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

September 22, 2015

Co-operation Isn’t For Everyone. . . (initially)


The radicalism of the cooperative proposal, in face of development, appealing to the economic, personal, communal and integral concourse of its believers, faces the alternative of success or complete failure. Cooperativism requires people with a strong spirit, or at least people who are willing to risk it all. Therefore, it is not a formula that fits everyone, but the biggest mistake that we could make would be to place our demands at the level of the weakest, since in such a case it would be impossible to reach higher levels.

From Reflections, the words of Don José María Arizmendiarrieta


Pope Francis has just wrapped up a papal visit to the island nation of Cuba. This country, long held under the sway of US foreign policy, has begun to reexamine its economic relationship with the world and with itself. For decades, it has followed the state-planned economic method but as the relations with the US thaw, and the demand of the contemporary generation for greater autonomy increases, the Cuban government looks to the co-operative economic model as a way to keep Cuba from returning to the playground of the US.

I think that this quote from Mondragon’s founder is quite fitting in that it bounces off of yesterday’s critique of radicalism by suggesting that the cooperative model offers a form of radicalism in that it forces people to reach within themselves and take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their organization. Co-operatives are not designed for followers, but for individuals who seek to express their humanity and identity while also engaging with others to create a synergy of the human experience that can only be obtained through interaction with similarly self-aware and self-responsible individuals.

We don’t often think of co-operation as an individual act (and it really isn’t of course), but it does require people who can engage it in a co-leadership manner. It takes personal strength to be able to co-operate and not everyone is up to the task as it will mean conflict. Hopefully, the co-operative has structures to create an environment in which conflict resembles more of a Hegelian dialectic than a kindergarten playground.

This shouldn’t suggest that co-operatives are exclusive to the already self-aware. Arizmendiarrieta speaks at length at the power of co-operation to empower people to develop their humanity and to create civilization based on the values that make us human. I think that the mistake that he refers to is to place people without these skills and qualities into positions of power and expect success.

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]

January 11, 2010

#18 The Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital

Filed under: Human Relations,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 10:20 am

“We do not aspire to economic development as an end, but as a means.”

–Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, spiritual founder of Mondragon

This Mondragon principle, in practice, operates more closely to the Identity Statement principle of Member Economic Participation. I included it in this side road of the over all series because I believe that Mondragon presents a nuance all too often lost in the co-operative movement and, in the silo-ed environment of the US worker co-operative movement, we often tend to forget the role of capital in our organizations is significantly different from that of our industry and capitalist competitors.

The role of capital in a worker co-operative should be two-fold:

1) ensure the on-going operations of the co-operative

2) allow the co-operative to maintain the highest level of safety and quality of work-life.

Thus, this principle presents the balancing act of worker co-operatives. As the opening quote suggests, if we are just in it for the money, what are we really trying to accomplish? However, DJMA has also said, “Cooperativism without the structural capacity to attract and assimilate capital at the level of the requirements of industrial productivity is but a temporary solution, an invalid formula.”

The definition of this principle is as follows:

” The Mondragon Cooperative Experience considers capital to an instrument, subordinate to Labour, necessary for business development and worthy, therefore, of:

a) Remuneration, which is:

  • Just, in relation to the efforts implied in accumulating capital,
  • Adequate, to enable necessary resources to be provided,
  • Limited in its amount, by means of corresponding controls,
  • Not directly linked to the profits made.

b) Availability subordinate to the continuity and development of the cooperative, without preventing the correct application of the principle of open admission.”

As a tool, the role of capital should not exclude members from participation in their co-operative. This is a key point for worker co-operatives. The level of capital investment by the member should be appropriate to the needs of the industry and the ability of the worker to contribute. Otherwise, the role of capital dwarfs the rights of the workers, the human beings.

Another important diversion for worker co-operatives is the separation of capital from profits. Too often I hear directors (who have come to us from the “for profit” world) talk about the need for “return on investment” or “return on equity” as the means for deciding the correct course of the co-operative. However, that places capital in a position of greater importance than it needs to be or should be. While a surplus (profit) is needed to re-capitalize the organization and to expand, that should be the limit of its effect. We should not seek to maximize ROI because that mindset leads to the disaster capitalism that has plagued our macro-economy for thirty years.

Capital, in a cooperative, exists to serve the needs of the members collectively. In a worker co-operative, Capital should mean ensuring good paying jobs, safe working conditions and the opportunity for human development. Co-operatives exists as a means for socio-economic transformation of the community, not for the further enrichment of the few who control capital. This may be one of the key differences of cooperation from its market based cousin capitalism. Capital, in a cooperative, should be used to elevate the human being, to eliminate (or minimize) exploitation, and create a sustainable community.

This may seem like an obvious concept, but it is not. Too often co-operative managers hear the siren song of the capitalists. When we start hearing managers talking about industry “best practices” we should immediately ask who those practices are best for. Are those practices “best” for the workers or the stockholders? Are they best for the consumers or the stockholders? Are they “best” for managers or the members? Are they “best” for the community or the stockholders? We need to see that our co-operatives must develop their own best practices for the industry. By creating best practices that do not get tied to maximizing ROI or ROE, we can create strong, vibrant workplaces that will, in turn, create sustainable, vibrant communities.

