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

September 1, 2017

Reflection #541–power of individuals in cooperation

Filed under: Movement,Pensimientos,Reflections — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 7:00 am

In returning to this blog, I am also returning to a long-abandoned project. A couple of years ago, I began discussing the inspirational messages from Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, the spiritual founder of Mondragón and, in many ways, the modern worker co-operative movement.

His messages, published as Pensamientos by Cherie Herrera, Cristina Herrera, David Herrera, Teresita Lorenzo, and Virgil Lorenzo. You can read them at the web site celebrating Arizmendiarrieta’s Centennial.

“Cooperativism fundamentally is an organic process of experiences, characterized precisely for the subservience to moral values and for the prevalence of human beings as such over all other factors more or less instrumental in every process and economic activity.” 541

Often these days, the term snowflake gets bandied about quite a bit, often pejoratively (and its history as an insult is rather amazing and frightening). I first started hearing it in 2012 referring to worker co-operatives. The idea of a “snowflake” in the co-op world being that worker co-ops act as if they are these unique organizations in terms of their experience–so unique that the ability to learn from others is limited.

I’ll certainly admit to being guilty of this sentiment earlier in my co-op career. It isn’t just a feeling of superiority, but also one of isolation. As the worker co-op network in the US has developed over the last 10-15 years, that sense of isolation has largely disappeared. The network of co-op development centers, the US Federation, and local networks has created a strong community of cooperators that welcomes people into the movement with warm support.

The danger, one which I see abating, has been to dismiss the individuality of worker co-ops in favor of creating easy to manage development practices. I have often worried that creating institutionalized responses may negate the individuals involved in the process. Each co-op that I have worked with has similarities and differences. They link around the co-op identity, effectively the moral values that Arizmendiarrieta refers to, but each co-op, no matter the isomorphic forces at play and cultural similarities engaged by the industry create the co-op’s own culture based on the individuals who created it and who engage with it.

The humanity of our co-ops makes them unique, frustrating, and loveable. The power of snowflakes united in strategy can be truly sublime–no less in the union of human passion, knowledge, and individuality put to a common purpose. It is the heart of the cooperative’s power.

February 13, 2017

Our Worker Co-ops Have a Unique Role to Play

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:14 am

We are living in very interesting times.

It can be difficult to figure out a coherent strategy with which to negotiate the next 1,237 days (or more). We almost need an individualized strategic plan to manage all of the areas of resistance to understand when it is vital to be on the streets or in the workplace or with friends and family.

Worker Co-operatives have a key role to play during this era, but it will only be meaningful if they embrace their identity as worker-owned and operated enterprises. False co-ops, those who use the co-op label more for marketing while ignoring the principles, really aren’t needed. They do damage to the rest of us. I am talking about employer co-ops masquerading as worker co-ops or solidarity co-ops. Some of these, like cab “co-ops” that have only 3–4 owners and hundreds of workers. They use the co-op model to escape double-taxation and should really be Limited Liability Corporations. They don’t engage in the principles or values of co-operation.

The rest, the worker co-ops who strive every day to live their principles and values, to engrain the co-op ethics into the operations, to demonstrate the resiliency and power of worker control need to step up and do more. This is not the time to be insular and withdraw behind the doors of your meeting room. The nation needs to learn about worker co-ops, and more importantly, worker co-ops need to expand and build the movement.

Mondragon provides lessons for how to develop and succeed in a hostile political climate. I want to talk about two, that I see as key to navigating the new normal of the political landscape in the U.S.

The first lesson: control our capital and keep it inside the movement. Worker co-ops need to create full service banks owned by worker co-ops to support and develop worker co-ops. While credit unions have a role, they can be hampered by antagonistic legislation that favors banks. Let’s use that legislation to support co-ops.

