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

January 2, 2017

A New Year with Feathers

Filed under: Year of the Co-op — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 3:04 pm

The coming year brings, as always, hope. Given the rhetoric of the last year, that might seem a rather odd statement, but even if you feel that the abundance of hope has diminished, it still exists.

Indeed, in some of the darkest hours, hope has moved people through cooperation to create great things. On the craggy shores of Newfoundland in a place where in the 1920’s “the Great Depression” simply meant a normal life. Father Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady worked with the people to create economic opportunity and power. In a small industrial basque town under the iron heel of the fascist Falange Party and its Caudillo, Franco, a Jesuit priest, José María Arizmendiarietta, spared execution founded a small school for the children of workers which would eventually give rise to the much-lauded Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. In 1843, when Capitalism was truly unfettered with children laboring 12 hour days and any resistance met with imprisonment or forced relocation to Australia, workers and socialist came together in a small textile mill town to form the first modern-era cooperative store, Rochdale Society of Pioneers, known today simply as The Co-operative.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope, of course, does little without action. As we venture into the future, we must have hope, but also resilience and the willingness to act.

Rochdale, Antigonish, and Mondragon came into being through the hard work of their creators and members. They did it often in spite of the lack of political power held the participants.

So, too, we can take our worker co-op movement in the US and Canada and everywhere to new levels. Keeping our hopes alive through our individual efforts to support and build co-operatives along with raising the awareness of co-operatives must be our mission for the coming years. We need to truly make this the Cooperative Decade.

I am planning on returning to a weekly post on this site (along with urging you as a co-operative activist to join in posting your thoughts–just sign up and send me an email that you want to be a contributor). I also plan on writing each of my elected officials from my council person in Olympia to the President pertaining to the role of co-ops in his/her district, why these models are important, and how they can further support their constituents to engage in mutual self-help. I will post the letters here (and I will post yours if you send them to me with permission to post).

It is a bit fitting that the Chinese New Year (beginning with the New Moon on January 28th) is the Year of the Rooster. While there are many interpretations, let’s simply use the phrase, “the early bird gets the worm”–hard work and attention to principles will bring reward. This bird, a thing with feathers, is the symbol of the French Revolution whose motto remains “liberty, equality, fraternity” (the latter of which I interpret as the gender neutral “solidarity”. The values of the cooperative economic movement match the political values of people who seek freedom. They match the values of the Declaration of Independence.

Our movement has never depended on elected or appointed politicians–our hope lies within us. Let’s make 2017 the new Year of the Co-operative.

May 16, 2011

The Dignity of the Person

Filed under: Pensimientos — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 6:19 am

Co-operatives are made up of people, not shareholders. I don’t even like the term “stake holders”, but use it to describe the various groups that have an interest in the success of the co-operative. However, the core unit of society in the co-operative model is the person. This is true regardless of the sector, but has an prominent role in a worker co-operative.

“Justice cannot be practiced where human dignity is ignored.”–Don José María Arizmendiaretta (Reflections, 1.1.003)

Worker co-operatives need to keep this idea front and center. It is not enough to provide ownership to workers. The organization must also promote dignity in the workplace. This might be seen as a natural outcome of worker ownership, but it isn’t. How many of our co-ops have a “rumor mill”? At mine, we refer to it as “the parking lot” (it is literally a parking lot) where the gossip and rumors fly. Are the subjects of rumor and gossip ever truly treated with “dignity”?

It is our duty, Arizmendi suggests, as co-operative members to do more than simply create a new ownership structure, we must also create a new management method that is based on, among other things, human dignity.

While I will avoid getting into a larger discussion of Maslow’s  hierarchy of needs, I will say that I don’t believe that it needs to be a hierarchy. We don’t need to sacrifice dignity for basic survival.

“Human being not only have stomachs or some material needs, but have an ever growing awareness of their dignity” (1.1.002)

While Arizmendi wrote these words under a fascist dictatorship, they resonate today. Even as I type, the Wisconsin legislature seems bent on chipping away at the dignity of the citizenry of Wisconsin, not just at the public sector workers and their families, but the students and the working poor as well. The economics of the Phalange Party (and von Hayek) failed miserably. They had no excuses, Spain was a perfect environment for what would become the Chicago School neo-liberal ideals and it failed. Mondragon grew because of the failure of the dominant paradigm of fascism (or corporatism). Mondragon grew because it offered something more than full stomachs, it offered dignity to the workers and their families. It also offered hope and joy.

Like the Phalangists, the US Republican Party seems to forget that. They have come to believe their own corporatist theories that the modern worker is a conformist who will abide the legitimacy of the corporation, but they will be wrong. The idea that workers can be expected to put aside their humanity for a paycheck is a short-term strategy. It will eventually crumble because its foundations have no strength as they are based only on the promise of wealth, but no true wealth (either financial or social equity).

This leads me to the third quote from Reflections today:

“People die not only from hunger and physical exhaustion, but also from tedium and sadness, and from the lack of hope and joy of life.” (1.1.003)

As worker co-operatives, organizations of people, we have an obligation to ourselves, our membership and our “stakeholders” to offer more than decent pay. We also have an obligation to create a workplace of hope and joy. We have an obligation to create a place where workers, and by extension, their customers, feel dignified as human beings and have the ability to express that humanity, nurture it, express it, and use that energy to create an even better community in the workplace and at home.

This is what the co-operative difference looks like.

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