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

February 13, 2017

Our Worker Co-ops Have a Unique Roll 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 1,436 days (or more). We almost need an individualized strategic plan to manage all of the areas of resistance and 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 and 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 Yellow Cab Co-op in Milwaukee, have only 3-4 owners and hundreds of workers. They use the co-op model to escape double-taxation and should really be  Liability Corp. They don’t engage in the principles or values of co-operation.

The rest of us, the worker co-ops who strive everyday 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 many lessons for how to develop and succeed in a hostile political climate. The first is that when the co-op needs something that it doesn’t produce, and can’t find a decent affordable source, it creates a co-op to meet its need. It relies on the intellectual capital and capacity of its membership. Further, larger co-ops may have people working for them because it is a co-op, not because they want to drive a taxi, provide homecare, or engage in bike delivery. These members provide a great expansion opportunity for the co-op and the movement.

The second lesson of Mondragon is to help 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.

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 US over the next four years might not be the most showy 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. 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 there 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 an into “rural” cities such as Boise, Helena, Salt Lake City, etc.

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 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”.

November 4, 2013

Managing Old Industries: A lesson for aging coops

Filed under: Management — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 12:56 pm

Last week, Mondragon’s General Consul announced that it had decided to cease its efforts to stabilize the FAGOR Cooperative Group. FAGOR electronics makes kitchen appliances: stoves, ovens, refrigerators, and even pressure cookers. It is the original Mondragon cooperative that began life as ULGOR (an acronym consisting of the first letter from the last name of each of the five founders).

Mondragon, for those new to this blog, is a system of hundreds of individual worker cooperatives that link together vertically and horizontally to creation one of the largest corporations in the world. The Mondragon Experience, as they call themselves, includes manufacturing, transportation, retail, k-University education, finance, and even their own social security system that rivals that of Spain and other European nations. FAGOR, itself, is not a single cooperative, but made up of hundreds and it is one of the larger sectors within Mondragon.

When I visited Mondragon in 2007, the warning signs were already present. Mondragon had just negotiated the purchase of Brand Corp, a French “white-appliance” manufacturer. This purchase would make Mondragon the third largest manufacturer of kitchen appliances in the world. Even then, however, they realized that the nature of the industry would only leave room for two, not three.

Part of the problem arises from the aging of the industry of kitchen appliances. The oven, range, and refrigerator have not changed since their inception with the exception of various bells and whistles (self-cleaning, timers, and electronics that can tell you your milk is about to curdle). One could even argue, that the biggest advent in refrigerators occurred when we no longer had to put blocks of ice in the back for cooling. Likewise, the stove and oven’s biggest advance was being able to use electricity or natural gas instead of wood or charcoal. These advances happened during a different century. Old industries are hard to compete within. The main way of competition is reducing costs and the biggest costs are that of labor and transportation. Without a US manufacturing base, FAGOR has little options and spreading its workforce outside of the Basque Country runs against its mission and creates its own problems (as the strike in Poland during 2012 pointed out).

The second problem arises from sentimentality. FAGOR isn’t just any group of cooperatives in the Mondragon experience. It is, literally, the stuff of legends. It is the physical embodiment of the vision of spiritual leader Don Josê Marîa Arizmenidaretta and his five students. It created the foothold that led to the creation of the Caja Labora Popular. Without FAGOR, there would be no Mondragon.  In 2007, we met with members of FAGOR and they seemed resigned to their fate. They knew that the Brand purchase was treading water. I asked about the idea of re-tooling the plants for other products, but that is apparently not an option for reasons that I don’t understand, not knowing the manufacturing industry.

Under Mondragon’s system, each cooperative kicks in about 10% of its surplus to a solidarity fund that then assists struggling cooperatives. Over the last several years, FAGOR has accepted close to 300 million Euros (close to half a billion, US). It seems, from reading the press release, that Mondragon has finally decided to cease life-support for lack of a better word. This will likely bring a process of bankruptcy.

I am uncertain as to how this will effect the workers and their substantial equity in the organization. Each member invests 14,500 Euros. Membership also provides benefits through the system. Hopefully, there will be some ability for workers to move to other areas of Mondragon with their equity. In any event, this will be a painful time for the cooperative.

I also think that it will be an important time for Mondragon planners to learn. This will be the first, but not the last, time that they will need to effectively shut down a industry that has become too old to produce decent jobs. It might provide some lessons about how to transition factories from one industry to another, how to build economic diversity within cooperatives so that as an industry becomes too unproductive, it won’t have such a heavy effect on the group. Most importantly, it might be a good thing to let the founders finally become the past. Mondragon will soon celebrate it 60th anniversary. The retelling of the creation myth will be central to that celebration, but so should the future. Mondragon doesn’t need to rely on”borrowing” designs from other companies, they now have the ability to enter new industries and be a commanding force. Part of learning to let go, involves embracing the new. This might involve reconsidering how the Solidarity Fund is used. Instead of propping up an aging industry, it could be used to retool for the future.

