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Supporting Activism, Finding Gratifying Work, Creating a Successful Business:
A Conversation With C4 of New Orleans

by Chris Heneghan

 

How to Take Work Seriously

 

Thirty-two year old Jeffrey Brite admits it was difficult for him to take work seriously. Even as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), fighting to unionize employees in the franchise restaurant where he worked, he could not escape the feeling that his employer somehow owned him and that the work he was doing was of no benefit to himself or society. When his son was born and the demand for steady pay became a priority in is life, Jeff started to realize the toll the timecard was taking on his mental health; he started to consider an actual career. Disenchantment with wearing the yoke of an employer for the rest of his days turned him on to the practices and theories of worker cooperatives.

 

Determined to give the traditional nine-to-five the slip, he began to research plans for a cooperative business. "What I was trying to obtain was an organizing model that worked," Brite told me. He found such a model in the organization of South End Press, a non-profit collectively-run book publisher in Cambridge, MA. With over twenty years of success as a cooperative business, the South End Press model served as a template for Brite's vision.

 

In 2002, together with a group of friends, he founded the C4 Computer Consultants Cooperative. Their initial plan was to provide free technical support to activist organizations in the New Orleans area and to supplement this work with contracts from outside clientele who paid a flat rate for their services. He says, "The idea was to show people that if we could run an industry this way―through creating a model that would help other cities develop their own information technology cooperatives―then we could run a whole society in the same way."

 

Recalling the days when it was sink or swim on what little resources they had, Brite remembers posting bills all over the Crescent City and hoping that somebody would bite. "Coming from activist backgrounds our way of advertising was flyers―we put flyers up everywhere. After we learned what people were looking for we started to just focus on that. All the money came out of pocket."

 

What Makes Cooperatives Different

 

After four years as a successful worker cooperative, Brite believes C4 is still very much in an early stage as a business. The influx of activists into the city after Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the need for local businesses to get their computer systems back online, brought in a great deal of new clients. He admits the uprise in clients was a bit of hiccup for the folks at C4, but no one is complaining about the increase in demand for their services. The money generated through the overflow of work allows the cooperative to give more back community in terms of free labor. Most recently they completed a volunteer wiring job at the office of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund on Claiborne Avenue. They also frequently provide service to the Iron Rail, an anarchist bookstore the city.

 

Jeff's brother James, who joined the C4 staff in the summer of 2005, embraces the freedom that this democratic workplace has given him to take ownership of his work. Reflecting on the contrasts between his experience in a cooperative work environment and other job settings, James speaks of a sense of gratification he was unable to obtain from any employer. "One strength that I really feel comes from coops is that once you have been involved with one and you immerse yourself in it and take

part ownership of it, it's a lot easier to want to give that extra mile―at least it is for me."

 

James sees the extra mile put in by those involved in worker cooperatives as one way in which cooperatives are connected to the larger struggle throughout the world for social change. "Worker coops more than likely have a better wage system than any other institution; this drives up the wages in their industry and is good for all workers in that sector. Every dollar that goes to a worker coop is a dollar not going to some capitalist."

 

Currently many of C4's customers are capitalists. But operating incognito within such businesses, he says, needn't do any harm to an enterprise's cooperative structure. "I think it puts us in an interesting

position. Whatever work you do, there are issues you can push that are positive. One of the things that we try to push is open source solutions; that way we move things out of proprietary corporate control software and into an area of community-based software solutions. That is one thing we can do just by our involvement."

 

Work outside of activist circles on larger-scale jobs often brings with it a workload that is more than the members of C4 can handle on their own. If a job goes over ten percent of the average labor that C4 usually handles, they contract with outside help. The cooperative makes an effort to remain democratic when dealing with contractors, giving them the same pay that every C4 employee on that job receives, as well equal say in work-related decisions. When the job is finished any left-over profits are put into a pool to cover C4's expenses. Money remaining after covering expenses is put towards pro bono activist projects in the future.

 

What Lies Ahead For C4

 

Jeff Brite hopes that as C4 continues to grow the need for outside help on large scale projects will diminish. In the future he believes C4 will employ a mixture of unskilled and skilled laborers. He's

not entirely certain how that will play out, but is optimistic and willing to let it develop over time. Right now all members of the cooperative are committed to maintaining the principles of a democratic workplace as they expand and will continue to follow by-law protocol on new members, which

outlines a four month screening process that begins with an initial interview. The interview is followed by a three month trial in which the potential member works for C4 receiving the same pay as all regular cooperative employees. During this time the candidate attends monthly meetings with cooperative members. At the end of the trial period the person is invited to a dinner paid for by the coop. After the dinner the members of C4 meet to decide whether to welcome the person aboard as a full time member of the cooperative.

 

Currently the C4 has six members and two full time employees. For more information about their model and the services that they offer visit: www.896tech.com.

 

 

Chris Heneghan is a regular contributor to the Free Press, a University of Connecticut student publication. He has also been a volunteer with the Common Ground Relief Collective, assisting in the cooperative rebuilding of New Orleans.

 

 

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