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Worker-Owned Cooperatives: Direct Democracy in Action

Worker-Owned Cooperatives: Direct Democracy in Action
Wed, 4/17/2013 - by David Morgan

Flashpoints—those unexpected events that movements gather around, when everything is accelerated, exciting, and energizing—fizzle. Whether they fail to gain traction, or splinter off to catalyze multiple new efforts, movement events serve an important function: they are short­lived and inspiring.

At the same time, they are moments of immense opportunity when we can make strides and pool our collective power. The cooperative movement is experiencing a string of these moments now, and is burgeoning with renewed activity. I see this first­hand as a co­-owner of the Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), a worker­-owned cooperative that participates in many co­op networks. We’ve facilitated hundreds of co­op workshops around the country, and taught thousands with our resource Co­opoly: The Game of Cooperatives.

It’s our philosophy that cooperatives enable direct democracy and local control over the economy. As participants in the co­op movement, we help to turn flashpoints into lasting social change. Fortunately, the path to a community-­controlled economy is well­ worn, and the adaptive responsive networks of the movement are buoying this energy. Over decades, these movement-based networks have quietly built support structures to transition us to a new economy. And with renewed demands for economic justice, they are springing to life.

The Model

As many look for ways out of the capitalist morass of boom­-bust cycles, worker cooperatives have taken center stage. Cooperatives are democratic enterprises where both ownership and decision­-making power are democratically shared. As a result, they keep money and power in the hands of the community.

There are many types of co­ops — credit unions, housing co­ops, food coops, and so on — and though they abide by the same Seven Cooperative Principles, all coops operate differently. Worker cooperatives involve everyone in decision­-making on a one ­vote, one­ share-per-member basis. The company is also equally owned by all.

Even though only 1% of the cooperatives in the United States are worker owned, their organizing success has recently made them a focal point in the struggle for economic justice. Indeed, Occupy Wall Street participants launched a worker-run co-op print shop in Brooklyn called OccuCopy.

These organizations are inspired by successful historical examples, like the Mondragon system in Spain, and Emilio Romagno in Italy, which provide a model for economic transition and sustainability. Today’s co­ops are also guided by an earnest, evidenced solidarity—in other words, they put their money where their mouth is—which provides support for members and fellow organizations alike.

Guided by cooperative principle number six, which promotes cooperation amongst cooperatives, partnerships between co­ops were easily realized. They multiplied and soon turned to regional alliances, which snowballed into national networks.

The Network Hubs

Organizations that facilitate democratic ownership have been essential to the movement's lasting success, and their approach and structure differ from other social change institutions. Since worker control is so valued within the worker co­op movement, these support organizations take the same shape as their member organizations and are structured as worker cooperatives.

Each member has a share of the organization, which makes them co-­owners of the cooperative. When decisions need to be made that affect the group, each member has one vote to say how the cooperative is run — a mix of direct democracy and representational structures.

Inspired by the Mondragon cooperative network, the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives (VAWC) came together in Western Massachusetts in 2005. The group first met at the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy, and they are a direct result of national networks crystallizing at the regional level.

What sets VAWC apart is a strategy of co­op-led development. The organization helps start­up or transitioning co­ops get their footing; they provide technical assistance to their membership in the form of skill­sharing and professional guidance. “We received help on things like bylaws, articles of incorporation and other things that are difficult for people running small businesses to get done while trying to keep everything going,” says Rebekah Hanlon, worker-­owner of Valley Green Feast, one of VAWC’s member organizations.

VAWC recently launched an inter­cooperative loan fund. Through the fund, members tithe 5% of profits to help one another and to invest in new co­op ventures. “We've gotten to a point where not only do we have knowledgeable co­operators from all walks of life meeting monthly, but we also have capital,” adds Rebekah.

“I look forward to the day when our loan fund is mature enough the help a business start up. It'll be a real accomplishment when a new co­op can be supported with finances, technical assistance and inter­cooperative opportunities.”

