidarity into the operations of the co-operative.

The language of Mondragon follows:

“The Mondragon Co-operative Experience proclaims sufficient and solidarity remuneration to be a basic principle in its management, expressed in the following terms:

a) Sufficient, in accordance with the possibilities of the Co-operative

b) Solidarity, in the following specific spheres:

  1. a. Internal. Materialised, amongst other aspect, in the existence of a differential, based on solidarity, in payment for work.
  2. b. External. Materialised in the criteria that average internal payment levels are equivalent to those of salaried workers in the area, unless the wage policy in this area is obviously insufficient.”

Note that the principle calls upon the worker co-operative to either ensure that its workers receive the prevailing wage or, if that wage is too low, become the wage leader in their industry and area. The prevailing wage must be at least a living wage*  for the community.

The principle of pay solidarity helps flatten the hierarchy in worker co-operatives. The pay differentials are kept small as a means of valuing all work performed to help the co-operative succeed as well as valuing all workers in the co-operative from the very new to the very senior. This principle helps to deflate the ego within the co-operative. Is someone with 30 years in the co-operative worth more as a worker? In some senses, the  experience and knowledge of the industry that comes with 30 years of work can be vital to the success of the organization, but is it worth them being paid 30 times the pay of a new hire?

Does someone who manages the marketing of the co-operative do more to create wealth (by getting customers) than front-line workers? Should that ability earn more than others?

These are very real questions for worker co-operatives and they are questions which can cause a lot of divisiveness. The way that the worker co-operative addresses these issues can dramatically effect the co-operative to enable it to succeed or cause it to fail.

Does a flat compensation system (everyone gets the same pay regardless of their job duties) encourage good management or cause the people who have management skills to seek employment elsewhere? Does a staggered system of seniority and pay levels create an aristocracy within the co-operative?

It is important for worker co-operatives to find the right balance based on their industry and their internal culture. It probably needs to be revisited from time-to-time. One aspect, in thinking about payment solidarity, should be leadership development. If the compensation levels are set too low, then the co-op will likely become a training center for its competitors or other businesses. If it is set too high, the co-operative may create a rift between the high bracket managers and the low bracket workers. Creating an “us vs. them” mentality can only lead to failure of the co-operative.

To truly maintain solidarity in payment, co-operatives must employ measures to develop leadership among their own ranks. When we need to hire managers from outside, who know the industry, we risk a lot. The culture of a worker co-operative can be destroyed by outside management who bring the attitudes of the traditional corporations with them. I’ve seen this up-close and personal and also from a far. Good Vibrations recently demutualized (becoming a standard ESOP) after hiring outside management (and changing the pay ratio to do so). Now, I am sure that the decisions to demutualize were very complicated (and it was a unanimous vote of the membership); however, it was clear that the culture of the organization changed after they increased their pay ratio in order to hire a manager from the mail order industry.

Of course, once we develop management, we also will need to compete with the outside world to keep them. Thus, our development programs must be based on two concepts: the management needs of the industry and the management needs of the co-operative. Whether our management has a traditional hierarchy or done through committee and semi-autonomous collectives, these two concepts need to be part of the discussion. With this in mind, it can be easier to develop a payment solidarity plan that recognizes a member’s experience, knowledge and commitment while also ensuring that the  “floor” for workers (whether by position or seniority) remains suited to a living wage for the community. This is the opposite of the corporations who figure out the senior management pay and stockholder dividends first and then use what is left over for the workers.

From Don José María Arizmendiaretta, “Solidarity is not just a theoretical proclamation, but something that should be put into practice and made manifest, willingly accepting the limitations of team work and of association, since this is the way to enable people to help each other.” (as reported by José María Ormaechea in his book The Mondragon Cooperative Experience)

This marks the end of the Mondragon diversion. I have called these four principles the “worker co-operative user principles”. These four principles should, in my opinion, be part of the Co-operative Identity. Co-operatives, regardless of the sector, require people to do work to benefit the users. Because of this, co-operatives should see the worker as a primary stakeholder and create means for the worker to truly benefit from their experience in the co-operative. I will even go so far as to argue that all co-operatives should either have a membership class for the workers or actively promote the unionization of their workers. Co-operatives must avoid exploitation. If we believe in Fair Trade for farmers producing coffee, chocolate, sugar and the like, then we must also believe in fair trade for the laborers who get those products on the shelf.

*what is a “living wage”? Madison, WI sets their definition as 120% of the poverty threshold for a family of four (currently $11.21/hour). Dane County arbitrarily declared it to be $8.70/hour. I think that worker co-operatives should work on this definition. I think that it should be a wage that allows a family to experience security with regards to nutrition, housing, health, education, clothing and socialization. This number will vary based on the community. I don’t think that it needs to mean a single-income home, but it should mean that someone can take care of themselves and their dependents at a basic level. Probably a topic for another post. . . .

