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

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 27, 2017

Stand in solidarity with HOTEL BAUEN workers

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 4:19 pm
Appeal for international solidarity with the law of expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN voted by the Argentine Congress on November 30th, 2016 and vetoed by President Mauricio Macri

After almost 14 years of struggle, the Argentine Senate passed a bill for the expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN in favor of the worker cooperative on November 30th, 2016. The existence of such law has consolidated workers’ self-management and has brought historical justice to this cause, given that former owners of the hotel built it using public credit facilitated by the genocidal de facto military government (1976-1983); this credit was never repaid. Beyond historical rectification, the expropriation bill recognized the Hotel BAUEN’s social purposes, including myriad solidarity-based initiatives, and cultural activities that regularly take place in this worker-managed hotel, making the BAUEN an emblem of workers’ self-management in Argentina and in the world. But Argentine President Mauricio Macri has subsequently vetoed the expropriation bill based on fallacious arguments that deny the social purposes of the cooperative, that reject the recovery of the public funds, and that will leave 130 workers unemployed and unable to provide for their families. We urge the members of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies and the Argentine Senate to reject the presidential veto and to confirm the law that expropriates the Hotel BAUEN on behalf of its workers in order to repair this injustice, avoid the eviction of workers from the hotel, and strengthen our democracy.

Hotel BAUEN constitutes one of the most emblematic worker-recuperated businesses in Argentina. Closed by its owners as part of a fraudulent scheme that left its workers out on the street by the end of the 2001, the 20-story building located in downtown Buenos Aires was asset stripped and abandoned by its owners for more than a year before a group of former workers occupied the space on March 21st, 2003. Thus began a process of 13 years of workers’ self-management that has created 130 jobs and witnessed the Hotel BAUEN’s workers make major investments in repairing and renovating the hotel’s infrastructure, all with very little external financing. Hotel BAUEN, which was once a symbol of corrupt power in Argentina, has now, under workers’ self-management, become a meeting place for social movements, unions, and workers’ organizations. Over the past decade, the hotel has hosted hundreds of organizing conferences and debates, as well as academic and cultural events.

Hotel BAUEN is not just an emblem of self-management. Its origins also constitute a symbol for the collective memory of the collusion and corruption between economic power and the genocidal dictatorship that ruled and bloodied Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Hotel BAUEN was originally constructed in preparation for the World Cup of soccer hosted in Argentina in 1978 and financed with loans from the national bank (BANADE) that were never repaid. Thus there still exists an outstanding public debt. The expropriation bill permits the Argentine State to regain the ownership of the building and subsequently have it transferred to the workers’ cooperative, which has, after all, recuperated it for the working class and Argentine society. The subsequent presidential veto, however, has impeded this historical reparation promised by the expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN, and has, instead, consecrated the impunity of the accomplices of the military dictatorship and punished the workers who have devoted their effort, their work, and their resources to the recuperation of this hotel.

The signatures in the petition represent those who stand in solidarity with the workers of Hotel BAUEN. They represent a call for the Members of Congress of the Argentine Republic to confirm the expropriation bill they passed, allowing the continuation of workers’ self-management, which is exemplary to the world.

To send an email of support to the Hotel BAUEN workers: solidaritybauencooperative@gmail.com

September 25, 2015

Worker Development Brings a Better World

Filed under: Human Relations,Pensimientos,Reflections,Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:17 am

REFLECTION NO. 276

Work is the attribute that gives a person the highest honor of being a cooperator of God in the transformation and fertilization of nature and in the resulting promotion of human well-being. That people exercise their faculty of work in union with others and in a noble regime of cooperation and solidarity, gives them not only nobility, but also the optimal fertility to make every corner of the earth a mansion that is agreeable and promising for all. This is what work communities are for and it is them who are destined to make our people progress.


 

Work, in the modern era, may be seen as, and often is, as a drudgery. This is, I think, because work rarely has meaning for the individual (unless they are lucky enough to be in a profession). The effect of scientific managment (Taylorism) has been to deskill work to the point that there is little for workers to care about. It is an assembly line world and without ownership, it is no wonder that many feel like a cog in the machine. It places the individual worker alone and only motivated by self-interest.

