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

September 1, 2017

Reflection #541–power of individuals in cooperation

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

In returning to this blog, I am also returning to a long-abandoned project. A couple of years ago, I began discussing the inspirational messages from Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, the spiritual founder of Mondragón and, in many ways, the modern worker co-operative movement.

His messages, published as Pensamientos by Cherie Herrera, Cristina Herrera, David Herrera, Teresita Lorenzo, and Virgil Lorenzo. You can read them at the web site celebrating Arizmendiarrieta’s Centennial.

“Cooperativism fundamentally is an organic process of experiences, characterized precisely for the subservience to moral values and for the prevalence of human beings as such over all other factors more or less instrumental in every process and economic activity.” 541

Often these days, the term snowflake gets bandied about quite a bit, often pejoratively (and its history as an insult is rather amazing and frightening). I first started hearing it in 2012 referring to worker co-operatives. The idea of a “snowflake” in the co-op world being that worker co-ops act as if they are these unique organizations in terms of their experience–so unique that the ability to learn from others is limited.

I’ll certainly admit to being guilty of this sentiment earlier in my co-op career. It isn’t just a feeling of superiority, but also one of isolation. As the worker co-op network in the US has developed over the last 10-15 years, that sense of isolation has largely disappeared. The network of co-op development centers, the US Federation, and local networks has created a strong community of cooperators that welcomes people into the movement with warm support.

The danger, one which I see abating, has been to dismiss the individuality of worker co-ops in favor of creating easy to manage development practices. I have often worried that creating institutionalized responses may negate the individuals involved in the process. Each co-op that I have worked with has similarities and differences. They link around the co-op identity, effectively the moral values that Arizmendiarrieta refers to, but each co-op, no matter the isomorphic forces at play and cultural similarities engaged by the industry create the co-op’s own culture based on the individuals who created it and who engage with it.

The humanity of our co-ops makes them unique, frustrating, and loveable. The power of snowflakes united in strategy can be truly sublime–no less in the union of human passion, knowledge, and individuality put to a common purpose. It is the heart of the cooperative’s power.

February 9, 2017

CICOPA’s Declaration on migrants and refugees

Since my last post on January 23, I had been wondering how to address some of the actions that have happened since in terms of the worker cooperative identity. Fortunately for me, my friends at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation posted the following (adopted April, 2016) The International of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA) put forth the following Declaration on Migrants and Refugees:

According to the United Nations, the number of international migrants increased by 41% over the last 15 years, from 173 million in 2000 to 244 million in 2015;1 the UN also point out that the main reasons for migrating include conflict, poverty, inequality and lack of decent jobs, and that the distinction between countries of origin, transit and destination is becoming increasingly obsolete.2

According to the UNHCR, refugees reached an estimated 15.1 million people in mid-2015, up from 10.5 million in 2012, 3 namely an increase of 40% in only 3 years, the vast majority being hosted by low or middle income countries.4

This massive increase in the flow of migrants and refugees is bound to increase over the next few years, both because the present reasons for such an increase have not been solved and because new phenomena are beginning to impact on migration, such as climate change.

Europe in particular is facing the gravest migration and humanitarian crisis since World War II, bringing into light its own paradoxes and inabilities to apply its constituent values such as solidarity, respect for human dignity and liberty.

It should be pointed out that, when they are able to survive during their exodus, migrants often face difficulties in accessing employment opportunities and basic social and health services. Furthermore, migrants are among the most exposed to working in low-paid precarious jobs and potentially exploitive conditions in the informal economy.

CICOPA is fully aware of the complex reality which migrants are facings around the world and that it is, at times, a difficult or perilous path.

As an organization active globally, CICOPA strives to change this paradigm through the development and growth of industrial and service cooperatives, in compliance with the first cooperative principle according to which “cooperatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination”.

Industrial and service cooperatives contribute to a decent and dignified life and to the social and economic integration of refugees and migrants in various parts of the world. 5 They are also used as a tool by migrants and refugees themselves for developing entrepreneurship initiatives together with other members from the community, thus increasing autonomy, solidarity and human development while at the same time contributing to a sustainable economy both globally and locally.

Industrial and service cooperatives are the natural allies of international organizations, regional organizations and national governments in carrying out inclusive policies that provide basic services and socioeconomic inclusion for migrants and refugees. Cooperative entrepreneurship is a valuable tool to maximize the developmental benefits represented by migrants and refugees for welcoming countries, in terms of human resources, competences and skills.

