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

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.



October 4, 2010

US Worker Co-ops in 2040?

Filed under: Movement,Uncategorized — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 4:21 pm

What should our movement look like in 30 years?

30 years ago, the modern US worker co-operative movement was in its infancy. The Anti-War, Second Wave Feminist and Civil Rights movements were starting to move their way into mainstream society by questioning the post-WWII paradigm of the Cold War. At the same time, the neo-liberals were in full assault mode (working mostly in South America), but have made significant political gains with the election of Margaret Thatcher and (30 years ago this November) Ronald Reagan.

Co-operative Home Care and Equal Exchange joined the party a few years later and then it was fairly quiet for a decade or so. . .until activists on the coasts started creating regional networks such as the Western Worker Cooperative Conference and the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. In 2003, Madison hosted the first (and to date, only) Midwest Worker Coop Conference creating the ground work for the formation of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives in Minneapolis in 2004. Now, six years later, the USFWC is on the verge of launching the Democracy at Work Network (DAWN) of peer advisors and creating the Democracy at Work Institute as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization.

DAWN will be providing something that our movement needs. Business consultants who understand the worker co-operative. As peer advisers, this group (and am one of the first cohort) will not be co-operative developers per se, but true peers who can assist worker co-operatives in the on-going development of their business model. This will help worker co-operative with affordable advice based on the TA’s knowledge and experience. The creation of DAWN was a key part of building the infrastructure for our movement.

Using the time-honored house imagery: if we see 2004-2008 as the creation of the foundation of our movement, DAWN is the basic infrastructure (the pipes and framing). Over the next 5-10 years, DAWN and DAWI will be working with the USFWC to create the basic shape. At the USFWC board retreat we discussed our future. We settled on a basic three year plan, but the larger visionary discussion was put on hold. We need to finish the foundation and frame (make sure that the gas and water lines are connected) and that will be the main focus of the next three years. Members of the organization need to start seeing tangible benefits (which DAWN should provide). All of this is vitally important, but we also need the vision discussion.

Where will our movement be in another 30 years? In 2040, I will be 76 years old. Chances are, if I am still alive, I will be hopefully still be blogging (or whatever the kids will be doing in those days) but I will likely not be fully involved in the movement or physically working a 40-50 hour work week. Almost all of our current leadership will be in the same position. The current crop of  Toxic Soil Busters will be pushing 50 (like I am now). What should our movement look like in that age?

I have to think that we will be far advanced from our current state. At the retreat, one director suggested a vision in which our movement is the dominant part of the labor movement (that we are effectively the Department of Labor). I look at the momentum of the last 30 years and fell hopeful that we can take that and create a really incredible movement. I believe that I will leave this world in better condition for workers than I found it. To achieve that will take a lot of work.

We need to do a better job of educating our members on worker co-operatives. In the larger worker co-ops, people come to the co-op because we are generally the best job in the industry. However, if we don’t connect that to the co-op movement, then we allow the dominant ne0-liberal paradigm to corrupt our movement. Ultimately, we need to create a vision of where our movement should be in 2040. What should the worker co-operative movement look like in the United States? In Canada? in North America? How should it relate to the traditional labor movement?  How should it engage the nation (s)?

I’ll be continuing this discussion over the next couple of weeks, but I really want to hear from you. Imagine yourself as a young person about to enter the workforce in the United States of 2040. One hundred years after the start of WWII. 50 years after the end of the Cold War. 135 years after the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World and 36 years after the creation of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives.

What does that world look like for the young person going to work? What are his/her choices? What support mechanisms exist? Most importantly, how do we create a road map to get there?

[There are about 400 readers of this blog, so I would love to just get 2.5% of you to write in. One sentence of what you want to see–let’s have a discussion]

February 8, 2010

#22 Education, Training and Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Co-operation Among Co-operatives

January 18, 2010

#19 Participatory Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Week: Payment Solidarity

August 11, 2009

Green Worker Coops Academy News

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 3:43 pm

In my last post, I was remiss in failing to highlight  the efforts being made to bridge the education gap in the United States. In addition to the Peer Technical Assistance Network through the US Federation’s Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI), the really cool and wonderful people in the Bronx have been hard at work creating institutions of social transformation!

We need more organizations like Green Worker Cooperatives throughout the country.

The following is the most recent press release sent out  by Sonia Pichardo in celebration of their academy graduates:

South Bronx, July 20, 2009- Green Worker Cooperatives Co-op Academy Graduates Create Green Businesses

Green Worker Cooperatives is proud to announce our Co-op Academy graduates, Eddie Charles, Don Butterfield, Chris Michaels, William Cerf, Joel Frank, Janco Damas, Jerry Kahn, and Jerome Villanueva.

Green Worker Cooperatives is a local, green, and democratic worker co-op business incubator. Its goal is to create jobs and keep Bronx communities clean for the people who live in them. The Green Worker Co- op Academy is a program that ran for 16 weeks. This intensive business program has taught participants how to develop South Bronx based environmentally-friendly businesses. Students learned about issues dealing with the most beneficial ways to run a worker co-op. In addition, the participants were taught how to prepare a real world business plan. Graduate Jerome Villanueva said, “ As a worker-owner you are hands on, you help out and you get dirty, here the community will actually see the owner.”

The graduates of the most recent Co-op Academy class have already started expanding their ideas into reality. Aquatecture and La Obrera are two worker co-ops currently in the incubation stage. Chris Michaels and William Cerf have begun steps to launch their 24/7 green diner in the South Bronx. Don Butterfield, Jerry Kahn and Eddie Charles are the founders of Aquatecture, a worker-coop to introduce solar energy and renewable energy in the Bronx. Jerome Villanueva, Janco Damas, and Joel Frank are the new transitioning worker owners at ReBuilders Source.

Rebuilders Source is a re-use store that takes in donated used or new building materials and sells those materials for below retail price. Rebuilders Source latest transitioning member, Janco Damas states, “We need to encourage responsible disposal of all these materials.” This is the first worker-owned building material center in the world. It is a viable alternative for contractors and homeowners from putting perfectly good building materials into the landfill.

Registration for the Fall 2009 Coop Academy class can be done if you attend an open house at 461 Timpson Place in Bronx NY on August 22nd. Visit to register to attend the open house or to view videos of our graduates.

GREEN WORKER COOPERATIVES is a South Bronx-based organization dedicated to incubating worker-owned and environmentally friendly cooperatives in the South Bronx. Our approach is a response to high unemployment and decades of environmental racism. We don’t have the luxury to wait for new alternatives. That’s why we’re creating them. We believe that in order to address our environmental and economic problems we need new ways to earn a living that don’t require polluting the earth or exploiting human labor.

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