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.

September 25, 2015

Worker Development Brings a Better World

Filed under: Human Relations,Pensimientos,Reflections,Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:17 am

REFLECTION NO. 276

Work is the attribute that gives a person the highest honor of being a cooperator of God in the transformation and fertilization of nature and in the resulting promotion of human well-being. That people exercise their faculty of work in union with others and in a noble regime of cooperation and solidarity, gives them not only nobility, but also the optimal fertility to make every corner of the earth a mansion that is agreeable and promising for all. This is what work communities are for and it is them who are destined to make our people progress.


 

Work, in the modern era, may be seen as, and often is, as a drudgery. This is, I think, because work rarely has meaning for the individual (unless they are lucky enough to be in a profession). The effect of scientific managment (Taylorism) has been to deskill work to the point that there is little for workers to care about. It is an assembly line world and without ownership, it is no wonder that many feel like a cog in the machine. It places the individual worker alone and only motivated by self-interest.

Arizmendiarrieta saw work as an enobling act through worker ownership. It was a means to an end and the end was a fully developed human and community that would, in turn usher in world of peace and harmony. In acting in unision, collectively, people not only prosper but care for the environment in which they live. The pursuit of wealth includes a healthy ecological enviroment in which all prosper together. Lofty goals to be sure.

Today, Pope Francis, hit similar a theme in his speech to the United Nations. He said, “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prduential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our pland and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women whove, struggle and suffer and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.” 

He also quoted his predescessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The econoligical crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. the baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismangement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for walth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflction on man: ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Mand does not create himself. He is a spirit and will, but also nature.’ Creation is compromised ‘where we ourselves have the final word. . . the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognizes any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'”

There are, of course, many contradictions within the Catholic church and the Co-operative movement. Despite the lofty values of solidarity, social responsiblity and caring for others, many co-operatives do not engage them. Even Mondragon, has its troubles from time to time. Likewise, co-operatives are willing to engage in unsustainable ecological practices as well.

The words of Arizmendiarrieta, on the hundreth annivesary of his birth, resonate today because his work is not done. As Pope Francis concludes his visit to the US, on the even of National Co-operative Month, it is worth taking into account the nature of co-operation and how our co-operative movment, especially the worker co-operative movement engages our values and principles. Are we just about “getting to scale” or do we want to create a just and ecologically sustainble world that allow workers dignity and opporutnity for growth?

 

September 24, 2015

We do not live alone, but in co-operation

REFLECTION NO. 42

There is something in the depths of the human spirit that is firm and eternal. And there is also something that needs to be moving towards a new and superior expansion, in consonance with the interior and social regeneration of human beings. It is for this reason that their social achievements must reflect this transformation.

 


I missed yesterday, but also took the time to read the transcript of Pope Francis’ speech to the American people through their elected representatives in Congress this morning.

In his praise of the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis said, quoting Laudato Si which he published this Spring:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation an distribution of wealth. The right of natural resources, the proper allocation of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of the enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. ‘Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.’ . . . Now  is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and an ‘integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Co-operation does seek to build financial wealth among its members, but it also strives for community wealth and social wealth. It operates within the values of solidarity and mutual self-help to build sustainable economic systems that bring all of the members of the community up together without destroying the physical environment upon which our collective economic and human lives depend.

I have seen many in the co-op world (especially in the worker co-op community) see the model as just another form of capitalism and that the only metrics that matter on the financial bottom line. However, co-operation is perhaps the most inefficient at maximizing personal wealth. Its aim, from the beginning, is to have a social bottom line.

The co-operative movement cannot stop at creating financial wealth, it must also reach the human and help them connect with their community to see that the financial wealth is, in our socio-economic model, a benevolent side-effect of the main effect of creating a community based on dignity for the human and respect for the world that provides its resources so that we can flourish.

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.