The second lesson of Mondragon: expand the movement by investing in new co-ops and incubating them if necessary. Mondragon recognized early on that more worker co-ops would make their lives easier. With enough worker co-ops, the supply lines and financial support could keep the money in the co-operative sector and economies of scale could be reached in ways that kept the democracy alive in the workplace. When a co-op needs something that it doesn’t produce, and can’t find an affordable source aligned with its mission, it should create a new co-op to meet its need. This engages the intellectual capital and capacity of its membership. Larger co-ops may have people working for them because it is a co-op, not because they want to drive a taxi, provide home care, or engage in bike delivery. These members provide a great expansion opportunity for the co-op and the movement.

This might be a state by state, city by city effort with each community finding its own path. Some cities, such as New York, Cleveland, and Madison, are able to use taxpayer dollars to support and build a co-operative solution to meet city needs. Others cannot and need to find other methods. In either case, it is important for existing co-ops to step up and help create strong co-operative economic ecosystems.

Creating nodes of economic democratic organizations throughout the U.S. over the next four years might not be the showiest or strongest form of resistance, but it will build stronger communities that will allow more people to engage in other forms of resistance since they will have free themselves of wage slavery. It is a passive revolution of a sort, although it can easily succumb to the hegemony of the dominant capital model if the values and principles fall to the wayside of our work.

If we could quadruple the worker co-ops in terms of number and employees over the next four years and develop them into real economic democracies through strong governance strategies that overcome gatekeepers and philanthropic saviors, we would create not just an answer to Trumpism, but also to neoliberalism.

As we train our members to engage within our co-ops, we are also training them to engage within their communities. This will create leadership on neighborhood councils, city committees, county committees and even State boards and commissions. We can create a new form of community leadership to fill the current vacuum that only sees a dichotomy between the conservative and liberal factions of Wall Street. Some co-ops, of course, are already doing this and their efforts have paid off substantially (see New York City and Madison), but we need to make this a bigger and broader movement that reaches beyond traditional liberal strongholds and into cities throughout the country. By focusing on the values of co-operation and putting the practice of solidarity and cooperation among cooperatives into practice, we can build an incredible future that delivers on the American Dream.

February 9, 2017

CICOPA’s Declaration on migrants and refugees

Since my last post on January 23, I had been wondering how to address some of the actions that have happened since in terms of the worker cooperative identity. Fortunately for me, my friends at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation posted the following (adopted April, 2016) The International of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA) put forth the following Declaration on Migrants and Refugees:

According to the United Nations, the number of international migrants increased by 41% over the last 15 years, from 173 million in 2000 to 244 million in 2015;1 the UN also point out that the main reasons for migrating include conflict, poverty, inequality and lack of decent jobs, and that the distinction between countries of origin, transit and destination is becoming increasingly obsolete.2

According to the UNHCR, refugees reached an estimated 15.1 million people in mid-2015, up from 10.5 million in 2012, 3 namely an increase of 40% in only 3 years, the vast majority being hosted by low or middle income countries.4

This massive increase in the flow of migrants and refugees is bound to increase over the next few years, both because the present reasons for such an increase have not been solved and because new phenomena are beginning to impact on migration, such as climate change.

Europe in particular is facing the gravest migration and humanitarian crisis since World War II, bringing into light its own paradoxes and inabilities to apply its constituent values such as solidarity, respect for human dignity and liberty.

It should be pointed out that, when they are able to survive during their exodus, migrants often face difficulties in accessing employment opportunities and basic social and health services. Furthermore, migrants are among the most exposed to working in low-paid precarious jobs and potentially exploitive conditions in the informal economy.

CICOPA is fully aware of the complex reality which migrants are facings around the world and that it is, at times, a difficult or perilous path.

As an organization active globally, CICOPA strives to change this paradigm through the development and growth of industrial and service cooperatives, in compliance with the first cooperative principle according to which “cooperatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination”.

Industrial and service cooperatives contribute to a decent and dignified life and to the social and economic integration of refugees and migrants in various parts of the world. 5 They are also used as a tool by migrants and refugees themselves for developing entrepreneurship initiatives together with other members from the community, thus increasing autonomy, solidarity and human development while at the same time contributing to a sustainable economy both globally and locally.