Arizmendiarrieta saw work as an enobling act through worker ownership. It was a means to an end and the end was a fully developed human and community that would, in turn usher in world of peace and harmony. In acting in unision, collectively, people not only prosper but care for the environment in which they live. The pursuit of wealth includes a healthy ecological enviroment in which all prosper together. Lofty goals to be sure.

Today, Pope Francis, hit similar a theme in his speech to the United Nations. He said, “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prduential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our pland and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women whove, struggle and suffer and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.” 

He also quoted his predescessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The econoligical crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. the baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismangement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for walth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflction on man: ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Mand does not create himself. He is a spirit and will, but also nature.’ Creation is compromised ‘where we ourselves have the final word. . . the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognizes any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'”

There are, of course, many contradictions within the Catholic church and the Co-operative movement. Despite the lofty values of solidarity, social responsiblity and caring for others, many co-operatives do not engage them. Even Mondragon, has its troubles from time to time. Likewise, co-operatives are willing to engage in unsustainable ecological practices as well.

The words of Arizmendiarrieta, on the hundreth annivesary of his birth, resonate today because his work is not done. As Pope Francis concludes his visit to the US, on the even of National Co-operative Month, it is worth taking into account the nature of co-operation and how our co-operative movment, especially the worker co-operative movement engages our values and principles. Are we just about “getting to scale” or do we want to create a just and ecologically sustainble world that allow workers dignity and opporutnity for growth?

 

August 14, 2014

Welcome to the Discussion

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 12:38 pm

There is a new blog about worker cooperatives entitled “Owning a Better Future”.  The focus of this blog, judging from the first couple of posts, will center on the growing “union coop” model. This model engages both traditional labor unions and worker cooperatives. The author, Rob Witherall, works for the US Steelworkers and has been a big part of the collaboration between than union and Mondragon.

Part of building the worker cooperative movement in the United States involves building our visibility. We need more of us to get our message out as best we can. We need a discussion about where the labor movement is heading.

I look forward to reading Rob’s posts and am glad for the company!

February 24, 2014

The Big (Wide) Tent of Worker Ownership

Last month, I flew to Washington DC for a day to represent the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives as a member of the organization. The event was a series of meetings on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC)We met with staff from US Representative Chaka Fattah (PA-2), Senators Harkin (IA), Franken (MN), Warren (MA) and Bennett (CO) from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). We wrapped up the day with the main event: a meeting with Assistant Secretary of Labor (Employee Benefits Security Administration) Phyllis Borzoi. Along with me, representing my coop and the USFWC was Joe Rinehart with the USFWC, and representatives from Eileen Fisher, Dansko Shoes, and New Belgium Brewing. The latter organizations are all 100% worker owned Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) enterprises. We also had people from the National Coop Business Association and Mondragon USA.

It was, as the title suggests, a Big Tent for worker ownership.

It so happens that I am reading The Citizen’s Share (Blasi, Freeman and Kruse) right now. This book chronicles the varied and rich history of worker ownership in the United States from the earliest days of the revolution until today. It notes that 47% of US businesses have some sort of worker ownership from the 100% owned companies named above to Google and Microsoft in which all workers have the opportunity to participate in the risk of the company (apparently Bill Gates’ ownership stake is now only 6% of the company he founded).  The message of the day was to discuss the importance of worker ownership as a sustainable model for economic growth in the United States.

I enjoyed this group and the approach. Too often, the concept of sustainable business only gets used to discuss environmental issues such as climate change. The plight of modern day employees tends to be ignored. This allows organizations engaged in Union busting tactics to present themselves as good corporate citizens. I would argue that sustainability (both for the climate and the economy) can only occur if workers are treated well and get a share of the pie that they create.

ASBC’s role is to bring together the worker owned businesses and unite the ownership movement. One of the problems is that there are some bad actors that use the image of worker ownership without providing the benefits to the workers. This is not unique to our country, but the lack of Federal understanding of worker ownership and a corporation laws that vary from state to state make it difficult to understand when workers really benefit from worker ownership.