October 7, 2013

Be the Change You Want to See

Bob Cannell presented some challenging ideas about the nature worker cooperation in the English-speaking world last week. He noted the disparity in the rise of worker owned and controlled businesses in Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina and a number of other countries that he deemed “Latin”. What cultural barriers exist in our Anglo-Saxon based cultures that prevent the sort of acceptance of worker ownership.

I don’t want to suggest that this post is a “response” to Bob in the sense that I am providing a counter argument. I, too, see the disparity. I think that it is a good place to have a discussion because too often I see that the idea of worker ownership is a tool that may community organizers want to use, but they don’t seem to see worker control as being part of the deal. This allows social structures that might improve job and working conditions, but don’t teach workers how to engage in a democracy. There are some reasons for that, and ultimately, it is what separates the Latin/Anglo-Saxon views of work and humanity. These differences create limitations and I offered a discussion on this topic a couple of years ago in a post-entitled Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon.

Of course, each cooperative has its own unique spot in history. Mondragon was aided, to a large degree, by the Falangist Party in that the country was isolated from the world and the workers of Mondragon were not seen as a threat to the fascists in the way that the anarchists of Barcelona and the Communist Party in southern Spain were seen to be. In Italy, the coops managed to navigate Mussolini’s world and WWII and came out strong enough to create a legal framework for their existence. All that aside, Bob’s discussion of culture is one that we must address. We cannot depend on market failure and depression to build our movement.

Schism

A key difference that needs to be discussed is that the Reformation divorced a certain segment of Europe from the Catholic Church. The English Reformation (with their allies in the Netherlands and Belgium) occurred just a couple of hundred years prior to the rise of capitalism. This meant that Europeans who largely rejected or ignored the teachings of the Catholic Church took over North America displacing the existing civilizations. While I don’t consider myself to be religious, I do recognize that the Catholic Church has played and will continue to play a key role in cooperative development. Rerum Novarum, the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor created the basis of the distributist movement and led its expression in the form of the Antigonish Movement, Mondragon, and liberation theology promoted South American priests. Written in 1891, Leo XIII expressed official Church support for labor unions, but more importantly dignity in work and the ability of working men and women to be able to better themselves intellectually, spiritually and financially through mutual self-help and self-responsibility and solidarity—three values of the modern Cooperative Identity. Of course, Rerum Novarum as a response to the growing popularity of socialism that threatened the holding private property and the Catholic Church had and has a lot of private property.

Father Jimmy Thomson and Father Moses Coady led the Antigonish Movement in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (the area still has a strong Acadian population of native French speaking Canadians). In Spain, Don Arizmenidaretta led Mondragon and his writings clearly espouse the teaching of Leo XIII. The use of worker cooperatives by the Sandinistas (Nicaragua) and Chavez  (Venezuela) revolutions come directly out of Rerum Novarum and liberation theology. Even today, Catholic organizations work diligently to promote cooperatives world-wide.

Work, in the English experience is not held to the same standard or is seen as a communal act. Neither is commerce. The origins of the word “competition” came from rivalry between merchant classes of Italy. Cum Petere, according to cooperative economists Stefano and Vera Zamagni, expressed the desire of the merchants of one city to work together in competition against other cities (Milan vs. Florence, for example). The Reformation changed this concept and made the individual owner, not society the center of one’s efforts. Roy Jacques argues in his work, Manufacturing the Employee, that pre-industrial US saw employment as either a means to become an owner or a personal failure of the individual. By the end of the 19th Century, the ideas of Scientific Management (Taylorism) were starting to take hold in the US, Canada and the UK, which infantilized workers leaving them untrusted for either ownership or control.

Thus the divide between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures has led to different concepts of worker ownership and control. I think that the difference results from a lack of ideological, if not spiritual, basis for the value of work. This allows many in the US to see ESOPs as equivalent to worker cooperatives. It allows well-meaning affluent social workers to create worker coops in name but with structures that limit worker control. The infantilization of the US worker has become so deeply embedded in our culture that many workers may not even be able to emotionally handle ownership without significant training on what that really means or worse, people may actually believe that workers cannot emotionally handle ownership.