Industrial and service cooperatives are the natural allies of international organizations, regional organizations and national governments in carrying out inclusive policies that provide basic services and socioeconomic inclusion for migrants and refugees. Cooperative entrepreneurship is a valuable tool to maximize the developmental benefits represented by migrants and refugees for welcoming countries, in terms of human resources, competences and skills.

Through this Declaration, CICOPA wants to express its commitment to fight for an equal access to services and work opportunities provided by cooperatives, allowing for a decent life and increased opportunities for the entrepreneurial projects to be initiated by workers and producers in the migrant and refugee communities around the world.

Cooperatives are based on the principle of equality, whereby all human beings are equal in rights and remain at the heart of all policy concerns. This is why cooperatives in industry and services commit themselves to fight against discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion which refugees and migrants are facing all around the globe.

 

1 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2016) International Migration Report 2015; New York: United Nations, p. 5

2 Ibid.

3 UNHCR (2015) Mid-Year Trends 2015 ; Geneva : UNHCR

4 Ibid., p. 7 2 CICOPA – C/O European House of Cooperatives – avenue Milcamps 105 – BE-1030 BRUSSELS TEL. (+32/2) 543 10 33 – WWW.CICOPA.COOP– CICOPA@CICOPA.COOP 5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in

5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in New York in 2006, with the mission to bring together immigrant women to create a women-run, women-owned, eco-friendly housecleaning business. The cooperative Nor Bum, established in 2011 in La Plata, Argentina, groups 7 construction workers coming from Bolivia. Social cooperative Camelot established in 1997 in Ferrara, Italy, by

January 27, 2017

Stand in solidarity with HOTEL BAUEN workers

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 4:19 pm
Appeal for international solidarity with the law of expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN voted by the Argentine Congress on November 30th, 2016 and vetoed by President Mauricio Macri

After almost 14 years of struggle, the Argentine Senate passed a bill for the expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN in favor of the worker cooperative on November 30th, 2016. The existence of such law has consolidated workers’ self-management and has brought historical justice to this cause, given that former owners of the hotel built it using public credit facilitated by the genocidal de facto military government (1976-1983); this credit was never repaid. Beyond historical rectification, the expropriation bill recognized the Hotel BAUEN’s social purposes, including myriad solidarity-based initiatives, and cultural activities that regularly take place in this worker-managed hotel, making the BAUEN an emblem of workers’ self-management in Argentina and in the world. But Argentine President Mauricio Macri has subsequently vetoed the expropriation bill based on fallacious arguments that deny the social purposes of the cooperative, that reject the recovery of the public funds, and that will leave 130 workers unemployed and unable to provide for their families. We urge the members of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies and the Argentine Senate to reject the presidential veto and to confirm the law that expropriates the Hotel BAUEN on behalf of its workers in order to repair this injustice, avoid the eviction of workers from the hotel, and strengthen our democracy.

Hotel BAUEN constitutes one of the most emblematic worker-recuperated businesses in Argentina. Closed by its owners as part of a fraudulent scheme that left its workers out on the street by the end of the 2001, the 20-story building located in downtown Buenos Aires was asset stripped and abandoned by its owners for more than a year before a group of former workers occupied the space on March 21st, 2003. Thus began a process of 13 years of workers’ self-management that has created 130 jobs and witnessed the Hotel BAUEN’s workers make major investments in repairing and renovating the hotel’s infrastructure, all with very little external financing. Hotel BAUEN, which was once a symbol of corrupt power in Argentina, has now, under workers’ self-management, become a meeting place for social movements, unions, and workers’ organizations. Over the past decade, the hotel has hosted hundreds of organizing conferences and debates, as well as academic and cultural events.

Hotel BAUEN is not just an emblem of self-management. Its origins also constitute a symbol for the collective memory of the collusion and corruption between economic power and the genocidal dictatorship that ruled and bloodied Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Hotel BAUEN was originally constructed in preparation for the World Cup of soccer hosted in Argentina in 1978 and financed with loans from the national bank (BANADE) that were never repaid. Thus there still exists an outstanding public debt. The expropriation bill permits the Argentine State to regain the ownership of the building and subsequently have it transferred to the workers’ cooperative, which has, after all, recuperated it for the working class and Argentine society. The subsequent presidential veto, however, has impeded this historical reparation promised by the expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN, and has, instead, consecrated the impunity of the accomplices of the military dictatorship and punished the workers who have devoted their effort, their work, and their resources to the recuperation of this hotel.