For example, the US government clearly recognizes ESOP, but has no understanding or definition for a worker cooperative. The USDA recognizes Producer Coops and this language tends to be used by the IRS to determine if a business is a cooperative for federal tax purposes. ESOP really aren’t a type of business as much as they are a retirement plan. That is an important distinction between and ESOP and worker cooperative (and an area where the two concepts could create a lot of synergy). Ass’t Secretary Borzoi remained skeptical from her experience policing ESOPs that have used the structure to evade the Fair Labor Standards Act, but was impressed with the group at the table.

In January, we began a discussion with the Federal Government about worker ownership in the modern economy. It was clear to all of us (at least in the practitioner world), that the Wagner model of industrial relations has become outdated. We need new rules and definitions that help guide a national economy in which cooperatives and ESOPs operate across state lines (thus triggering Federal oversight) and engage in worker ownership and control of the workplace. We need to create laws that address a large workplace in which the workers really control the means of production through a one-worker, one-vote method (regardless of the type of organization). We, in the coop world, also need to strengthen the social definition of worker cooperatives (promote the CICOPA Oslo Declaration) and raise our profile. We can’t and shouldn’t be constrained by the legal definitions of the individual states. A democratically run ESOP with 100% worker ownership (even with workers having different shares of ownership) is as much a cooperative as Ch. 185 coop in Wisconsin with only 60% of its workers as members.

My only disappointment was that we did not meet with any GOP connected staffers. I truly believe that our movement is non-partisan and resounds with all of the political parties in this country (major and minor). If we are building a big tent, it will be necessary to look beyond party labels.

January 27, 2014

Block of Cheese–#AsktheWH

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 9:39 am

As legend has it, in 1837, President Andrew Jackson threw open the doors of the White House to invite the people to come sample a 1,400 pound block of cheese. Presumably, they also petitioned the government while they were noshing. For fans of The West Wing, it may be one of the top episodes.

On Wednesday, January 29, President Obama is holding a virtual “block of cheese” day. It is a day in which the public is encouraged to tweet or post on various social media questions for the President or his administration to consider. Using the hashtag #AshtheWH, and 143 characters, we have the opportunity to raise the profile of worker ownership and worker cooperation within the administration as it engages in its effort to affect the income inequality in this country.

To have any hope of an impact, however, our message needs to rise above the likely millions of tweets. This means using the phrase “worker ownership” or “worker cooperative” and (if there is room) noting the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives or another group, the American Sustainable Business Council.

I have come up with a few tweets that I am happy to share (in fact, I hope people take the opportunity to send them along):

  • Worker Ownership creates a sustainable economy, will POTUS make it part of the agenda? #askthWH #ASBC #USFWC
  • Washington and Jefferson used worker ownership to rebuild the cod industry, will Obama use it to build a sustainable economy? #askthWH #ASBC #USFWC
  • Worker ownership promotes income equity and a sustainable economy. Make worker ownership part of the economic agenda. #askthWH #ASBC #USFWC

Feel free to come up with your own, edit these, or what have you. Please post tweets here as well in the comments. The more of us doing this, the more likely that the idea of worker ownership might get noticed.

The Block of Cheese event isn’t going to change the world, or even change Washington. I certainly don’t expect any sort of sea change to occur because of this, but we need to do even the small things to raise our profile and this is one that all of our members can do from their phones, tablets, and computers.

 

Next Week: More on the American Sustainable Business Council and the Big Tent of Worker Ownership

November 25, 2013

Putting Your Money Where It Helps: Become a US Worker Coop Sustainer

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 12:29 pm

There is an old saw that “money is like manure, it only works if you spread it around!” Too often money gets conflated with “profit” and the idea of raising capital seems a bit wrong. As a result, worker movements have a tendency to live on shoe-string budgets and hinder their ability to effect change in the world. To this, I am reminded of the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life!” when Clarence proclaims, “Oh, we don’t have money in Heaven!” George retorts, “Yeah, well it comes in pretty handy down here, bub!.”

Our movement to create a more sustainable economy based on humane and democratic workplaces requires that we support our organizations and put our money towards building that world that we want to see. That is why I am asking you, dear reader, that you step up and support the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives by becoming a sustaining supporter. A minimum donation of $10 per month will go a long way towards help this apex organization represent worker coops, provide support to existing and new coops, and help build the worker coop community.

