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

May 12, 2017

Greg MacLeod’s Legacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 9:33 am

This morning the Canadian Association for Studies in Co-operation sent out a notice (below). For those of us in the Master’s program at St. Mary’s we knew his work From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development (1997), which provided a major update to the Whyte’s Making Mondragon and Morrison’s We Build the Road as We Travel. He was one of the first to bridge the Atlantic and discuss how that Basque experiment could be brought to these shores.

In Memoriam: Dr. Greg MacLeod

The Canadian Association for Studies in Co-operation/L’Association Canadienne pour les Études sur la Coopération (CASC/ ACÉC) mourns the May 3, 2017, loss of a great co-operator, friend, priest, academic, and activist, Dr. Greg MacLeod, who leaves a remarkable legacy of innovative institutions and actions based on both Christian social teachings and principled entrepreneurial thinking within and beyond his beloved Cape Breton.

Ordained a Catholic priest in 1961, Greg MacLeod was a founding member of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Xavier College, where he started teaching in 1963. After completing doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium, he went to Oxford University for post-doctoral studies before returning to teach at Xavier College in 1969.

He was among leaders who worked hard to transform Xavier Junior College into the University College of Cape Breton (now Cape Breton University [CBU]) and to promote Mi’kmaq studies there. He retired from the university in 2001, although his remarkable work ethic and commitment to action remained unabated even in his final days. As recently as April 2017 he added TriCouncil funding to the $1 million he had already earned.

When Cape Breton faced an uncertain future with declining fish stocks and the closure of coal mines in the 1960s, Father Greg mobilized resources in the university and in the community and galvanized people to build capacity and ensure economic resilience and sustainable livelihoods for community members.

Founder and former director of the Tompkins Institute for Human Values and Technology at CBU, a leading authority on community economic development, member of the Order of Canada, and recipient of honorary degrees from Dalhousie University, The Atlantic School of Theology, and Saint Francis Xavier University, Greg MacLeod was a long-time friend and supporter of CASC/ACÉC.

He was winner of the 2011 CASC Award of Merit—a surprise for Greg who had just presented his keynote address on how throughout his career he had managed contradictions and divisions concerning social economic reform: “Theory versus Practice”; “Idealism versus Pragmatism”; “Profit making business versus non-profit business,” and so on. He wanted both to change the world and make a difference at the local level; he was an academic who would become an activist for the benefit of the community, putting theory into practice.

The award was presented to Dr. MacLeod at the CASC-ANSER banquet on June 2, 2011, by his good friend Ian MacPherson who concluded, “You cannot separate Greg from Cape Breton. He is as much a person of place as anyone I know. His commitment to his community and to the island where it is found enfolds his life’s work.” When Cape Breton faced “a crisis of economics,” it was also “a crisis of ethics and values” for this “chief modernizer of the theories of economic and social development associated with the Antigonish Movement.”

In support of his community work, Dr. MacLeod founded BCA Community Venture Finance Group, a CED investment fund that raised over $2 million in community investment, and New Dawn Enterprises, Canada’s oldest community economic development corporation and founding member of the Canadian CED Network. In 1983, he founded New Deal in Sydney Mines, Greg’s hometown where some of his family still lives, “to come up with new approaches,” as he put it, “suited to community survival in the future by designing new ways of doing business.” New Deal is involved with many projects including the development of several housing co-ops.

Committed to local ownership and control, he was a champion of place-based development.

Greg’s publications include From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development (1998) about the worker-owned industrial co-operative based in Spain, and New Age Business: Community Corporations that Work (1986). Influential in Mexico and around the world, his work has been translated into Spanish, Japanese, and Korean.
Today, the legacy of Dr. Greg MacLeod is clear not only in the institutions he founded but in the CBU’s Master of Business Administration program based on his research on community economic development as well as in the ongoing commitment of CBU faculty engaged in “community-oriented research” with the Tomkins Institute, a laboratory and incubator for alternative models of the social economy.

Greg MacLeod, his energy, ethic, and vision, will be sorely missed.

August 26, 2016

Silver Tsunami or Rogue Wave?