The signatures in the petition represent those who stand in solidarity with the workers of Hotel BAUEN. They represent a call for the Members of Congress of the Argentine Republic to confirm the expropriation bill they passed, allowing the continuation of workers’ self-management, which is exemplary to the world.

To send an email of support to the Hotel BAUEN workers: solidaritybauencooperative@gmail.com

January 23, 2017

The “We” Generation

Here we are.

The next two years will seem to bring to life the ancient curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

The need for mutual self-help and self-reliance along with solidarity will be at the forefront for many of our cooperatives and we, whether as members, educators, or developers, must rise to meet the challenges presented.

The pendulum of human history has shifted once more from the individualistic to the communal. This can, of course, be a good thing. People working together for the common good has helped move our civilizations from the dictates of a single ruler to more democratic and inclusive governments (even if it doesn’t always feel that progress continues).

I don’t subscribe to the cohort model of generations. I don’t think that being born between 1946-1964 creates a certain type of world view any more that being born in the 90’s makes one a certain way. I follow instead an idea put forward by advertising guru Roy Williams (working off others). This pendulum concepts suggests that humanity cycles through a “me” and a “we” period with the switch around happening about every 40 years. Each period has an upswing and a down-swing and, there are always outliers looking forward to the equilibrium (when the down-swing of one becomes the upswing of another)

Today, we are about the same spot as 1936, 1856, and 1776. Those time periods all involved a period in which people coalesced around a common “we” (1842-1882, 1922-1962, and 1752-1792 respectively). What does this mean to the development of worker cooperatives and the labor movement at a whole. The common “We” works in sometimes contradictory ways. The groups of the 1930’s brought about strong unionism among the working class even as others used perceived racial purity as the defining virtue. Likewise, the power of “we” fueled both the democratically inclined Revolutionary War and the rise of the Abolition Movement but the genocidal war against First Nations peoples also dominated the nation.

According to Williams, the moment of the switch between the Me Generation and the We Generation occurred around 2002-ish and the Year of Hope with the election of Barack Obama mirroring the Me Generation’s Summer of Love. It is worth reading the book (it isn’t a heavy scholarly read at all) to get the sense of it.

The question for us, as worker cooperators, is how do we enter this rather polarized world of “we”. In some respects, it provides some advantages as people seem more likely to see solidarity and common purpose as positive traits. The values and principles of cooperation should resonate and help the Decade of the Co-op shine. However, there is also danger in the neo-tribalism of the “we” that separates people by false categories (race, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation).  Further, cooperatives (and especially worker cooperatives) have a tendency to overly focus on internal issues and ignore the larger movement. Even with the relative growth and rise of the US Federation, co-ops don’t always stay engaged in their community and the larger co-op movement.

As much as I respect the work of the Federation and its offshoot, DAWI, we can’t simply subcontract the sixth and seventh principles of cooperation to apex organizations. They have important roles to play at the national and international level providing information, support, and connectivity, but can’t really provide a one-size fits all game plan for every community. We are special snowflakes despite our commonalities.

It will be important for those organizations to engage at the national level, but co-ops (especially worker co-ops) cannot engage in isolationism. They need to create local partnerships with the local labor organizations (even if it is only an expression of solidarity and event invitation), local political leaders, and other cooperatives. They need to also encourage the regional and national coop groups to stand with labor and identify worker cooperatives as something more than simply an economic model akin to ESOPs.

Now is the time for us to embrace our movement and make it move (as Jim Hightower might say). We need to tell our collective stories and educate people about real worker ownership (that involves more than owning shares) and how through worker ownership and worker control, the American Dream can be resurrected and expanded to include all of us.