These are, I believe, the questions that Don Jose wants us to ask. We cannot simply pretend that we are at the grown-ups table when we manage our businesses. We cannot model the “industry” without focusing on the unique role of capital in our co-operatives. As the opening quote states, the role of capital is simply a means to a better future. It should never be considered an end unto itself.

Next Week: Participatory Management

December 19, 2009

Neo-Syndicalism: A Path Toward Reimagining Socialism

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:27 pm

In Barbara Ehrenreichs groundbreaking essay, “Reimagining Socialism,” which appeared recently in The Nation, she states that we on the Left need a plan, but we don’t have a plan.

Well, I have a plan, albeit a small one.

My plan is something I like to call Neo-Syndicalism. This may sound familiar to longtime Mobius readers; I have written about this before.

Just to quickly review, Neo-Syndicalism, like Classical Syndicalism, is the notion that we can change society through economic means rather than political means. In terms of Classical Syndicalism, this is most elegantly expressed in the old IWW slogan, “one big union, one big strike.”

Neo-Syndicalism takes an updated, more pragmatic, and perhaps more cynical approach in that we acknowledge that perhaps we can’t overthrow the Capitalist system. However, within the Capitalist system we can create liberated zones through organisms like worker cooperatives, collectives, and other forms of worker-owned businesses, along with economic alternatives such as fair trade, community supported agriculture, and, in general, sustainability.

Essentially, this is about building our own economy brick by brick.

The movement, the plan, is out there. It just doesn’t know it, at least not yet. That is why I have given it a name. Giving a movement a name pulls together diffusive elements and helps provide a conduit for people with different interests to work together toward a common goal.

Or to put it another way, if you are involved in an activity that falls under my heading of Neo-Syndicalism, you are doing something greater and more significant than you realize. You should take this understanding, talk to the other members of your group, and discuss your work in this greater context. You should network with other groups that do the same thing your group does. And then you should network with groups you may not have much in common with if these groups share the strategy of Neo-Syndicalism.

It’s about building our own economy brick by brick.

In these desperate times, there’s interesting and radical things going on. Last year in Chicago, workers at Republic Windows and Doors staged a sit-in after the company was forced to close when the bank, which had received TARP funds, refused to extend a line of credit to allow the company to continue production. The worker’s refusal to let the plant close was rewarded. Another company came and in bought the plant thus saving a few hundred jobs.

In Latin America, there have been numerous instances where factories abandoned by the companies that owned them have been taken over by the workers. As one worker commented, the company came into our community, took our subsidies, took our tax breaks and then left. We are claiming ownership.

My favorite story is in France, there have been instances of boss-napping. Of course, the French being the French were rather civilized about the whole thing. While holding bosses as they waited for corporations to consider their demands, they stuffed the bosses with moules et frites.

I remember way back in 1979, when I first moved here to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend the University of Wisconsin. Somebody handed me a copy of the very last issue of the radical newspaper Takeover. I remember the slogan: “Are you going to take orders or are you going to take over?”

Granted, I’ve always found the sentiment a bit simplistic, but in this case, I think it’s quite apt. I look at the shuttered GM plant in Janesville, and all I can think is “are you going to take orders or are you going to take over?”

These corporations are afforded the same rights as individual human beings. We give them tax breaks. We give them tax subsidies. We give them tons and tons of public money so they can come into our communities to provide jobs. In these harsh economic times, we give them stimulus money so they can stay in business and continue to provide jobs.

And then they close. They either simply shut their doors or they move to other countries.

As far as I’m concerned, the GM plant in Janesville belongs to the people of Janesville. They should take over the plant and run it as a worker-owned cooperative or perhaps as a community-owned cooperative of some sort. They could produce anything they want, though perhaps it might make the most sense if they produced cars. Perhaps they could contract with one of the surviving auto companies. Or maybe they could actually start their own auto manufacturing company. Or maybe they could take over Saturn once GM officially discontinues that line.

One might think, automakers designing cars? Ridiculous?

Well, of course they’d hire design engineers and whatever brain power they need, but just imagine what kind of cars such a plant would produce when the workers who produce the vehicles and drive the vehicles actually have a say in the design of the vehicles. Gee, they might actually be vehicles people want to drive!

And yes, I do understand this is a pipe dream without a massive infusion of cash. After all, as a character in The Right Stuff says, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

If the government can bail out the banks and the auto companies, they can provide money to facilitate the formation of worker-owned-and-operated cooperatives at abandoned manufacturing plants. This would comprise a real economic stimulus package. It would save and create jobs. It would be great for the communities that die long, slow, painful deaths when a manufacturing plant closes.

And it would help get us back into the business of building stuff the world wants to buy.

The Obama Administration should call for an initiative to provide grants and low interest loans to abandoned workers who want to form worker cooperatives. In fact, the Obama Administration should encourage abandoned workers to take over shuttered manufacturing plants.