I will be focusing primarily on the US experience. This is because of another schism that took place in 1783. When the United States divorced themselves from the United Kingdom, they also forsook common law that dates back to the Magna Carta. This has played out in a country in which work and labor is largely devalued. The role of Common Law may be a minor one, but it does have an effect as the number of “right to work” states and “at will employment” states continues to grow. In terms of Union households, the US is hovering around 9%–one of the the lowest of OECD nations (lower than South Korea) while Canada and the UK hang in at 32 and 33 per cent respectively. The US, in its puritan, Jacksonsian democracy simply doesn’t value labor unless it is one’s own personal labor. The American Dream is a solitary one.

So What Do We Do About This?

As a movement, we need to talk about repowerment not “empowering” people. How is that different? I see repowerment as developing the sense within today’s working class that they have power and that power isn’t something given to them by benevolent wealthy people it is something that they already have and they need to use it. Repowerment means seeing ownership as something that has, to a large extent, been stolen from the working class by the employing class (or investing class). The infantilization of the modern worker through Scientific Management (Taylorism) and Human Relations (Taylorism with Mayo) is a leftover effect of slavery and indentured servitude that creates a culture of workers that don’t believe that they are capable of managing their own affairs.

Culture change needs to be front and center in our movement. We need to create the ideological, if not spiritual, basis for worker ownership as we organize workers. We can do this by working with like-minded groups such as pro-worker coop labor unions such as the US Steelworkers. We need to create a consistent message that the worker coop movement isn’t just about decent jobs, it is about creating human dignity and allowing workers to reach their full potential as a human being.

To some extent this may mean pushing back a bit on those seeking to use the worker cooperative model in community organizing. We need to hold them to standards of worker control as well as ownership while also providing the tools to help teach worker control.  Some may see this as being too ideological, but if we simply allow worker cooperation to be co-opted by ESOP style models (in which control stays in the hands of a super board, social workers, or an investing class), then we will be relegated to being a small movement.

Bob suggests that we can expand our movement if we can find governance models that make sense to the Anglo-Saxon mindset. However, given the population trends in the United States, I think that we would do better to change the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Due to globalization and post-colonial migration, our societies are becoming much less monolithic and mono-cultural. The era of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the world has been relatively short-lived, maybe 150 years and in the US the Anglo-Saxon culture may become a minority culture within the next fifty years. Fortunately, one aspect of Anglo-Saxon mindset is the ability to quickly adapt and appropriate other culture’s norms.

Worker Coops and Labor Unions

One of the great opportunities for a cultural shift is occurring right now. As the US labor movement comes to realize that the tiny box known as the National Labor Relations Act (aka The Wagner Model) no longer holds that full potential of organizing workers in a factory-less economy, it is also seeking repowerment by redefining what it means to be a labor union in the United States.

Labor Unions have already attempted the ESOP model only to see some fairly massive failures (United Airlines, for example). They are also seeing a shifting labor movement in terms of language, cultures and industry. In many areas, worker cooperatives and labor unions are working among the same group of workers. The experiment of the US Steelworkers and Mondragon shouldn’t end there. The Mondragon model works for Basque culture but it can’t be simply transplanted onto US workers. We need to create our own model built on our own culture and the first thing to do is to start defining that culture by working with groups to demonstrate that repowerment will be stronger than empowerment. A number of these ideas have already been put into motion due to the determined opportunism (the good kind) of the US worker coop leadership; however, we also need to develop a consistent message that goes beyond “teaching people to fish”, we need to say that worker control doesn’t just feed people’s bodies, but there minds and spirits as well. We aren’t just interested in decent jobs, but in creating a strong society of fully-realized human beings who will be present in their lives and create sustainable health communities. We don’t want a nice playground (workplace) for children (workers). If our worker coops don’t have the ability to make stupid decisions and learn from them then it is just another playground.