October 5, 2015

The People’s Ride: A Co-op Response to Uber

Filed under: Management,Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 11:23 am

I haven’t been a fan of the “sharing economy” primairlity because it really isn’t about sharing, it is about extraction. Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, TaskRabbit aren’t sharing anything, they are providing a technological interface for people to do menial jobs and extracting a huge percentage for the service.

In the case of cab drivers, Uber and Lyft disrupt a market that is closed and generally united against drivers and the passengers. The modern day taxi market is designed to maximize wealth for the owner of the company without regard for the people who generate the wealth or the public who need transportation. Uber and Lyft disrupt this by allowing basically anyone to be a cab driver and open up the market to make getting a ride as easy as it seems on tv (reality check: on TV the cab shows up instantly, but in reality it takes 15-30 minutes to hail a cab in New York City and up to 45 minutes during rush hour).

The thing is, Uber and Lyft aren’t changing the model. They have just found a way to beat the monopoly owners in most communities. They offer a high tech solution to ordering cabs, but this has already been offered in a number of cities (San Francisco and Madison are two that come to the top of my head). Drivers and consumers are still preyed upon and have their wealth extracted. One of the reasons that attempts by exisitng taxicab owners to defeat Uber’s growth have failed is that  most taxicab companies have already sacrficied any consumer or driver loyalty to their personal profit. The unknown devil of Uber is, at worst, going to be the same as the known devil of ABC Cab, but people might be able to get a cab quicker.

In general, Uber succeeds because it offers immediacy and convenience in an industry that has refused to modernize or focus on customer service and loyalty (in fact, most cab companies have moved away from hiring drivers as employees and made the driver the customer through charging them for the priviledge of driving which has removed the owner of the company from the people who use the company’s services–it was good for consistent profits, but horrible for customer service and loyalty from drivers and consumers).

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a new model is underway. Since Uber has spent millions of dollars to re-write laws to exempt their model from existing taxi ordinances, they created a new market for drivers through a “Transportation Network Company”. This new model is basically the old cab owner model created by cab owners to distance themsleves from any responsiblity to their drivers or customers; however, now that it also distances the owners of the TNC form local laws, it offers the ability for drivers to form new driver-owned and customer-focused cooperatives.

Matthew Bair is leading the effort. They are working for a better work environment for the drivers. In there GoFund Me Campaign he writes:

“I am a substitute teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I believe in creating a new world for tomorrow’s youth.  Change needs to happen everywhere.  My whole higher education involved figuring out what that would look like.  People’s Ride is about creating a new economy and a better future.  It is about creating a different kind of job.  One where people are able to use both their brain and muscle together and be wholly human.  
People’s Ride is a worker co-op where those who drive also own and control the business.  If a work week is 5 days, a driver picks up people and collects fares 4 days while on the 5th sit in meetings to make decisions about the company.      
The co-op community here in Grand Rapids is growing.  Housing, live/ work co-ops, land, food, beer, bicycling, honey bee, ride sharing co-ops are working together in solidarity to bring about an alternative.     
People’s Ride has been up and running.  We have been following the Cooperative Development Institute’s guide to starting cooperatives.  As in the spirit of the cooperative movement, we collaborate and learn from other ride sharing cooperatives from around the nation.  We have the potential to grow very fast.  Right now we are focusing on putting in place a solid infrastructure.
We are raising money to pay for a car and to have a grand opening.  Any amount makes a difference!  Big or small, $10, $50, $100, $500, you name it.  A contribution of $50 makes you a consumer member and gives you 10% off, $100 gives you 10 rides for half off, $200 gives you 20 rides, $500 gives you 50 rides.   Help build the co-op community in Grand Rapids.  
People who do crowdfunding say that their success is owed to how many people are reached.  So please, after you make a contribution, send this to all the friends you can think of.  “

TNC’s may allow cab co-ops to thrive where previously they were shut out by shenanigans of the owners limiting the number of cabs in a community through medallions or out-right leglislation. TNC’s break open the oligopolies that exist in most cities. While I still dislike Uber and Lyft (and think that they need more regulation to protect workers and consumers), I can see the value of the TNC model in a modern technological age. I am hoping that the Grand Rapids project works and spreads to other cities. Ideally, with a collaboration between drivers in cooprativ TNC and cooperativ tech companies, a national or even international model of a collectivized TNC could take hold and propser benefitting drivers and customers alike.