In addition to “being the change” that you want to see, you also need to fund it.

The US Federation has done a lot since its inception in 2004. It has produced four national conferences some of which included special volunteer actions (such as in New Orleans in 2008), created the Democracy at Work Institute and the thriving Democracy at Work Network of Peer Advisers. The USFWC has worked hard to raise the profile of worker cooperatives as a sector of the larger cooperative movement by nominating candidates for the NCBA board, demanding a worker coop seat on that board, participating in last year’s White House meeting on cooperatives, and attending conferences and apex level meetings through out the world. The USFWC is poised to begin helping to draft new laws to enhance and protect our movement. The USFWC provided leadership and support in the creation of CICOPA-North America.Almost all of this has been accomplished with half-time Executive Director and a Quarter time Membership coordinator. Our movement needs our support and that means that as individuals, we need to step up.

I realize that there are a lot of demands on our time and money. If you are in the position to send $10 a month or more to an organization that works to build a better, more sustainable world based on humane and democratic workplaces, please act on that feeling of solidarity hit the link at the top of this post and sign up today!

November 4, 2013

Managing Old Industries: A lesson for aging coops

Filed under: Management — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 12:56 pm

Last week, Mondragon’s General Consul announced that it had decided to cease its efforts to stabilize the FAGOR Cooperative Group. FAGOR electronics makes kitchen appliances: stoves, ovens, refrigerators, and even pressure cookers. It is the original Mondragon cooperative that began life as ULGOR (an acronym consisting of the first letter from the last name of each of the five founders).

Mondragon, for those new to this blog, is a system of hundreds of individual worker cooperatives that link together vertically and horizontally to creation one of the largest corporations in the world. The Mondragon Experience, as they call themselves, includes manufacturing, transportation, retail, k-University education, finance, and even their own social security system that rivals that of Spain and other European nations. FAGOR, itself, is not a single cooperative, but made up of hundreds and it is one of the larger sectors within Mondragon.

When I visited Mondragon in 2007, the warning signs were already present. Mondragon had just negotiated the purchase of Brand Corp, a French “white-appliance” manufacturer. This purchase would make Mondragon the third largest manufacturer of kitchen appliances in the world. Even then, however, they realized that the nature of the industry would only leave room for two, not three.

Part of the problem arises from the aging of the industry of kitchen appliances. The oven, range, and refrigerator have not changed since their inception with the exception of various bells and whistles (self-cleaning, timers, and electronics that can tell you your milk is about to curdle). One could even argue, that the biggest advent in refrigerators occurred when we no longer had to put blocks of ice in the back for cooling. Likewise, the stove and oven’s biggest advance was being able to use electricity or natural gas instead of wood or charcoal. These advances happened during a different century. Old industries are hard to compete within. The main way of competition is reducing costs and the biggest costs are that of labor and transportation. Without a US manufacturing base, FAGOR has little options and spreading its workforce outside of the Basque Country runs against its mission and creates its own problems (as the strike in Poland during 2012 pointed out).

The second problem arises from sentimentality. FAGOR isn’t just any group of cooperatives in the Mondragon experience. It is, literally, the stuff of legends. It is the physical embodiment of the vision of spiritual leader Don Josê Marîa Arizmenidaretta and his five students. It created the foothold that led to the creation of the Caja Labora Popular. Without FAGOR, there would be no Mondragon.  In 2007, we met with members of FAGOR and they seemed resigned to their fate. They knew that the Brand purchase was treading water. I asked about the idea of re-tooling the plants for other products, but that is apparently not an option for reasons that I don’t understand, not knowing the manufacturing industry.

Under Mondragon’s system, each cooperative kicks in about 10% of its surplus to a solidarity fund that then assists struggling cooperatives. Over the last several years, FAGOR has accepted close to 300 million Euros (close to half a billion, US). It seems, from reading the press release, that Mondragon has finally decided to cease life-support for lack of a better word. This will likely bring a process of bankruptcy.

I am uncertain as to how this will effect the workers and their substantial equity in the organization. Each member invests 14,500 Euros. Membership also provides benefits through the system. Hopefully, there will be some ability for workers to move to other areas of Mondragon with their equity. In any event, this will be a painful time for the cooperative.