Next: the 4th Principle—Autonomy and Independence

January 18, 2010

#19 Participatory Management

The next principle from Mondragon is that of Participatory Management. This seems like a no-brainer for worker co-operatives. What is the point of going through all the work of setting up a worker co-op if the workers don’t actually have a say in how the place is run? They would be better off in a unionized Employee Stock Ownership Program.

I’ll get more into this in a second. First, I want to share the language of the principle from Mondragon (translated, as they all are, of course):

“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience believes that the democratic character of the Cooperative is not limited to membership aspects, but that it also implies the progressive development of self-management and consequently of the participation of members in the sphere of business management which, in turn, requires:

a)     The development of suitable mechanisms and channels for participation.

b)    Freedom of information concerning the development of the basic management variables of the Cooperative.

c)     The practice of methods of consultation and negotiation with worker-members and their social representatives in economic, organisational and labour decisions which concern or affect them.

d)    The systematic application of social and professional training plans for members.

e)     The establishment of internal promotion as the basic means of covering posts with greater professional responsibility.”

(source: The Mondragon Cooperative Experience, by José María Ormaechea, 2000)

Second, I want to parse the word management. We manage our co-operative whether or not we have a person holding a title with the word “manager”. Some co-ops manage collectively, some manage through a hierarchy, but we all manage the same things: assets, liabilities, equity, work performance, customer satisfaction etc. In this, as in most posts, I use the term management and manager in the broad sense.

Participatory management does not mean democracy and democracy does not mean participatory management. I say this because they are often linked together in a synonymous manner. A worker co-operative can have a strict top-down hierarchy that allows little or no member input and still elect its board of directors. Likewise, the concept of participatory workplaces can exist in capitalist organizations.

This principle exposes some dangers to worker co-operatives in that it is this area that the co-operative movement may be co-opted. World Blu has created a list of the “most democratic workplaces” for a couple of years now. While I have nothing against their mission, they misuse the word democracy when they mean participatory management. Only a handful of the companies on their list are co-ops or esops. In other words, they are honoring workplaces as “democratic” when the workers have no control over the governance of the organization. While I think that participatory management is a noble thing for a stock corporation to entertain, it isn’t democracy, it isn’t a right. It can be taken away as soon as the stockholders decide the experiment isn’t making them enough money. While I support World Blu’s efforts to humanize capitalism, I don’t think it will ever succeed on a grand scale but am glad that the workers in those business have a decent place to work.

A worker co-operative should abide by the values and principles of democracy. Participatory management should be another user principle for co-operatives even if it isn’t in the Identity Statement. It is the means by which the workers of the co-operative “use” their co-operative. Just as consumers use the products and services of a consumer co-operatives, workers use their ability to participate in decisions affecting their work life (roughly ¼-1/3 of our lives) as their right of membership.

Mondragon has created an excellent definition of participatory management. It isn’t simply deciding what type chairs to get for the office, it involves a complete involvement of the workforce in the operations and planning of the organization.

Note though, that the principle discusses the creation of “suitable” methods. Decisions have to be made and they have to be made in a way that enhances the organization in terms of serving their customers and succeeding in the market place. A restaurant can’t hold a membership meeting to discuss which person serves which table every time a customer walks in for dinner. A cab company can’t hold a debate about call assignment for each and every order. However, the co-operative can create methods of having these discussions about systems that ensure fairness and those methods should involve a wide range of voices from the membership.

Information has to be available to everyone or how can it truly run as a democracy. This isn’t on a “need-to-know” basis, but on the basis of ownership.

Another key point is that the co-operative needs to create bodies that will assist the worker-members in finding their voice. This might be a peer support program, a traditional stewards’ council, or even a labor union (although that is decidedly not what Mondragon is talking about). The bigger point being that management in a worker co-operative (whether run with a hierarchy or not) needs to establish means for worker’s to have a real voice in the discussion. Depending on the size of the organization (and the work week schedule) this will have different levels of formality. Rainbow Grocery is famous for its collectivist approach while Union CabMondragon models the labor movement through a stewards’ council and committee structure. uses a “social committee” in which elected representatives help provide input to the board and management as well as acting as a watch dog.

The last two points of the principle create an imperative of making participation systemic. As with the Sovereignty of Labour, this principle promotes the belief of internal promotion. The top end positions of a worker co-operative should generally not be hired from the outside of the worker co-operative movement. It is better for worker co-operative to create strong in-house training (and utilize professional development programs such as the Masters of Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions) to develop the future leaders of the co-operative. One of the problems, in the United States, is that our co-operatives tend to be small and this limits opportunity for workers to advance and develop. It also limits the level of education and training that can be provided. However, we need to think beyond our stand-alone co-operatives. Just as Mondragon is a system of 180 or so co-operatives, we should start thinking of US Worker Cooperatives existing as an economic base.