Of course, these are my musings from America. Mondragon is famous for “building the road as they travel” and have a great track record of learning as they go. It will be interesting to see how this story develops.

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.

 

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.

September 30, 2013

Governance of Worker and Producer Cooperatives

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

Earlier this month, I had the honor of representing US worker cooperatives on a panel about governance at the International Cooperative Governance Symposium held at the Sobey School of Busines, St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Bob Cannell of SUMA and CooperativesUK moderated the panel discussion that also included Dr. Fabio Chaddad from the University of Missouri and my fellow Wisconsinite Jerry McGeorge of Organic Valley.  Rather than discuss our panel discussion from memory (since I was presenting in an open format, I did not take notes), I would like to present the opening commentary from Bob Cannell. Unfortunately, this commentary did not actually get distributed to the audience prior to the panel’s convening so we had to wing it a bit. Nevertheless, I thought that Bob’s comments were very intriguing (and some might even say inciting). I will develop my response to Bob for next week’s blog, but am interested to hear what folks think. While this was for public distribution, I did ask Bob if I may post this to my blog and he agreed, so hopefully, he will jump in to clarify points or to continue the discussion. Any typographical errors or emphasis are mine.

Bob Cannell’s Opening Commentary

“The aim of this session is to challenge our assumptions about governance in worker and producer coops. What models and tools of governance do we default to without critical assessment?

“Traditionally, in Anglo-Saxon cultures at least, worker and producer coops are lumped together. Because we are the ‘other’ type when we prioritise consumer and financial coops. In the UK traditionally, producer co-ops were the ones that made things rather than being retail businesses. These days producer coops encompass agri-coops, marketing coops, bulk buying coops and other coops where small business people join together to increase their market share.

“This lumping together ignores the specific governance needs of worker owned coops. It assumes the same modes work for both. Indeed in the UK we have a serious ‘one type fits all’ problem where generic model constitutions have to be force fitted to worker coops. And they don’t work in practice.

“We have a governance gap. Legal constitutions that tell worker coops how they should govern themselves which do not work in practice in the special circumstances of a worker coop where the workers are owners and are also often the managers as well. Three hats to juggle. The old ways to govern are too slow, too cumbersome, too bureaucratic to fit modern business needs and the needs of small start up worker coops.

“Francophone, Italian, Spanish and Brazilian traditions keep worker coops separate and so think about their specific govenance issues.

Accidents of History.

“Are the governance needs of worker coops really distinct from those of producer and other coops?

“Are we habitually using the worng governance tools for workers coops just because we haven’t looked for better and fit for purpose tools?

“Governance. What is it? It’s the legal constitutions (andin the UK worker and consumer coops share the same legal constitutions) but it is also the management tools used in the coop to take decisions and resolve disagreements. We call these ‘cooperative working skills’. They can range from full executive management pyramids to flat hierarchy collectives. Skill needs in these are obviously very different.

“Worker coop governance traditions are very different in different countries and cultures. The relative success of the worker cooperative model is very different also.

“I am from the 1970’s anarchist worker coop tradition. My coop Suma is a radical collective with no CEO, no MD, no permanent chair. Indeed almost no executive management. It relies on the cooperative working of 140 largely self-managing members. Coordination is by consensus mostly. Yet we are very successful paying very high wages, big bonuses and out competing multi-nationals despite our small relative size. There are a few other successful worker collective in the UK but most just survive haphazardly.

“Our traditional worker coops from the 19th century were castasrophically unseccessful. They were run using orthodox executive management structures and failed enmasse either as businesses or being privatised if successful. Indeed the 1890 Cooperative Congress decided that the worker owned cooperative model had failed and cooperative production (for coop stores) should henceforth be owned by the consumer owned retiail coop socieities. Thus we moved from a cooperative commonwealth to a cooperative federation.

“Enough of the history lesson. Today we have only 400 small worker coops in the UK, the same as in the USA. There are no official worker coops in Germany or the Netherlands. More or less none in white Australia or white New Zealand.

“Why is the worker coop model so much more successful in so many Latin cultures: French, Italian Spanish, Brazil (but not Portugal) than Anglo-Saxon cultures? 2000 and rising in France, 25,000 in Spain plus Mondragon, 30,000 in Italy, many thousands and increasing fast in Brazil. Compare Quebec to the Anglophone parts of Canada.

“Is there something culturally specific about the governance needs of worker coops? Something they do right in Latin countries and regions and we don’t do properly in Anglo-Saxon ones? Something which some ouf our radical collective in the UK such as Suma and Unicorn Grocery have hit on but many others have missed? What is it that we can’t see?

“I have ideas which I’ll touch on in the discussion and cover in detail tomorrow in my presentation on complexity thinking and worker coop governance.

“Let’s look at Employee Ownerships. Very successful in the USA, 13% of business have either significant, majority or 100% employee owned but not employee controlled. UK has a  long tradition of employee owned business (John Lewis Partnership) and currently a big government push to expand the employee ownership sector. There is big competition between worker coops and employee ownership ideas in the UK.