Through this Declaration, CICOPA wants to express its commitment to fight for an equal access to services and work opportunities provided by cooperatives, allowing for a decent life and increased opportunities for the entrepreneurial projects to be initiated by workers and producers in the migrant and refugee communities around the world.

Cooperatives are based on the principle of equality, whereby all human beings are equal in rights and remain at the heart of all policy concerns. This is why cooperatives in industry and services commit themselves to fight against discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion which refugees and migrants are facing all around the globe.


1 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2016) International Migration Report 2015; New York: United Nations, p. 5

2 Ibid.

3 UNHCR (2015) Mid-Year Trends 2015 ; Geneva : UNHCR

4 Ibid., p. 7 2 CICOPA – C/O European House of Cooperatives – avenue Milcamps 105 – BE-1030 BRUSSELS TEL. (+32/2) 543 10 33 – WWW.CICOPA.COOP– CICOPA@CICOPA.COOP 5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in

5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in New York in 2006, with the mission to bring together immigrant women to create a women-run, women-owned, eco-friendly housecleaning business. The cooperative Nor Bum, established in 2011 in La Plata, Argentina, groups 7 construction workers coming from Bolivia. Social cooperative Camelot established in 1997 in Ferrara, Italy, by

January 23, 2017

The “We” Generation

Here we are.

The next two years will seem to bring to life the ancient curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

The need for mutual self-help and self-reliance along with solidarity will be at the forefront for many of our cooperatives and we, whether as members, educators, or developers, must rise to meet the challenges presented.

The pendulum of human history has shifted once more from the individualistic to the communal. This can, of course, be a good thing. People working together for the common good has helped move our civilizations from the dictates of a single ruler to more democratic and inclusive governments (even if it doesn’t always feel that progress continues).

I don’t subscribe to the cohort model of generations. I don’t think that being born between 1946-1964 creates a certain type of world view any more that being born in the 90’s makes one a certain way. I follow instead an idea put forward by advertising guru Roy Williams (working off others). This pendulum concepts suggests that humanity cycles through a “me” and a “we” period with the switch around happening about every 40 years. Each period has an upswing and a down-swing and, there are always outliers looking forward to the equilibrium (when the down-swing of one becomes the upswing of another)

Today, we are about the same spot as 1936, 1856, and 1776. Those time periods all involved a period in which people coalesced around a common “we” (1842-1882, 1922-1962, and 1752-1792 respectively). What does this mean to the development of worker cooperatives and the labor movement at a whole. The common “We” works in sometimes contradictory ways. The groups of the 1930’s brought about strong unionism among the working class even as others used perceived racial purity as the defining virtue. Likewise, the power of “we” fueled both the democratically inclined Revolutionary War and the rise of the Abolition Movement but the genocidal war against First Nations peoples also dominated the nation.

According to Williams, the moment of the switch between the Me Generation and the We Generation occurred around 2002-ish and the Year of Hope with the election of Barack Obama mirroring the Me Generation’s Summer of Love. It is worth reading the book (it isn’t a heavy scholarly read at all) to get the sense of it.

The question for us, as worker cooperators, is how do we enter this rather polarized world of “we”. In some respects, it provides some advantages as people seem more likely to see solidarity and common purpose as positive traits. The values and principles of cooperation should resonate and help the Decade of the Co-op shine. However, there is also danger in the neo-tribalism of the “we” that separates people by false categories (race, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation).  Further, cooperatives (and especially worker cooperatives) have a tendency to overly focus on internal issues and ignore the larger movement. Even with the relative growth and rise of the US Federation, co-ops don’t always stay engaged in their community and the larger co-op movement.

As much as I respect the work of the Federation and its offshoot, DAWI, we can’t simply subcontract the sixth and seventh principles of cooperation to apex organizations. They have important roles to play at the national and international level providing information, support, and connectivity, but can’t really provide a one-size fits all game plan for every community. We are special snowflakes despite our commonalities.

It will be important for those organizations to engage at the national level, but co-ops (especially worker co-ops) cannot engage in isolationism. They need to create local partnerships with the local labor organizations (even if it is only an expression of solidarity and event invitation), local political leaders, and other cooperatives. They need to also encourage the regional and national coop groups to stand with labor and identify worker cooperatives as something more than simply an economic model akin to ESOPs.

Now is the time for us to embrace our movement and make it move (as Jim Hightower might say). We need to tell our collective stories and educate people about real worker ownership (that involves more than owning shares) and how through worker ownership and worker control, the American Dream can be resurrected and expanded to include all of us.