I also think that it will be an important time for Mondragon planners to learn. This will be the first, but not the last, time that they will need to effectively shut down a industry that has become too old to produce decent jobs. It might provide some lessons about how to transition factories from one industry to another, how to build economic diversity within cooperatives so that as an industry becomes too unproductive, it won’t have such a heavy effect on the group. Most importantly, it might be a good thing to let the founders finally become the past. Mondragon will soon celebrate it 60th anniversary. The retelling of the creation myth will be central to that celebration, but so should the future. Mondragon doesn’t need to rely on”borrowing” designs from other companies, they now have the ability to enter new industries and be a commanding force. Part of learning to let go, involves embracing the new. This might involve reconsidering how the Solidarity Fund is used. Instead of propping up an aging industry, it could be used to retool for the future.

Of course, these are my musings from America. Mondragon is famous for “building the road as they travel” and have a great track record of learning as they go. It will be interesting to see how this story develops.

October 14, 2013

How Exceptional is “America”?

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

The discussion over the last two weeks centered on the challenges of growing a worker cooperative movement in Anglo-Saxon dominated cultures. I split a bit further by focusing on the specific problems in the United States that further hinder the worker cooperative movment. At the same time, I have started reading Employment Relations in the United States: Law, Policy and Practice by Raymond Hogler. He offers a unique take on American Exceptionalism, a term coined in some sense by Alex de Toqueville in his still relevant work Democracy in America.

Too often, the concept of American Exceptionalism implies an attitude of superiority of the United States in comparison to the other 195 nations on the earth. That isn’t always the sense, but the rise of Reaganism and its attendant neoconservatism (as opposed to neoliberalism which seems more focused on economics than politics) proclaiming the US a “City upon a hill” as the beacon of all good things and leader of the world (free or otherwise). However, there is something different about the United States. Perhaps it is the combination of fifty unique states, the legacy of the Civil War in which the rights of those states to govern themselves remains in dispute or maybe it is the disposition of a country made up entirely of immigrants displacing indigenous populations (themselves often migrating with the seasons).

The concept of the “working class” has never fully taken hold in the United States as it has in other countries. While disputed, John Steinbeck, the great working class author, reportedly dispaired that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as the proletariat as much as embarrased millionaires.”  Hogler uses the term American Exceptionalism to discuss the unique nature of the US labor system. This sytem, he argues, does not define people (workers)as a group united by class sentiment and common goals. It is a group that identifies as “American”. Hogler refers to Selig Perlman’s work of the early 1920’s that saw an American workers with the opporutnities that workers in other countries didn’t have. With the exception of women, non-slave workers had the right to vote in the United States and did not have to fight for suffrage. In addition, the abudnance of land that continued to expand throughout the 19th and into the 20th century meant opportunity for workers to stake out a claim on their own. This was simply not allowable in Europe and even England. Horace Greely’s exhortation, “Go West, Young Man!” was the mandate for young workers that if they didn’t like their job, they could move and create a new life becoming their own boss. The workers never coalesced into a finite social group because they always had other options.

This American Dream persists today. By the 1940’s the ideal of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism went hand-in-hand. Many of us, in today’s state of perpetual war, jobless economic recoveries, and shock doctrine capitalism may feel that the American Dream has become part of our past or a propaganda that never really existed. However, it has, over the years amassed a lot of power. It is the power of that dream that worker cooperatives can and should harness to further our movement in this country.

The Knights of Labor, for all of their faults, believed in the idea of workers managing themselves. They saw collective ownership as a form of the American Dream and won that would be attainable to workers. It would allow them better wages and give them the control over their lives that, as Americans, was their birthright.

One of the problems facing the worker coop movement is the same as that facing the labor union movement. Workers in the United States lack a class consciousness. There is a belief that through hard work and luck, we can all escape having to work for someone, hang our own shingle  and maybe even have people work for us. The lack of this class consciouness fuels an already dangerous sense of individualism that ignores the benefits of being part of a society or a community. However, worker cooperation can tap this energy. We can create a concept of achieivng that dream through collective ownership and decision making through the values of mutual self-help, solidarity and democracy. In doing this, we need to speak in the language of the American Dream, recognizing that in some way worker ownership is part of that dream.