Some practical steps:

  • Read Arizmendiaretta’s Pensamientos
  • The US Federation of Workers Cooperatives should consider joining the AFL-CIO when that membership becomes available;
  • Attend and participate at events such as Jobs with Justice to promote the worker ownership and worker control model of worker cooperation (I’ll be in Detroit for one such meeting on October 19).
  • Work with groups such as Interfaith Center for Worker Justice to promote worker cooperatives.
  • Within our cooperatives, take the time to teach about the coops that have successfully flattened their hierarchy or engage real control over the workplace (i.e. they don’t hire a non-member manager to tell them what to do).

Don’t be afraid of a secular spirituality or even a religious spirituality. No one is asking anyone to convert.

Of course, before we can change the culture, we need to agree that it needs changing and on what to change it to. Without having conversations such as the one started by Bob Cannell, we will continue to operate within the Anglo-Saxon paradigm that privileges consumerism over labor.

Workers, in the United States and perhaps in the UK, Canada and other WASP dominated nations have allowed themselves to be defined by the employer which has created an infantilized workforce unable to function without a parental manager leading the way. It is a sick culture that usurps our humanity. If we really want to see our movement grow, it needs a cultural basis (if not an ideological basis) that makes it more than just another arrow in an organizer’s quiver.

June 11, 2012

Sensemaking in Worker Cooperatives

Filed under: Education,Pensimientos — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 12:36 pm

For my theory class, I am currently reading a classic article on sensemaking in organizations: “The Collapse of Sensemaing in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster” by Karl Wieck

The article reviews Norman McLean’s “Young Men and Fire” and theorizes about the breakdown of organization among the 15 smoke jumpers that led to the death of 13 of them.

It struck me as a timely article as many of our co-operatives have started to embrace a new economic environment that fundamentally changes our sense of place in the world. This is especially true in states that have proceeded to follow in the steps of, to use Naomi Klein’s excellent word, “disaster capitalism” or the “shock doctrine.” Just as the firefighters in 1949 found themselves in a situation that no longer made sense with their expectations, the changes to the role of government and its relation to the economy have created a new reality that needs different perspectives. There is a key paragraph in Wieck’s article that I find especially pertinent, it references one of the key assumptions of the smokejumpers that the fire being attacked was a small brush fire that could be easily contained by 10:00 am the next morning–it turned out, due to winds, weather and terrain to be something much bigger:

“The crew’s stuborn belief that it faced a 10:00 fireis a powerful reminder that positive illusions (Taylor, 1989) can kill people. But the more general point is that organizations can be good at decision making and still falter. They falter because of deficient sensemaking. The world of decision making is about strategic rationality. . .Sensemaking is about contextual rationality. . . People in Mann Gulch did not face questions like where should we go, when do we take a stand, or what should our strategy be? Instead, they faced the more basic, the more frightening feeling that their old labels were no longer working. They were outstripping their experience and were not sure either what was up or who they were.”

This cause paralysis, fear, and ultimately very bad decisions by individuals which ended their lives. Our co-operatives are not facing forest fires, however, we are facing a changing economy. Wieck’s lesson is that we need to do more than follow through the rote of strategic planning. We need to engage in collective sensemaking as well. As we get pushed out of our comfort zones, we need to try to re-align our senses.

I think that this is something that worker co-operatives may have an advantage in dealing with. We tend to, as Roy Morrison quotes the Mondragon members, “build the road as we travel.” We have, as a movement, a culture of innovating, making do, and generally trying to negotiate an economy that doesn’t really get us. To do so, however, means resisting the tendency towards conservatism and isomorphism within our resepective industries. “Our co-operatives must primarily serve those who see them as bastions of social justice and not to those that see cooperatives as refuges or safe places for their conservative spirit” ( Don José María Arizmendiaretta, Reflections, 461)

 

January 16, 2012

All Work Has Value

Filed under: Pensimientos,Worker Rights — John McNamara @ 10:46 am

On Martin Luther King, jr. Day, one the administrators of Union Cab’s facebook page posted this quote:

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Memphis Sanitation Strike, April 3, 1968

Dr. King was murdered the day after giving this speech. It is a great sentiment from a great leader. One perfect for today. Of course, the sanitation strike was about more than labor, it was also about human dignity and the continued efforts to force the south of the United States to shed its racist past. It was also part of Dr. King’s recognition that the issues facing America were more than racism, but that class and global economics played a role in the oppression being felt in Memphis.