September 21, 2015

Pope Francis and Co-operatives

Tomorrow, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the United States. This pope, hailing from Argentina, brings with him a message for all of us in terms of building our economies–the quest for wealth needs to be more than monetary. In this, the Bishop of Rome has found the co-operative economic model to be one that can go beyond materialism and help lift people up.

In March, as reported by  The Cooperative News, he spoke directly about the co-operative model:

“‘The leader of the Catholic Church also argued that co-operatives could enable people to achieve all their potential. He said: ‘A member of a co-operative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a co-operative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all’.”

This language resonates with those of us who have studied Mondragon and the teachings of Don José María Arizmendiarietta. It is the 100th anniversary of the Basque priest’s birth. In celebration of this centennial, I engaged his writings in my classroom. Each class, students were asked to bring a quotation from this collected musings Reflections” available on-line.

In the coming days and weeks, I wish to bring that experience on-line. The following is a quote from Reflections. I will add my comments below, but I encourage you, dear readers, to add your own reflections or to find quotes from the web site that resonate with you and share them here.

Let’s honor the visit of Pope Francis by honoring the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Mondragon’s spiritual founder and engage in a discussion about co-operation, values and the development of the human.



This experience corresponds to a new spirit of trust in human beings and in their capacity. It revives in this case the sense of freedom, dignity and justice, evidently accepted in the traditional and democratic institutions in our land, this acceptance being manifested in the idiosyncrasy of our people. One of our characteristics has been our practical sense, knowing how to act in the milieu of possibilities, without renouncing or being indifferent to our ideals. We have known how to muster and not waste our opportunities to improve the common good. Our processes of association are not viable without moderation and the consenting of all of our people, who usually have to sacrifice personal positions. Radicalizations are contrary to the human and social virtues as well as to the most constant qualities of our people.

I decided to start with a rather chunky quote and one that some might find a bit controversial. The first part that struck we was Arizmendiarrieta’s faith in the method (or experience) of worker ownership through co-operation. It is more than simply creating a job with slightly better pay or a retirement plan. Although those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, the current dogma or “getting to scale” with a focus on size and ESOPs rather than on worker control and teaching workers how to manage seems short-sighted to me and lacking the key thing that makes worker co-operation so exciting.

Co-operation must also be about creating new human relationships in which we learn to value each other as human beings, as individuals, even while engaging each other for our co-operative ends. It is about embracing the idiosyncrasies, being able to see disagreements as a pathway to development and consensus. Falling into the money chase and big is better camp seems counter-productive to me in that even if the organization succeeds as a business, it ends up looking and feeling just like any other large business. Co-operatives need to break up this isomorphism.

The second part of this quote counters calls for radicalization. I imagine many (regardless of political affiliation) will question the Don of Mondragon as the political environment in the US and many countries seem to have become polarized with calls for dramatic action (and even military action) to deal with political and economic frustrations. Yet, too often, the goals of these movements get co-opted by their leaders (see Greece for the most recent example) as the trappings of power for the leaders become more important than the cause of the followers. Is this because radicalism focuses on people frustration and anger instead of the human and social virtues? I think that is the message in this statement. Co-operation, especially that espoused by Arizmendiarrieta tends to avoid the limelight of the political debate and alignment with political factions by focusing on education, information, and communication among its membership. By focusing on humans, not as pawns for larger political moves, but as the central raison d’etre, co-operatives can keep plugging along even as the countries bounce from one ism to another (See Italy and Spain). A revolution of spirit is needed that sees all of us as connected–I guess to some that may be radical, but to me it is a key part of co-operation.


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”.

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.


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.

August 22, 2011

The Open Door Policy of Worker Co-operatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 8, 2011

The Power of the Mission

Filed under: Education,Management — Tags: — John McNamara @ 11:37 am

Recently, I was presenting a session on expansion and I discussed the role of mission statements. The main idea is that a first step at planning significant change in our co-ops should begin with an examination of our mission statements. Does the thing that we want to do fall within the mission of the co-operative? What I suddenly realized was something quite different! Sometimes the mission might lead us to do foolish things that either hurt our co-operative or cause us to stray from the co-operative identity.

Mission statements work best when they direct and easy to remember; however, this can also lose a lot of nuance. For example, the mission statement for my co-operative is “to create jobs at a living wage or better in a safe, humane and democratic environment by providing quality transportation to the greater Madison area.” If people only focus on the initial infinitive (and sometimes people do), it suggests that it is our mission to constantly grow the co-operative. I, however, see it as part of the larger statement. Our mission is to create jobs {ONLY IF WE CAN DO THAT IN A MANNER IN WHICH THOSE JOBS ARE} at living wage or better. . . . . .