April 22, 2013

Democracy at Work Network

Filed under: Education,Movement — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 12:14 pm

***Disclosure***

I was recently reelected to DAWN’s Board of Governors and the Training and Certification Committee. I am also a founding member of the organization. The following opinion (pitch, if you will) is all mine, however, and should not be seen as a statement by DAWN or representing DAWN.

***

Last weekend, the third annual spring meeting of the Democracy at Work Network (DAWN) convened along with the certification of its third cohort of Peer Advisers. It was an incredible weekend and we were reminded by our the folks on the Marketing Committee that we need to get the word out.

What is DAWN? 

DAWN is, as it names implies, an organization of people aimed at assisting worker owned businesses in improving their functionality and governance as a democratic workplace. What makes DAWN different from a consulting service or academic pursuit arises from the population of the group. DAWN focuses on Peer Advising. The majority of people in DAWN either work in a worker cooperative or have worked in a workers cooperative within the last five years. This is an essential element. While we do have members who work as professional consultants, DAWN looks to embody the concept of inter-cooperation and solidarity. Peer Advisers don’t need to learn about the dynamics of workers cooperatives since they live those dynamics.

However, this isn’t just people who work in co-op sharing war stories. The certification process ensures that the PA can provide the level of assistance needed. The first year of membership is spent engaging in intensive training through webinars and weekend retreats. while learning about financing, legal structures, strategic planning and a host of other issues, PA apprentices conduct research about coop models, teach each other about those models, and participate in an internship utilizing their host and a mentor for guidance. All of this culminates, if successful,  in becoming a Certified Peer Advisor.

DAWN’s Goal

DAWN ‘s stated goals are to:

  • meet the demand for technical assistance and development advice with high-quality services, and
  • increase worker cooperative technical assistance capacity from inside the movement.

I think that an unstated part of this is to also get our worker cooperatives (over 300 in the United States) to not always rely on a “do-it-yourself” method of development. Too often, in my opinion and experience, co-operatives either ignore development as something too expensive or too corporate or just too complicated. If co-ops do engage in development, then it is usually the result of a small group within the coop driving it and not necessarily part of a strategic vision. At best, everything is successful and the people leading have the knowledge, skills and ability to manage the manage the program and  are around long enough to see it through to fruition. At worst, it creates a series of false starts that further stigmatize coop development or organizational development as expensive, time consuming and not worth the effort. For most cooperatives, I imagine, the reality lies somewhere along the continuum between those extremes with most co-ops just feeling too busy managing operations to deal with the larger picture issues until an issue reaches a boiling point and demands the attention of the group.

Why DAWN Can Help Worker Coops Succeed

Operations tend to be what we are best at as co-operators. I think that this is a nature aspect of worker cooperation. We get the gritty details of getting people cabs, fixing bicycles, running retail operations, and making/roasting coffee. Sometimes the bigger picture of long-term planning, capital planning, organizational culture, governance and accountability gets lost in the mix as we try to keep our customers coming back, pay ourselves and our vendors. Some of these development issues get us outside of our comfort zones and don’t seem to really make a difference, so why spend our members’ hard-earned equity on it?

Worker Co-ops need to create new ways of managing. We aren’t our competitors and don’t want to be. Taking the time (and money) to think and create new ways of managing the collective assets of the cooperative in a manner that strengthens the organization along cooperative values and principles should help make our coops stronger and more resilient to the demands of the market place. It should create added-value for the consumers of our operations. Sometimes, this can be hard to do by ourselves. We may not always have the right mix of knowledge and skills or there may be underlying social issues that prevent moving forward. This is true of any type of business, not just worker coops and is why consultants often get brought into any business.

DAWN offers the ability to efficiently deal with development issues and build structures tailored to the individual cooperative. Outside facilitation can assist the members is seeing their organization from a different perspective, learn from other worker coop models (cross-pollinate if you will) and develop systems and strategies that will help their cooperatives meet missions, core values and be successful. DAWN is a fee-for-service organization. It isn’t cheap, but it does provide value.

DAWN was created to help coops help themselves through a peer assistance program. If you think that your coop needs some outside assistance, please consider DAWN as a resource created specifically for worker cooperatives.

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