It reminds me of a quote from another great leader: Don Arizmendiaretta. His translates roughly as:

“The world has not been given to us simply to contemplate it but to transform it and this transformation is not accomplished only with our manual labor but with first with ideas and action plans.”

and

“The human person that proceeds to cultivate his or her ideas with the only objective of being productive, insensibly and fatally, becomes a slave to the productive machine.”

It is not uncommon, I have found, in our larger worker cooperatives for the division of labor to breed animosity and distrust. This is especially true when it involves those workers who either have cultivated their skills and talents, or simply have an affinity for managing the governance of the organization.  Because we come from a larger economic community where the role of the “boss” is suspect, it seems easy for us to distrust anyone in our cooperatives who might actually take on some of the necessary tasks look like the work of the boss. I don’t know how many times I have heard the tired analogy from Animal Farm expressed whenever a worker is upset with a decision of the board or a committee (I generally wonder if the person making the comment has actually read the book or has merely memorized the Cold War anti-communist mantra).

The point of all of this is that all work has value. As Dr. King points out to the sanitation workers, it doesn’t matter the job may be, it has dignity and worth. Ironically, it is a lesson that we often need to re-learn in our co-ops (which often tend to be in the small job industries). The members who engage in planning and moving the co-operative towards its goals and vision, should earn just as much dignity and worth as those who operate in the revenue producing segment.

I think that both Dr. King and Don Arizmendiaretta would agree that, at the heart of it all, all work is worthy of dignity and worth because it is performed by human beings. It is really the human, that makes work worthy and dignified. In a world that determines success by the bottom line, that point gets lost quickly; however, in our co-operatives (which exist specifically to create human and dignified workplaces), it must be embraced.

August 22, 2011

The Open Door Policy of Worker Co-operatives

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

The 6th Principle of Co-operatives is called, somewhat reflexively, “Co-operation Among Co-operatives.” I have talked about this in a previous post. Today, I want to focus on it from a different perspective provided to us by the spiritual guide of Mondragon, Father Arizmendiaretta. He wrote: “It is risky to make each co-operative into a closed world.We have to think of the inter-cooperative solidarity as the only solution to other problems of growth and maturity. We must think about a vital space appropriate to our circumstances.” (Reflections, 488)

In difficult economic times, it is tempting to close our doors and focus internally. Sometimes the argument is made that very survival of the co-operative is at stake. This is exactly the wrong time to close doors. It is the most important time to open them. It is only through solidarity that we find our strength as workers. This is true to for the entire labor movement whether they are using the traditional Wagner labor union (in the west) and social labor unions elsewhere, or the collective and cooperative model. We need each other to survive. Don’t think that the people who actually control the economy don’t know this–they engage in their own form of solidarity and destroy ours. They take great pains to convince our fellow workers to act against their class interest.

We need to engage each other more than at the regional, national and international conferences; however, these are important events. These events help us to start talking and formulating the physical structures that we will need to make cooperation among cooperatives more than a marketing tool. Why is that important? Look at the so-called P6 Cooperative Trade Movement. It sounds nice. It sounds co-op. It even uses the .coop internet suffix. But notice how the definition turns the co-operative movement into something else–the way that a product gets a P6 designation isn’t by being produced by a co-operative:

“Any P6 member can nominate products that meet at least 2 of our 3-point criteria:

  1. Small farmer or producer
  2. Locally grown or produced
  3. From a co-operative or non-profit organization”

Under this concept, privately owned farms (and what constitutes a small farmer or producer) or locally grown products  have an equivalence with co-operatives. More importantly, non-profits, which are notoriously undemocratic, have an equal stature with co-operatives. While this may work as a marketing tool for the food co-ops and the coffee roaster (a worker co-op) involved, it unnecessarily waters down the co-operative identity which, in the long run, allows Nestle and other corporations to easily co-opt the movement by creating non-profits to compete (and even join the P6 movement) with bona fide co-operatives. In my community, each and every one of my co-operative’s competitors would qualify despite not being a co-op.

The P6 model works for the consumer co-op world (and those providing it with goods) despite its inherent flaws; however, what should worker co-ops do to promote solidarity amongst ourselves in a way that builds our movement not sow the seeds of our destruction? Here are a few ideas:

  • Join your apex organization: in the United States, it is the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. In Canada, it is the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation.
  • Get involved in your organization: form work groups, communicate with directors, ask them to speak at your co-operative meetings.
  • Join the Worker Co-operative Federal Credit Union (unchartered). This has an incredible potential for our movement. When a worker co-operative joins, then all of its members may join as well. This could become our Caja Popular Laboral.
  • Shop Worker Co-op: I can tell you that I only buy Worker Co-op Coffee (Just Coffee and Equal Exchange). In Madison, I can buy worker co-op bread and granola, shop at a worker co-op pharmacy (Community Pharmacy), support a worker collective community supported radio station (WORT-FM), buy books from a multi-stakeholder bookstore (Rainbow Bookstore Coop).
  • Join your local network of worker co-operatives or help to create one.
  • Work with the WCFCU and local, regional and national networks to create a solidarity fund. Imagine if the 80 member co-ops of the US Federation committed 10% of their annual surplus to a solidarity fund and another 10% to a development fund as the Mondragon co-operatives do? Our co-ops would be able to navigate the tough times and take advantage of development funds to expand when the market beckons.

The co-operative community sees solidarity at a value. Workers see solidarity as a value, but also as an integral part of building a better world. We don’t support each other because we want to make money or define a difference between us and Whole Foods. We support each other because we are trying to build a better world, because we are engaged in social transformation and because, ultimately, our movement (whether you consider it part of the labor movement or the co-operative movement) is ultimately about the individual humans in our lives and helping each other to survive and expand, not just be cooler capitalists.

June 27, 2011

Worker Co-ops Have a Moral Purpose

Filed under: Pensimientos — John McNamara @ 5:55 am

“There can never be great works without people giving generously and without them sacrificing their selfish appetites” ( Reflections, 134)

When times are good, it is easy to co-operate. When times are bad, co-operatives offer economic lifeboats. Unfortunately, not everyone in the lifeboat really gets co-operation. One of the downsides of the worker co-operative world is that we never seem to have the time to raise people’s consciousness. Thus, we often run the risk of becoming the oppressors that we overthrew.

Note to readers: my two-month sojourn in Halifax ends on International Co-operative Day (July 2nd) and I will be returning to Wisconsin (or what is left of it). I will attempt to get more regular posting done.

“Those who are selfish and those who are individualistic are the fifth column of co-operatives.” (Reflections, 136)

Co-operation is more than simply a means of working without a “boss”, it is an educational movement of the highest order in that it seeks to transform the individual worker from a mere “hand” or tool of the capitalist to a fully realized human being. The path between the two polarities is difficult partially because our society organized to have workers as tools and the wealthy as fully realized humans. This means that we must build the road as we travel. Sometimes, as the quotes above suggests, it seems that we must become saints in order to be co-operative.

We don’t need to join St. Ignatius, however, we do need to be circumspect. We live in a society that is based on greed and the exploitation of other people. Despite any religious upbringing, it is how we have been socialized and how our institutions have been constructed. We aren’t going to change these things overnight. Yet, we must try to make progress. Otherwise, what is the point of this movement?