I’ve heard some suggestions to change the “to create” to “maintain” but then I wonder what happens in an economic downturn when we simply can’t maintain all the jobs at a living wage.

When our mission was first written, we didn’t have the last bit about providing quality transportation. Our consultant thought it was a bit odd that our mission statement didn’t talk about what we did or how we would interact with consumers. It was (as you can see) incredibly internalized. I think that by adding the last phrase, we created a new consciousness among ourselves. I remember a General Manager in the 90’s specifically telling me that our passengers were our “oppressors” and our enemy (and I know that he wasn’t alone in that belief); today, I doubt that a single member of our co-op would have that analysis.

As kids we learn very quickly that words have a lot of power. They can hit us harder than a two-by-four and lifts our spirits higher than a kite. We don’t always extend that power to the business world. That mission statement hanging on the wall has a power too. It is a soft power that silently creates a culture around it. The words left off of the wall have just as much power as those included. We need to be cognizant of this and understand that a discussion of our mission statements needs to happen as new members enter the co-operative. We need to pass the nuance of our meanings onto the next generation of members so that they can manage the power of those words.

July 25, 2011

Excuse the Absence–and a quick word on structure

Filed under: Human Relations,Site News — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 12:51 pm

Has it really been a month since I last posted? Yikes! I am truly sorry to those who have been checking in on Mondays. I will get back to it. As some of you know, I entered a PhD program that condenses classes into an intense two-month session in Halifax. By the end of June, I felt like the intellectual version of veal. Students ahead of me warned that July is not a very productive month. Of course, to make matters even more difficult, I returned on July 2nd only to turn around and attend the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy and the USFWC annual meeting in  Baltimore on July 9.  I returned to Madison only to find that the General Manager of my co-operative took a job with another company and I was then named interim General Manager (my first official day is tomorrow).

So, it has been a busy month. I did manage to start on some of my papers, however. I am considering the research issues regarding bullying in the workplace. I’ve only scratched the surface of the extant research at this point (with another 20 or so papers to read); however, the interesting thing that I noticed is that the presence of hierarchy creates a environment that is more prone to workplace aggression. I haven’t gotten into the whys and wherefores yet, but I can see how a top-down structure encourages people to try and hold on to their place in the hierarchy by preventing others from moving up. Added to that is the overall culture of investor corporations that tells people to “move up or move out”. There are lessons here for our co-operatives, of course, but we should also be wary of simply saying “hierarchy bad, collectivism good”.  Hierarchy exists in two forms: formal and informal. It is relatively easy to dismantle the formal hierarchy, but the informal one can persist and will resist attempts to quash it. Part of this is cultural in that we have borrowed the idea of seniority from the labor movement as an unbiased means of distinguishing between people and part of it is social as we form friendships and relationships that might be risked if we challenge one another or stray to far from the organizational comfort zone in decision making.

No big conclusions today, just a few thoughts for folks to mull over. I am back and will continue on my Monday routine. See you all next week (if not sooner)!

September 29, 2010

Ontario Court’s Bold Move Protects Sex Industry Workers

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 12:22 pm

In a stunning and potentially landmark court decision, an Ontario federal court struck down key criminal provisions related to prostitution and the sex industry yesterday. Essentially, prostitution is not, in and of itself, criminal in Canada; however, almost all of the connected actions to the institution that offer any safety or protection to those men and women engaged in the are criminal. The ruling removed those criminal barriers. The basic argument is that the law creates a real and present danger to the workers violating their Charter Rights as Canadians.

The ruling will allow those in the sex-trade industry to organize unions and worker co-operative. It will allow co-operatively managed bordellos. In community health terms, it will allow licensing, health codes, and other means of worker and consumer protection to enter this taboo industry dominated by physical and emotional abuse, slavery, and unsanitary working conditions. For several years, organizers in British Columbia have been pushing for de-criminalization provided that the workers are organized in a bona-fide worker co-operative.

The Harper government will be appealing this ruling. Even if the ruling stands, the Parliament will likely take steps to re-criminalize the sex trade. That would be a shame. Despite thousands of years of being illegal, the sex trade thrives. It is through the criminalization of the industry that the worst abuses are allowed to become prevalent. A well regulated and taxed sex trade will benefit those  all who engage in it. Rather than creating some puritan myth that this trade can be eliminated by sweeping it into dangerous back allies and creating economic incentives to engage in slave trade, the government would be better off by creating worker and consumer protections.

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