 

 

September 22, 2015

Co-operation Isn’t For Everyone. . . (initially)

REFLECTION NO. 538

The radicalism of the cooperative proposal, in face of development, appealing to the economic, personal, communal and integral concourse of its believers, faces the alternative of success or complete failure. Cooperativism requires people with a strong spirit, or at least people who are willing to risk it all. Therefore, it is not a formula that fits everyone, but the biggest mistake that we could make would be to place our demands at the level of the weakest, since in such a case it would be impossible to reach higher levels.

From Reflections, the words of Don José María Arizmendiarrieta


 

Pope Francis has just wrapped up a papal visit to the island nation of Cuba. This country, long held under the sway of US foreign policy, has begun to reexamine its economic relationship with the world and with itself. For decades, it has followed the state-planned economic method but as the relations with the US thaw, and the demand of the contemporary generation for greater autonomy increases, the Cuban government looks to the co-operative economic model as a way to keep Cuba from returning to the playground of the US.

I think that this quote from Mondragon’s founder is quite fitting in that it bounces off of yesterday’s critique of radicalism by suggesting that the cooperative model offers a form of radicalism in that it forces people to reach within themselves and take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their organization. Co-operatives are not designed for followers, but for individuals who seek to express their humanity and identity while also engaging with others to create a synergy of the human experience that can only be obtained through interaction with similarly self-aware and self-responsible individuals.

We don’t often think of co-operation as an individual act (and it really isn’t of course), but it does require people who can engage it in a co-leadership manner. It takes personal strength to be able to co-operate and not everyone is up to the task as it will mean conflict. Hopefully, the co-operative has structures to create an environment in which conflict resembles more of a Hegelian dialectic than a kindergarten playground.

This shouldn’t suggest that co-operatives are exclusive to the already self-aware. Arizmendiarrieta speaks at length at the power of co-operation to empower people to develop their humanity and to create civilization based on the values that make us human. I think that the mistake that he refers to is to place people without these skills and qualities into positions of power and expect success.

September 1, 2014

We Need to Reclaim “The Sharing Economy”

There has been a lot of discussion of late regarding the so-called “sharing economy”. This phrase refers, generally, to organizations such as Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and others that provide an on-line broker service so that people can monetize practically everything in their life. The term sharing economy is a great marketing ploy to suggest that this practice engages the voluntary actions of the participants who just want to earn a little extra money from their assets. On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense–if someone wants to pay me $10 bucks to use the lawnmower that I am not using, why not? If I can give someone a ride to work on my way to work and it pays for my gas, that is a great deal and I am helping out a fellow human who may need that ride due to lack of access to public transportation or a personal vehicle. However, that isn’t what these organizations are really doing and I would argue that the the people engaging in it do so because they are rather desperate in a late-stage capitalist economy taking full advantage of having largely crushed the labor unions.

The New York Times recently ran a “balanced” article chronicling the days of a couple of workers. In this article, the workers seem content and like the variety and hustle-and-bustle of the life of managing multiple phone apps, 10-14 hour days, and not being able to spend time with their family to earn about $10 an hour after self-employment taxes and expenses. They would probably be better off with a menial minimum wage job, but that would limit their total hours or require them to maintain multiple jobs such as the women who recently succumbed to fumes and died while taking a rest break in her car. The non-sharing economy doesn’t have a lot to offer to workers today either.