Ormaechea chose this particular quote from Don José: “Co-operation brings people together in a collective task, but it gives each one responsibility. It is the development of the individual, not against the rest, but with the rest.”

By creating a base of strong management of our co-operatives we build the capacity for the movement to grow. We create the means for our co-operatives to cross-pollinate, to occasionally go outside of our stand-alone co-ops and we also create the means for the rank-and-file members to expand themselves, to develop themselves as people.

Next Week: Payment Solidarity

January 11, 2010

#18 The Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital

Filed under: Human Relations,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 10:20 am

“We do not aspire to economic development as an end, but as a means.”

–Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, spiritual founder of Mondragon

This Mondragon principle, in practice, operates more closely to the Identity Statement principle of Member Economic Participation. I included it in this side road of the over all series because I believe that Mondragon presents a nuance all too often lost in the co-operative movement and, in the silo-ed environment of the US worker co-operative movement, we often tend to forget the role of capital in our organizations is significantly different from that of our industry and capitalist competitors.

The role of capital in a worker co-operative should be two-fold:

1) ensure the on-going operations of the co-operative

2) allow the co-operative to maintain the highest level of safety and quality of work-life.

Thus, this principle presents the balancing act of worker co-operatives. As the opening quote suggests, if we are just in it for the money, what are we really trying to accomplish? However, DJMA has also said, “Cooperativism without the structural capacity to attract and assimilate capital at the level of the requirements of industrial productivity is but a temporary solution, an invalid formula.”

The definition of this principle is as follows:

” The Mondragon Cooperative Experience considers capital to an instrument, subordinate to Labour, necessary for business development and worthy, therefore, of:

a) Remuneration, which is:

  • Just, in relation to the efforts implied in accumulating capital,
  • Adequate, to enable necessary resources to be provided,
  • Limited in its amount, by means of corresponding controls,
  • Not directly linked to the profits made.

b) Availability subordinate to the continuity and development of the cooperative, without preventing the correct application of the principle of open admission.”

As a tool, the role of capital should not exclude members from participation in their co-operative. This is a key point for worker co-operatives. The level of capital investment by the member should be appropriate to the needs of the industry and the ability of the worker to contribute. Otherwise, the role of capital dwarfs the rights of the workers, the human beings.

Another important diversion for worker co-operatives is the separation of capital from profits. Too often I hear directors (who have come to us from the “for profit” world) talk about the need for “return on investment” or “return on equity” as the means for deciding the correct course of the co-operative. However, that places capital in a position of greater importance than it needs to be or should be. While a surplus (profit) is needed to re-capitalize the organization and to expand, that should be the limit of its effect. We should not seek to maximize ROI because that mindset leads to the disaster capitalism that has plagued our macro-economy for thirty years.

Capital, in a cooperative, exists to serve the needs of the members collectively. In a worker co-operative, Capital should mean ensuring good paying jobs, safe working conditions and the opportunity for human development. Co-operatives exists as a means for socio-economic transformation of the community, not for the further enrichment of the few who control capital. This may be one of the key differences of cooperation from its market based cousin capitalism. Capital, in a cooperative, should be used to elevate the human being, to eliminate (or minimize) exploitation, and create a sustainable community.

This may seem like an obvious concept, but it is not. Too often co-operative managers hear the siren song of the capitalists. When we start hearing managers talking about industry “best practices” we should immediately ask who those practices are best for. Are those practices “best” for the workers or the stockholders? Are they best for the consumers or the stockholders? Are they “best” for managers or the members? Are they “best” for the community or the stockholders? We need to see that our co-operatives must develop their own best practices for the industry. By creating best practices that do not get tied to maximizing ROI or ROE, we can create strong, vibrant workplaces that will, in turn, create sustainable, vibrant communities.

These are, I believe, the questions that Don Jose wants us to ask. We cannot simply pretend that we are at the grown-ups table when we manage our businesses. We cannot model the “industry” without focusing on the unique role of capital in our co-operatives. As the opening quote states, the role of capital is simply a means to a better future. It should never be considered an end unto itself.

Next Week: Participatory Management

January 4, 2010

#17 Sovereignty of Labor (Mondragon Priniciples)

The Mondragon principle “Sovereignty of Labor” created departure from the cooperative movement. While the Rochdale Pioneers had good intentions, they abandoned worker cooperation in the 1870’s. The Fabian Socialist moved even further from the ideals of Robert Owen declaring consumerism as the lowest common denominator for human relationships eschewing workers as merely another stakeholder group. Even the French cooperativist Charles Gide turned away from worker associations. Sadly, this act left the labor movement adrift from the cooperative world even as organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations developed worldviews akin to the ideal of cooperation.