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 10:47 am

Darren Dahl recently published an op-ed in Forbes about the prospect of converting small business to worekr co-ops as the owners seek retirement. I have seen similar articles, some publiches by the Democracy at Work Institute as part of their research on the movement. I also use to see this as a potential tsunami of worker co-op development that would catapult the worker co-op movement by adding hundreds if not thousands of worker co-ops into the economy. I have since changed my mind, after a couple years of doing development work. The following are my comments posted previously on LinkedIn:

The issue here, for me, is that people are making a lot of assumptions about this moment (and I used to do so as well). First, there are a reported 10,000 people retiring every day and only a small, small fraction of them are the single owners of businesses. Small business owners (and I have worked with a lot of them), tend to not have the 65 and I’m out mindset. Their business is part of their identity so the stage of selling is much later than normal retirement. That is one difference from the tsunami. Here are some other things that I don’t think that grand poobahs of the co-op movement haven’t truly considered:

  1. The business, especially those in depopulating rural communities, may only be surviving based on the cheap labor of the owner. If the owner is working 40-80 hours a week to keep the store open, the workers might not be able to afford covering those hours with market-level (or even) minimum wages (let alone if the owners did their own bookkeeping or had other specialized skills that would require a much higher wage).
  2. The workers might not actually want to own the converted business. The job might be a Plan B job (or even Plan C or D in this economy). Adding the duties of ownership to a low-wage crappy job (in the eye of the beholder of course), doesn’t really create a conversion strategy in my opinion.
  3. The owner might really have an overinflated view of the value of their business reflecting in an outlandish sale price. In this case, I think that the ethical thing would be for the workers (those who want to become owners) would be to start a competing venture from scratch.

I can think of real-life examples for all three of the scenarios that I put forward. I’m not saying that conversions shouldn’t be explored–of course they should! They should especially be explored if the business has an iconic or social status within the community; however, just because there is a massive aging of the working population at this moment, and an expected transfer of capital as the aging die, doesn’t mean that the opportunity for conversion is necessarily growing with it. I’m basically just saying that conversions are going to happen, but it isn’t going to be a gold rush.

January 7, 2016

Values Go Before the Fall

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 12:19 pm

A shudder may have run through the taxicab industry today at Yellow Cab of San Francisco in the SF Examiner announced plans to file for bankruptcy.

The news was especially scary since General Motors just invested heavily in Lyft while Ford is in talks with Google (a major shareholder of Uber).

The case of Yellow Cab, however, it different. It points to a rather large failing that I have seen in many of the taxi cab co-ops that have popped up in the last decade. These co-ops, while billed as “worker co-ops” act more like producer co-ops. The drivers remain independent contractors and the co-op is more of a shared-services model. In the case of Yellow Cab, I understand that joining is difficult and long heard rumblings that non-member drivers get treated much differently than member drivers. While those are the rumors or thoughts from the industry (take it for what its worth), it is clear to me that many of the cab co-ops miss their best opportunity to compete with Uber and Lyft by failing to promote their co-operative identity.

In the case of SF Yellow Cab, they identify as a co-operative. That is great, but they don’t explain what this means to the passenger. As the story notes, there seem to be, in addition to the competition, a serious problem with accidents at Yellow. Shouldn’t a worker coop be at the top of the safety chart? I would think so.

Shouldn’t a worker coop be at the top of the safety chart? I would think so.

I also think that there marketing should be helping consumers understand the value of doing business with a co-op. How workers in a worker-owned co-op enjoy better working conditions and can participate in the decision-making process. This should mean that the needs of the customer can be relayed back into the organization.

These ideas, of course, are part of the Co-operative Identity. Caring for Others, Social Responsibility and Concern for the Environment. Worker Co-ops need to help consumers see and feel the competitive advantage.

Another general value that all of the taxi coops seem to miss in their battle with Uber and Lyft is solidarity. It seems as though every taxi co-op has their own app and on-line ordering service now, but what they miss is that people don’t want to have 20 different taxi apps on their phone. There are enough taxi coops out there to have a national app that would cover the Bay Area, Philly, Denver, Portland, Nashville, DC-Metro, and Madison, yet as far as I can tell, none of these co-ops are talking to each other.

Although the greater threat to worker-owned taxi cab fleets may be driverless cars, to survive long enough to manage that transition, they need to start working together nationally and creating a concept of domestic fair trade that puts the cooperative identity front and center. For some of these co-ops, it might require that they embrace the co-opeative identity beyond putting the word “co-op” on the side of the cab.

June 30, 2014

Supreme Court Creates the Partial Public Employee

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

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

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

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

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


May 28, 2014

How Do We Measure Coops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 19, 2014

Conference Season Starts

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 9, 2013

Education’s Role

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

I recently celebrated (well, maybe “experienced” is a better word) my twenty-fifth anniversary at my cooperative. In 1988, I was looking for a way to make money until I hit grad school. I was seriously tired of bar tending (it really isn’t the job for an introvert personality and neither Madison, nor the bars that I worked at, we known for good tipping practices). Instead, I decided to drive a cab and further decided that I would like to see what a worker owned company was like. Obviously, since I’ve been there for 25 years, it can’t have been too onerous.

Worker cooperatives offer a lot. They are even enjoying a certain amount of prestige these days as they have been discovered by academics such as Richard Wolff and Gar Alperovitz. They success of worker coops across industry have renewed a debate in this country about work, liberty and democracy. We certainly deserve to be at the table. The ideal of collective ownership goes all the way back to Jefferson and his vision of the yeoman farmer.