“In the USA, worker coops only have had a federation since 2006.  Why is employee ownership ok in Anglo-Saxon countries by employee control is not?

“Does the distinction matter? It doesn’t seem to in Spain. COCETA and CONFESAL work together. What are the strengths of the worker coop model that the Latin countries use and the Anglo-Saxon countries do not?

“Clearly the opportunities to grow the worker coop sector in Anglo-Saxon countries are enormous if we can define goverance models that make sense to the Anglo-Saxon mindset. So what are they?

“Let’s enjoy speculating about those differences, about the weaknesses and strengths of thw worker cooperative model and how it should be governed.”

Thus ends the opening commentary that wasn’t.

I hope, that like me, you found yourself wanting to respond to Bob’s comments. Please do–I have thoughts that I will post next week, but hope that this is the beginning of a discussion.

October 17, 2011

We Need New Laws

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 12:37 pm

Over the weekend, I wrote my Assembly Representative, Mark Pocan. The last time that the Democrats held the majority, Rep. Pocan co-chaired the powerful Joint Committee on Finance. Of course, today, his party is in the minority of a very partisan Assembly whose Speaker is planning a run for the US Senate.

In any even, this was my letter:

Rep Pocan,

I would like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of drafting bi-partisan bill to assist workers in Wisconsin to create their own jobs. Specifically, I would like to see Wisconsin follow a successful model in Spain.

My basic proposal would be to allow workers who become unemployed to elect to receive their entire unemployment insurance benefit in one lump sum provided that at least 80% of it is invested into a worker owned enterprise under Chapter 185 of the Wisconsin State Statutes (Cooperatives).

This could have a dramatic effect on the state’s unemployed and even provide an added incentive for owners to sell to their workers (as the IRS Section 1042 provides a means for owners to avoid capital gains tax if they sell to their workers). It is clearly a bipartisan proposal as it would create jobs with an entrepreneurial spirit. Rather than forcing workers already stressed about their ability to make ends meet to jump through a lot of hoops, this law would allow them to either join an existing worker coop or join with other unemployed workers and create their own cooperative.

2012 is the International Year of the Cooperative and this could become model legislation in the United States. The cooperative movement offers real change and hope to the nation’s working men and women. As a 23 year member of Union Cab of Madison, I have seen first hand how our cooperative has humanized our industry in Madison and literally allow people to drive themselves out of poverty.

John

I might add that this also has a benefit in that worker cooperatives don’t leave. They won’t move to another state. That means, of course, the the State gets to keep all of that start-up capital circulating in Wisconsin. These are real jobs that will be here for a very long time (I read somewhere that the average lifespan of a cooperative is about 60 years compared to under 10 for most businesses). In the Basque region of Spain, roughly 30-40 non-Mondragon worker cooperatives start each year. Mondragon connected coops are sprout at the rate of about 20-30 a year. Imagine what would happen to Wisconsin’s economy if we started creating even 40 worker cooperatives a year? Solving local problems and providing local employment?

We wouldn’t need the “Cleveland Model” or well meaning hand-outs. We can create a Wisconsin model of bootstrapping using the existing unemployment insurance program. As this idea develops, I will continue to write about it. If you live in Wisconsin and think that this is a good idea, write your Assembly Representative or State Senator.

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.

November 1, 2010

Beginning a Thousand Mile Journey

Filed under: 2040,Human Relations — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 1:31 pm

Let’s forget about tomorrow. Not because, as the song goes, it never comes, but because the election that happens tomorrow will have little effect on the worker co-ops of 2040 (or even 2011 for that matter).

We need to think about our journey. I want to thank Mike for his generous comments and hope that other will join in once the election cycle ends and people can begin thinking again without the screeching of the 24 hour news cycle.

If you believe in a better world, a more sustainable world–a world in which the work of humans (and the human doing the work) has value and receives value from their community, then tomorrow is a day to feed your inner political junkie, but the day after tomorrow is a day to continue the journey that we have been on since the rise of Adam Smith.

Our movement is a movement of small steps with occasional leaps and bounds. A vision of our movement in 2040, whatever it may be, begins with how we all act tomorrow. Some of these steps can be easy, some will take some effort. All will take a focus on the larger vision: creating a co-operative world.

What steps can you take to reach that world?

1. Exchange your CD with a bank (or even a credit union) and invest it in the Northcountry Co-operative Development Fund’s Worker Ownership Fund–or if you are a bit more flush, just invest.

2. Make a point of introducing yourself to your Alderperson and other local officials. Let them know how important your co-operative is to you and the community.

3. If you really want to get wonky, follow the planning commission for your community, attend their meetings and interject your beleifs on co-operatives.

4. Shop co-op whenever possible.

These are only a few small steps, but the hardest part of changing the world is getting out of bed and choosing to do it. It has been said that if we don’t know where we want to go, any road will do. However, even if we do know where we want to go, we need to recognize that we will likely have to build the road as we travel.

Together, we can get there.

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