Of course, there’s a chicken/egg aspect to this. Workers should view this tactic strategically, that if more and more workers take over abandoned manufacturing plants, it could be a way to force the Obama Administration to take positive action. We saw this during the FDR Administration, and it’s equally true now: radical change comes from the bottom up. Remember, FDR himself said, “Make me.” Obama has pretty much implied the same thing, urging people to organize, to basically give him political cover to be able to move in stronger directions.

But let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Neo-Syndicalism is not merely a tactic to push government into a more radical direction. It’s a strategy. Again, it’s about rebuilding our economy, brick by brick. It’s about telling the corporatocracy that we will no longer play their little reindeer games, that we can find a path toward a real and lasting prosperity without them.
Neo-Syndicalism is just a term I came up with, but as I’ve said time and time again, words have great power. What we’re talking about is defining a movement that’s out there, working hard and doing good work. By identifying this as a movement, we create a synergy that will make it stronger through greater numbers and more comprehensive exchanges of information and, in general, people power.

September 7, 2009

#2 Identity: Definition of a Co-operative

Filed under: Governance,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 10:03 pm

The definition of a cooperative is “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.

Of course, this is the “social” definition determined by the International Co-operative Alliance. There are also legal definitions that vary depending upon where you live. To me, the point is that this definition exists regardless of what the law says a co-operative is (or isn’t).

It seems fairly straight forward. Much of the language mirrors that expressed in the values and principles that follow the definition. To a large extent, the key purpose of the definition is to provide a brand, if you will, for co-operatives. This had to be done in 1995 because the people emerging from the Eastern command economies experienced co-operatives that were mandatory, corrupt, and anything but focused on the needs of the members.

I think that even for those of us in the West with mature co-operatives have a lot to learn from this definition. For worker cooperatives, the concept of a common economic, social and cultural plays a significant role in the strength of the social cohesion of our communities. Worker Coops need to hire workers who can perform the work of the cooperative and also blend in with the culture of the cooperative. Of course, our hiring has to be done in accordance with the law and nondiscriminatory.

The members of co-operatives also self-select to a certain respect. As I learned in the 90’s, even the job of driving has its cultural nuances. Cab drivers and School Bus drivers have very different cultures and the people who gravitate to these jobs have different aspirations. But our worker co-operatives also need to meet demand. This may cause some conflict with the definition as we may need people who are willing to work regardless of how well they fit into the social and cultural aspects of the co-operative. Likewise, the economic needs can vary dramatically based on a worker’s life habits, the presence of dependents, and health care needs (health is particularly an issue these days and the importance to a worker depends on a lot of issues).

That conflict can create serious problems within the co-operative, but the solution lies in education and organizational process. Some co-operatives work hard to develop anti-oppression mechanisms to overcome cultural differences and even create the sense of diversity as part of the culture of the organization. The solution also comes from the democratically controlled nature of the organization. What democracy means varies greatly. Some worker co-ops seek to eliminate hierarchy and create strong participatory democratic mechanisms while others see democracy solely as an action of voting.

The term jointly-owned is also a neat addition. We all know that co-ops are “one member, one vote”, but the concept of jointly-owned takes it a step further. It should remind us that these organizations are “ours” only in the collective sense. I only own my co-operative in a collective sense with my fellow members. Regardless of how important a member might feel to their co-op (or even how the other member feels), they are still one of the whole. This should remind us to work to avoid the evils of the political and corporate and even non-profit world: personality cults and win-lose coalitions. It speaks to the sense of achieving consensus over simple electoral supremacy. It is, at its heart, an associations of “persons” of equals.

This is why the definition is important to us. It keeps us focused on the True North. It reminds us of the key aspects of the cooperative difference: voluntary membership, democratic control, benefits to the members.

October 28, 2007

The Ownership Society

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 9:08 am

October 2, 2006

That was the buzz a few years ago from the White House. They, meaning the kleptocrats and their Wall St. friends, wanted to open up the locked box of Social Security and allow people to “invest” their social safety net into the market place. Certainly, the market can do a much better job of helping people prepare for retirement than the government (oh, excuse me: tha gubnint). So, came the pronouncement from the CEO of USA, Inc. that he would create an “ownership society” in which people had a sense of owning their destiny.
Of course, the “ownership society” already exists. It shows up in the forms of cooperative business structures as grocery stores, HMO’s, bakeries, engineering firms, home nursing, home care, cab companies and a host of other businesses. It also provides lower cost housing and, in some case, acess to automobiles. Of course, the idea of collective ownership isn’t what the “ownership society” is about. It is about paying a company a fee to manage your money and hoping that they manage it correctly. Isn’t a true ownership society about taking economic control of one’s life and not just handing money over to a private firm who charges a fee?

Here is a fun essay about the Co-operative Ownership Society.

After a false start in April, this space will continue. I have recently entered St. Mary’s University’s Masters of Management: Co-operative and Credit Union’s program. It appears to have been created to develop strong management practices for the co-op world. Prior to this course work, the only option was the tradtional M.B.A. which pulled its co-op minded (and funded) students away from their cooperatives and toward their capitalist competitors. In addition, I have become more active with the movement. Expect to hear more about both in the coming months.

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