Maureen Conway, of the Aspen Institute, sums up the reality of this new effort by capitalists to avoid any responsibility to the communities from which they extract wealth:

“In the end, the sharing economy is nice words for what is really more of the same. More money going to business profits held by a few, and less money going to the labor income that is the primary means of support for most Americans. What we need is a sharing economy in which working people share in the wealth that their labor creates. Unfortunately, this version of a sharing economy does not promise that. “

The “sharing economy” is about workers “sharing” their labor and capital with venture capitalists for a percentage while also accepting 100% of the risk (expenses, accidents, taxes, etc). This isn’t a new effort. Last week, (August 27, 2014), a Federal Court finally ruled in a long-running dispute that FedEx improperly classified many of its employees as “independent contractors”. FedEx has tried to claim that its drivers were independent contractors mainly because it has shifted most of the expenses on to them (they have to buy the truck, rent the equipment to track deliveries, etc). I remember one argument that FedEx made in a similar case that is still to be decided that the drivers could use the truck to run other deliveries provided that they removed all the FedEx decals first and then reapplied them in time for their next shift. Seriously. Had FedEx won this case (and it might still go to the Supreme Court), it would have been a watershed moment that would essentially bring us back to the early days of 1800. What company wouldn’t love to reclassify its workers as independent contractors and immediately save on payroll taxes plus other items? However, that is essentially what the sharing economy is hoping to do.

There is a real sharing economy, however. It has existed (as an on-going concern) since 1844 and in different forms for many years before that such as the first mutual insurance company founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. Cooperation brings people together to share their capital for the common good. Instead of groups such as Uber or AirBnB in which people provide their labor and capital to provide wealth for a third party, the labor and capital provided to a cooperative benefits the users of the cooperative–the members. Further, in the true concept of sharing, democratic decision making allows the opinions of the different people sharing to be expressed on an equal basis (Uber, Lyft and others essentially present the terms of service to the workers and either they accept or quit working for them). Any surplus generated from the cooperative sharing economy gets distributed according to the inputs into the enterprise.

One thing that Taskmaster, Favor Delivery, Lyft, et al have pointed out is that a market exists for connecting people with others. This can and should be done in a cooperative format that doesn’t exploit the people providing the labor. Dane County Timebank has made a start, but seems to come up short. This needs to be national, it needs to be modern (phone apps), it needs to engage more than bartering. I realize that Timebank seeks to demonetize society as a key part of its mission–it is all about getting off of the currency addiction. Unfortunately, for many working people, money comes in pretty handy. Landlords don’t accept barter and neither do health clinics, gas stations, and a host of other places that provide vital goods and services. Until they do, a “sharing economy” needs to provide the means for people to earn a decent a living and maintain a quality of life.

Cooperatives need to reclaim the concept of the “sharing economy”. We need to help people struggling to find work, make ends meet, and otherwise seek their dreams understand that they don’t have to rent out their bodies and everything they own (is their a site where someone who likes parenting, but doesn’t want the hassle of a full-time kid, rent somebodies child for an afternoon?). Cooperatives (worker, consumer, producer and financial) need to challenge these profiteers by helping people combine their resources to create dynamic cooperatives that can provide the things that the “sharing” apps provide which is essentially services for people who need them.

There is also a role for labor unions. SEIU, CWA, USW have all been engaging worker cooperatives of late. This “new” economy offer them a real opportunity as well. Through the creation of a “union coop” of drivers, they could help Uber and Lyft workers negotiate better terms. This would be similar to the Campbell’s union drive in which Campbells’ claimed the farmworker’s conditions weren’t their responsibility since Campbell’s only contracted with the farmers and didn’t employ the farmworkers. Unions could also organize the “favor” workers to negotiate better terms. There really isn’t anything new in the “sharing economy” model, but it needs a response.

Sharing constitutes the basis of cooperative life and economics. As cooperators, we share our labor, our capital and our knowledge with each other to create a resilient and sustainable economy and environment. Over the years, many times, the selfish economy have borrowed our ideas to advance their personal goals. Today, the investor class corrupts the very concept of being a good neighbor by using the noble concept of community to extract wealth in a one-way relationship. Cooperatives have always offered an alternative to the selfish economy but have generally operated under the radar. We need to stop doing that. We need to quit being the world’s best kept secret. We need to claim the “sharing economy” as the “cooperative economy”.

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!

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.

Visibility

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.

Impact

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.

Growth

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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