I often wonder why we aren’t more numerous. In recent weeks, I engaged in a discussion on some of the cultural issues regarding this. However, there is more too it that that. Part of our problem, as a movement, is due to our own shortcomings. Primarily, we fail to educate each other. More so, we fail to push ourselves to challenge the way that we do business. What I mean by this is that we ultimately fail to engage in education of ourselves and our fellow members and too often simply adopt industry standards and “best practices” as the only viable means of running our business.

I don’t mean, of course, the larger movement. The US Federation, the Democracy at Work Institute, Democracy at Work Network, and Cooperationworks! have committed to education about the cooperative model. Unfortunately, too often those lesson don’t get inside the actual cooperatives. It is in the cooperatives that education tends to take a second seat (or third) to operations and the crisis of the moment. This may be a “big” coop problem (coops with more than 100 workers), but I think it is a general problem (and I recognize that some coops do have extensive education programs). People engage the coop model for our personal reasons (lifestyle, politics, etc), and cooperatives tend to bring people in for the needs of the organization. Hopefully, the more inspired coops see propagating the cooperative model as one of their needs.

Education in a worker coop should go beyond job training. It should go beyond a class to understand financial statements or the basic operations of the coop. It should promote the history of the movement. It should challenge financial statements as a means of perpetuating a particular economic model. Is health care an expense or an owner benefit? Terms such as “efficiency”, “productivity” and “quality of life” need to be broken down and redefined for worker owned business. What is the meaning of being an “owner” in a worker coop? I often hear members say that someone doesn’t have to attend meeting to be any owner just do a good job. What does “doing a good job” mean as an worker-owner?

We need to take the time to explore these issues. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of measuring ourselves against our competitors and the race to the bottom begins.



November 18, 2013

Ian MacPherson ¡Presenté!

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 12:57 pm

This morning I, and the rest of the international cooperative community, received news that Ian MacPherson had passed on. The Canadian Association for the Studies in Cooperation (CASC) issued an appreciation of his life (see below).

I had the opportunity to meet Ian in 2007 at a combined conference of CASC, the Association of Cooperative Educators (ACE) and the ICA Research Committee in 2007. It was his last conference as chair of the ICA Research Committee. I also met and talked with him at the ICA events in Italy and Oxford. The appreciation by CASC covers his incredible work within the cooperative movement. I would add that his work as a board member of the ICA and specifically his work towards the drafting and approval of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity cannot be over appreciated. He managed to convince an international organization such as the ICA, the largest NGO in the world, to fundamentally change its core definition from the “Rochdale Principles” to the all-encompassing Statement on the Cooperative Identity.

I remember speaking to him about that effort. He told me that the discussion over the meaning of honesty (a cooperative ethical value) within the cooperative context spanned over eight hours. His background paper on the statement helps to suggest all of the nuance of the final document. Please hit the link and read through it–it should be required reading for anyone that wants to understand the cooperative movement beyond the Statement.

One of the qualities that I noticed in Ian right away was his sense of humor. He was a genuinely funny person who enjoyed a laugh. His humor was never cynical, but he also never seemed to allow himself or others to take “the cooperative movement” too seriously. He always had a gleam in his eye that suggested that however serious the topic on hand may seem, there was a humorous aspect to it. He would have been at home in the Democracy at Work Network which puts a priority on having fun.

Another quality that I saw and heard about over the years was his willingness to welcome new people into the group. Nobody needed to prove themselves to Ian that they belonged. He championed new scholars such as myself and others. I didn’t know him well, but he always seemed to enjoy learning from new voices. He made a point of reaching out to them and welcoming them into the group especially in the social settings where networks are created.

It has been a few years since I have seen Ian mainly because I haven’t been able to attend conferences or have the time at conferences that I would like to have for the socializing. He is a role model for all of us doing this work. Keep the humor, embrace the new folks, and educate.

Ian MacPherson. ¡Presenté!


UPDATE: A website in his honor has been established at

October 21, 2013

Can Coops Bring a Renaissance in Detroit?

Over the weekend, I had the honor of being part of a panel discussing worker cooperatives with the Southeastern Michigan Jobs with Justice organization. About 35-40 people ventured out on a cold rainy day to ask questions and listen to the experiences of myself, a worker from Madison’s Nature’s Bakery, two leaders of the New Era Worker Cooperative and a representative of The Working World.

It was a lively discussion as all three coops developed through slightly different methods, are of different sizes, and have different structures. Despite the differences, we all talked about the difference between ownership and control. There was a commonality in how workers engage as owners to move the business forward. A lot of the discussion focused on the importance of communication, education, and information.