We need to challenge each other on selfish needs just as we would demand that nobody hoard water in a lifeboat. It means reading the fine print–is the proposal being put forward designed to help everyone in the co-operative or create a system of winners and losers? This is the opposite of what is currently taking place in the world outside of our co-operatives. In my state, Wisconsin, it seems that the rule of the day has been to ransack the government for the good of a few (to even ignore the law). This tide will sink most boats, not raise them. It is very easy for us, as people living in the context of our societies, to model the behavior that we see in our elected officials. We even learn to speak in terms of “business” and “bottom lines” and how important the “budget” must be; but we must go beyond that.

“A healthy society is one in which one lives according to his or her own merits and where it becomes more and more difficult to live at the expense of others.” (Reflections, 443)

We don’t need to be saints, but co-operatives are moral organizations. They are societies (and even called that in the United Kingdom). By our existence we are working to create a better world. For those that aren’t interested in this aspect, there is a whole wide world already built to your desires.

June 13, 2011

It Is Okay to Criticize Co-ops, We Know We Aren’t Perfect

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

In thumbing through Don José María Arizmendiaretta’s book of reflections (Pensamientos), I came across a neat quote regarding the value of criticism and acknowledging that co-operatives do not ensure perfection.

“We do not apologize for shortcomings that may be pointed out to us. We are on the way. We appreciate those who make us take conscience of our defects and also our lack of fidelity to some principles that we have taken as ours. Seeing ourselves as weak and powerless, but not disloyal to the cause of work and social justice, we ask all to help us.”

It isn’t uncommon to hear critics of our co-operatives (especially the consumer owned co-operatives) find some act on our part and cry foul. This charge always puts us on the defensive, but it hurts even more when the attack comes from within our co-operatives.

It usually begins with anger at a certain action and then broadening the meaning of that action to a failure of the co-operative (in terms of its principles) and even a failure of the entire movement as an alternative to the capitalist market economy. It depends on deeming our co-operatives, its leaders, or even its membership as hypocrites. The attack, however, is usually solipsistic at best and disingenuous at worst.

Of course we aren’t going to be perfect! First, we are humans who by our nature and limited knowledge of the world and events cannot know or contain all of the information to make the most perfect decision every time. Of course, the idea of “perfection” is, in itself, a social construction. It is quite honest and possible for members of a co-operative to have a legitimate disagreement over a strategy within the principles of the co-operative movement. They can vehemently disagree and even be diametrically opposed without being “wrong” and both positions may still be within the concept of the co-operative principles.

Secondly, our co-operatives do not exist in a vacuum or in a world in which co-operatives are the only business model. Why I won’t go so far as to argue that we can’t have socialism in only one country (or co-operation in only one workplace), we must recognize that the world is aligned against us. This gets to the interesting choice of Arizmendiaretta’s words in referring to our movement as “weak and powerless.” Of course, we aren’t–within our world. However, as recent events in the United States have shown, the power and strength of a single worker co-operative or even a national federation pales in comparison to a single investment group controlled by two brothers. While we would like to control our destiny as Father Coady would urge us, we really only have the power to strategically play in the Koch Brothers’ world. We can strive for and envision a day when it will be our world, we can scratch out small areas that allow us a certain amount of liberty and self-determination, but ultimately we will spend our energy reacting to the dominant capitalist class that we compete against.

In that struggle, we will make unpopular decisions. Some will be to survive another day, others will be to plant the seeds of revolution for a future not yet born, and others will be caused by the lure, and dominance of the capitalist myth. Like the Sirens calling to Odysseus, this call can be devastating to our co-operatives, however, we have a secret weapon to overcome it.

We criticize–we have open meetings, we have honest discussions. We criticize each other and hopefully we do so from a position of wanting to help our co-operatives succeed, not from egotistical battles of who is more co-operative than whom. By engaging in honest critique, by listening to our harshest critics, we can become stronger and use our values and principles to build an even better economy.

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