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

February 22, 2010

#24 Concern for Community

Filed under: Governance,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 10:06 am

Concern for Community is the last of the principles listed in the Identity Statement. It is the expression of the value of solidarity and social responsibility. It creates one of the multiple bottom lines for co-operatives. It is not enough for a co-operative to be a profitable business. If it fails to be a leader for a more just, verdant and peaceful world*, then it has failed as a co-operative and might as well just be a group of greedy stockholders. Too often worker co-operators become insular and prone to naval gazing. Our structure is set up that way. We are predetermined (if we don’t act or create other structures) to focus on internal operations to the exclusion of the outside world. If we don’t engage this principle, we can fall into a pit of arrogance.

Because I worked for a taxi co-operative, I see this particular principle as all encompassing. Concern for community, to me, means: yielding to pedestrians, not tailgating, not speeding through residential neighborhoods, helping people with their bags, helping the elderly and people with disabilities manage steps and slippery walks.

It doesn’t have to mean political action in the partisan arena. Indeed, I think that most co-operatives should generally avoid taking a partisan side until a political party based on the Cooperative Ideal comes into existence. It does mean caring about the community that we serve—not because they are potential customers, but because our co-operatives are part of the community and should be community leaders.

The ICA makes the short definition: “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.”

Mondragon, parses “Concern for Community” into two separate principles that unpack the term a bit:

Universality

“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience , as an expression of its universality, proclaims its solidarity with all those working for economic justice in the sphere of the “Social Economy”, championing the objectives of Peace, Justice and Development, which are essential features of International Cooperation.”

Social Transformation

“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience manifests its desire for social transformation based on solidarity with that of other peoples, through its activity in the Basque country in a process of expansion which will contribute to economic and social reconstruction and the creation of a Basque society which is more free, just, solidary.”

The term, Concern for Community, is a huge concept. It is sort of a giant stew of issues. It might be about being good neighbors, good drivers, and good stewards of the land. It might mean participating in social development projects such as affordable housing, micro-lending, The Basque see promotion of the Basque language as part of this principle. Providing health insurance in an industry that normally doesn’t provide could be another example. Ensuring a living wage for workers in a consumer co-operative (or encouraging unionization of a co-operative’s work force) might be another expression.

For the worker co-operatives, it should mean excelling in customer service, being good stewards of the land that we control, creating systems to help our membership develop and succeed as human beings. We need to accept our roles as leaders in our community. We should conduct ourselves in a way that the general public (the community) will appreciate. We should set the standard of how a business treats the community as a whole if for no other reason than it is our community. It is where we earn our living, but it is likely also where we live our lives. Even in communities that have priced working people out of the central area (like San Francisco), it is still the co-operatives’ community.

Working for a better community means working for security for our members, their families, and their friends as well as our customers, their families and their friends and all of the other stakeholders that depend on us (our vendors, their families and friends) . It would be interesting to create a stakeholder map that listed everyone connected to our businesses and their connections (sort of like LinkedIn) to see the effect that our businesses have of the community. We are the George Bailey’s of the business world after all. As workers, we touch so many lives and, because we owners and control our destiny, have the opportunity to change people in a way that other businesses simply don’t.

It is really a small world out there spinning around a small sun in a enormous universe. All that we really have are each other. The co-operative community recognizes that and part of our job as co-op practitioners is to make that principle come alive through our co-operatives.

*I know that I am stealing from the NPR statement for some foundation, but it is such a great line!

Next Week: A summary of the Identity Statement including an examination of the writing of Dr. MacPherson as well as the comments on the 10th anniversary by Johnston Birchall.

November 9, 2009

#10 Social Responsibility

In my office, I have the Identity Statement posted where I can easily refer to it (along with Union Cab’s vision, mission and core values). I have a version that is based on the background paper, but includes other commentary.

This version describes the ethical value of Social Responsibility as follows:

“Social Responsibility—the interdependence of people and recognition of their dignity leads to a realization that individual and group action has profound effects on individuals, groups and their relationships.”

Clearly, this ethic ties into the values of solidarity, mutual self-help, and self-responsibility. It is, however, an ethic that has been co-opted by the corporations under the ideal of “corporate social responsibility” or CSR.

Of course, a lot of corporations do engage in a more humanized version of capitalism and that comes from a true belief that capitalism and an ethos of humanitarianism may be compatible. This group still pales in comparison to the clout and numbers of the neo-liberals and neo-cons; in fact, they are teaching those groups how to put a smiley face on their corporate actions. In some cases, they are also teaching the leaders of co-operatives without decent co-operative management theory the wrong ideas about management. In the corporate world, CSR is often about charity and marketing. Support a local little league team, clean up a highway, and sponsor the Komen Race for the Cure will offset the exploitation of developing countries environment and swear shop labor. Getting accreditation though SA8000 puts lipstick on the corporation that might also lobby the host governments to codify exploitation through ridiculous minimum wage laws ($2/day).

In the co-op world, social responsibility shouldn’t be about marketing. It should be about a genuine concern for the community and building a better world. This means to work to avoid or minimize the effects of exploitation. That includes exploitation of the earth and exploitation of labor. In the consumer co-ops, working with local producers and vendors, concentrating on fair trade (and fair production as fair trade is being co-opted). It means reducing waste, encouraging environmentalism, supporting worker rights.

In worker co-ops, social responsibility means the above as well, but it also means working to overcome the tendency to focus on the internal process of the co-operative. Worker co-operatives need to reach out to the stakeholders of their organization who aren’t members: consumers, suppliers, and the community as a whole. But how does the Worker Co-op Social Responsibility differentiate itself from CSR?

If WCSR means sponsoring benefits, cleaning up highways, and supporting little league teams, then worker co-ops aren’t really doing much different from their corporate counter-parts and failing to create the co-operative difference. Without a co-operative difference, the co-operative advantage fails.

How should we engage the public in our co-ops? For the retail outlets, consumer education offers a lot of value, but we need to go further. We need to be willing to be a voice in our community (especially around our specialty). We need to accept a role as community leaders because we are just that. By choosing the model of co-operator for our business (a model that says that workers don’t need bosses, but can manage their own affairs), we have chosen a model that promotes the worker as a community leader. Transportation co-ops should be active in promoting sustainable transportation systems even if it means promoting options other than what the co-op offers. Grocery Co-ops in promoting food security and sustainable living. Sex worker co-ops in promoting healthy choices affirming our humanity without the dogma of morality. All of us should be supporting the dignity of workers and the rights of workers to choose their representation (even if that means actively supporting and encouraging the unionization of the consumer and producer co-ops).

For the most part, most of the worker co-operatives that I have come into contact with do a good job on social responsibility. Although I have met some who don’t really support worker rights (they tend to be co-ops in a high-tech field or who see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than identifying as workers. Of course, a key part of WCSR is joining your federation of worker co-operatives. There really isn’t a good excuse not to do so. We need to start measuring it, however. The corporate world is measuring their success through SA8000, the WorldBlu Democratic Workplace, and other means.

The Co-operative, in the UK, has an extensive system of measuring their values. I am part of a research group through St. Mary’s University that is creating a similar tool for worker co-operatives. We want to create an index for worker co-ops that will create a score for them along the lines of the Identity Statement.

Ultimately, social responsibility is about more that patting ourselves on the back, but in accepting our role as community leaders, creating the change in our communities needed to develop a more sustainable and just society.

Next Week: Caring for Others

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