I grew up in Toledo, Ohio which remains part of the larger auto industry. During my high school years, I would make a monthly trip to Port Huron in the summer with a scuba diving club. The members of the club were working men and women from the region (at the AMC plant, and other factories). A large number were union members and the ones that weren’t didn’t really talk about it. Making the drive up I-75 some thirty years later was more than depressing. Starting with the site of the old plant on Willy’s Parkway and all the way to the UAW Vote Center on Livernois Ave, it was a trail of broken concrete, vacant overgrown lots, and crumbling buildings that spoke to a different era of vibrant activity. It felt as if I was travelling through the ruins of a lost civilization.

Behind the scenes is the government of Michigan attempts to force bankruptcy on the City and steal the pensions of city workers. It is a city in a major crisis.

Can the worker coop model help? I think it is possible, but people will need to forget about the Detroit of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In using the cooperative model, the community should focus on the needs that currently aren’t being met (either because of the failure of the State and local government) or the lack of people willing to enter the market without a guaranteed profit. This might include groceries, daycare, and even charter schools using the worker coop model.

In some ways, Detroit provides a great opportunity to build a Mondragon-style” cooperative community. By starting small, and siphoning off development funds and solidarity funds along the way, the cooperatives could start building a larger development fund. With assistance from groups such as The Working World, Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund, and other sources (perhaps some investor angles who don’t mind settling for a 5% return), they could rebuild Detroit as a truly Cooperative City.

One of the key concepts that we spoke about was building sustainable communities. This isn’t about maximizing pay, but creating a decent life with jobs that won’t be shipped to the lowest bidder. It means earning enough to be able to afford good, wholesome food, quality clothes and decent housing. It also means that this generation needs to make a sacrifice to get it started. As the president of the New Era Windows noted, he could have gone to work at O’Hare and made a decent wage, but this struggle is about more than wages, it is about  working with each other to build a strong community. In the end, that will benefit all of us.


September 23, 2013

Unions in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — John McNamara @ 7:30 am

In 2006, Gary Chaison published a book discussing the modern state of labor unions entitled Unions in America. It available from SAGE Publications. Prof. Chaison teaches industrial relations at the Graduate School of Management at Clark University in Worcester, MA.

At 178 pages, the book provides a concise analysis regarding the orgnization of labor unions in the United States including their structure, their governance and administration, their role as bargaining agent and their poltical involvement. He also provides a brief history of labor unions in the United States and finishes with a larger discussion regarding the ability of unions to revive themselves and possible scenarios for the future.

The book published in 2006, a hopeful year as the Labor Unions traditional allies took back the House of Representatives and the 2008 Presidential election looked good for the Democrats after 8 long years of war and economic struggle. One might think that the resulting backlash of the 2010 elections followed by the unprecedented attacks on labor unions in the various statehouses in 2011 would make this book more of a history than something relevant to today, but it isn’t.

The three meaty chapters (roughly 100 pages) that cover the basic identity of labor unions in the U.S. provide a useful primer for anyone who follows the labor movement and wants to understand exactly what labor unions do, how they are organized and how they are regulated under the National Labor Relations Act. Many people may not realize that labor unions are more heavily regulated than the corporations that they negotiate with (at least in terms of electing leaders and managing the home office). The US experience, unlike most other industrialize nations has created a very uneven playing field for labor unions making the US second to last in terms of Union Density and bargaining coverage (only South Korea beats us on bargaining coverage and while France has a lower density, the coverage is over 90% of workers due to their unique system of laws).

Chaison makes some key points that don’t always get included in a journal or newspaper article. The umbrella organization of the AFL-CIO has little power or control over unions –while this group attempts to build strategy and coordinate actions, the unions are quite independent. Within each union, most of the hard work happens at the local level.

For people more familiar with labor unions in the United States, the last two chapters may be more interesting. Chaison examines the needs facing labor unions and estimates that, just to maintain the status quo, the labor movement needs to enlist 1,000,000 new members every year. This accounts for retirements, business failures, bankruptcies, and decertification. The reality is that efforts currently only number about 60,000. Chaison suggests that three futures exist for the modern labor movement: Retreat, Rebound and Renew. The latter two, it is argued, require a paradigm shift in how unions organize and orperate. It means reaching out to ignored sectors, actually invetsting financial and other resources in organizing.

As the cover notes, this book helps put into context the decision of SEIU, Teamsters and other to leave the AFL-CIo (although some have returned such as the UFCW).

The timing of the book’s release  caused it to miss some of the new efforts by unions such as the United Steelworkers and Mondragon and other labor unions’s (mostly at the local level) to affialite and work with worker cooperatives that have occured since publication. At the same time, the 2006 publication also help underscore the fultility of engagine the political establishment reminding us that despite controlling the government for two years, the Democrats failed to deliver some key reforms to assist worker who want to form a union.


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