In the US, as in most of the Capitalist dominated world, the idea of labor being sovereign is almost non-existent. Business schools spend a lot of money teaching future managers how to manage workers—increase their productivity and the companies profits Except in the more enlightened firms, managers treat workers as errant children. Likewise, the dominant culture makes work something to be avoided and champions obstruction as “fighting the man”. People who do work hard tend to be treated as suck-ups and “upwardly mobile”. We mock the Ragged Dick stories in which “by luck and by pluck and good boy may succeed”. We have been conditioned to hate work and to distrust anyone who suggests that we work hard. The wobblies ran a cartoon called Blockhead who ridiculed the “company man”.

A part of me says, “damn straight!” why should workers gleefully assist the people exploiting them? The life of a worker under capitalism is not any better than it was under feudalism. In some ways, it is worse. The bond between serf and lord was based on land, food and safety. Capitalism replaced those bonds of survival by monetizing them and making currency the commonality of humanity. The chattel slave became the wage slave in the first round of outsourcing that allowed the owner to reduce or eliminate the cost of housing and feeding the workers in their employ.

The Jesuits had a different tradition, thankfully. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit Order, took his vows of celibacy just a few kilometers from Mondragon in the foothills overlooking Onati. The Basque followers of St. Ignatius believed that work could lead to transformation and salvation. In the Spanish Empire they attempted to covert the native Americans of the Tipu-Guarni* through worker collectives known at Jesuit Reductions and immortalized in the movie, The Mission. It was a modern day member of their order, Don José María Arizmendiarreta (DJMA) who would bring that ethic to the small town of Mondragon and teach five young mean the value of cooperation.

The Principles of Mondragon Cooperative Corporation state:

“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience considers that Labour is the principal factor for transforming nature, society and human beings themselves, and therefore:

a) Renounces the systemic contracting of salaried workers

b) Gives labour total primacy in the organization of cooperatives

c) Considers Labour to be worthy, in essence, in the distribution of the wealth created.

d) Manifests its will to extend the options for work to all members of the society.”

There should be a different culture in worker cooperatives, where the workers truly own and control the company. However, waving a magic wand cannot do it. To this end, it is important for worker cooperatives to adopt the notion of the sovereignty of labor. We need to instill a cooperative work ethic in our organizations. Not a work ethic based on enriching others (or even consumers for that matter), but of social transformation or us and our peers based on honesty, openness, and solidarity and caring for others.

Don Jose spoke often on this topic. “Man transforms and makes nature fertile through his labour,” he wrote”, and labour is the greatest asset that the community possesses: to live with dignity, one must embrace work.” Of DJMA, did not mean a mindless embrace of the protestant work ethic to benefit the sputtering Franco economic engine. He meant that workers should own their labor. They should be, as another Jesuit priest from the previous generation argued, “Masters of their Destiny”.

That is the point of this principle. We, as workers, should honor work. We should give to our cooperatives 100% of our effort. When we do this, we begin to transform ourselves and our community creating something of greater value. We must honor all work and recognize that all of those who work as members of our cooperative (or as people who may become members). Sometimes, this work ethic can turn itself on its head and we regard the presence of “management” or “leaders” as we would in the outside world. This is an incorrect understanding of this principle. Sr. Ormaechea denounces the “duplicity of individualism” which might make those of us in the US wince a bit.  However, the sovereignty of labor is in relation to capital not individuals. In the capitalist world, we have learned that managers and leaders tend to be the agents of capital, not labor (sadly this is even true of some labor leaders). The role of the cooperative should be to empower all workers. Management or leaders (as we shall see) come from the workers and belong to them—they are not alien to the work force, but part of it.

We do not invoke this principle by emulating Talyorist strategies or adopting a proprietor’s attitude towards co-workers. Treating our fellow members as our employees is not the correct method of expressing the sovereignty of labor. Instead, we embrace this principle by developing each other as co-leaders in our enterprise. We operationalize this principle by making decisions that enrich the lives of the workers (in terms of safety, education, and health) over the base need for profit. We honor this principle by treating each other as equals and as humans deserving of our respect and love. By doing these things, we change the nature of work from an act of necessity to one of social transformation. We overcome the cultural animosity acquired from being a wage slave to create a new culture of mutual self-help and self-responsibility.

*The currency of Paraguay is the Guarni, which represents the historic measure of wealth in the region (how many Guarni were owned by the Spanish slaveholders)

Next Week: The Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital

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