The organization is structured as a worker co­op, and operates by consensus with a membership comprised of representatives from other worker co­ops. They jointly share in promotional opportunities, both for their individual co­ops and for teaching the public about the model. VAWC’s work has a multiplier effect; each new co­op they help launch can join the Alliance, which positions the group to help even more co­ops get off the ground.

"Being a part of co­operators directing and funding their own support and development has been a powerful experience,” says VAWC’s sole staff member, Adam Trott. “It has also been effective. Since 2009, VAWC has supported 4 worker co­op conversions, co-­created curriculum at UMass, Amherst as members of the Co­operative Enterprise Collaborative, co­-founded the cross sector Valley Co­operative Business Association, launched the VAWC Interco­operative Development Fund and more."

VAWC enjoys an exceptionally cooperative cultural context in the Pioneer Valley, where there is a strong desire for economic democracy, and a history of collective management. In fact, by the time VAWC was formed, half of its its member organizations were independently operating, and had many cooperative allies.

A similarly rich cooperative culture exists across the country, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, or NoBAWC (pronounced "no boss"), is a hub for the region, literally centralized within 30 minutes of each member organization.

A stunningly large network—nearly one out of every five U.S. worker co­ops are part of NoBAWC <http://www.nobawc.org/article.php?id=56>—most member co­ops are in Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Like other membership organizations, NoBAWC grew out of a need to collaborate and share best practices amongst like­-minded organizations. The members now share resources and incentivize collaboration by offering each other reduced rates on their goods and services.

Since their formation in 1995, they’ve grown so large as to require a permanent staff person and a dedicated steering committee to chart the group’s long­term vision. Like VAWC, NoBAWC develops and promotes start­up co­ops. Smaller, regional efforts like VAWC and NoBAWC now feed into a national network of worker cooperatives.

As the first and primary national hub, the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) brings together the full array of players within this movement. After many years of organizing, they were incorporated in 2004 to provide support to their membership, as well as educational outreach to the public. A small organization with a two­-person staff, USFWC’s extensive work to promote cooperation puts them in the center of a dynamic movement.

The Federation connects its members to each other and to support organizations through referrals and their regular conferences and events. The support they provide to their members is both extensive and flexible. They provide essential information and resources according to the membership’s needs, such as meeting facilitation, or research into health plans. It is no small task to coordinate such a diverse patchwork of co­ops, and the USFWC capably handles a membership representing over 1,300 workers, from many different industries and geographies.

In addition, in the last few years, the USFWC launched the Democracy At Work Network (DAWN), a peer adviser system within worker co­ops that provides support, from sales to structure, to existing and start­up worker co­ops.

“Resources are starting to be directed at worker cooperative development in a way we haven’t seen since the 1970s,” reports Melissa Hoover, Executive Director of the USFWC. “People are not just organizing individual cooperatives, they’re organizing cooperative networks for mutual aid and support. In the last five years, we’ve seen networks or proto­-networks of existing cooperatives start in New York City, Madison, and Austin.”

There is emergent interest in more national groups, as well, especially around core issues like financial access. These types of working groups aim to fill out the middle of the co­op movement, acting as a working group somewhere between regional and national in scope.

The co­op movement is gaining steam, drawing from new energies and a renewed interest in the model. All movements have these periods of acceleration, times when opportunity comes knocking at every turn. Typically, such are the times when reflection is most needed, because new dynamics can dramatically change the situation.

“Worker cooperatives are growing in visibility and scope, and while we shouldn’t be afraid of this, my own understanding of cooperative history and the system in which we’re embedded leads me to believe that we need to be cautious and strategic, and insist on the integrity of the form,” cautions Melissa Hoover. Thanks to savvy organizing, and much behind­-the-scenes work, cooperatives have the structures in place and will continue to fight for nothing short of a new economy.

 

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