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By Paul Fairchild
After about a year and a half of studying the worker cooperative movement from a distance, I felt the need to get a closer look at American cooperative businesses and to meet some of the people who make them work. Like most Americans, I had been ignorant of the existence of worker cooperatives, even though there were two in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. I was glad to learn about the 2002 Western Worker Cooperative Conference Oct. 20-23, which I attended.
The conference took place at Breitenbush Hot Springs, operated by a worker cooperative, near Detroit, Oregon. The highway from Salem to the conference center courses along the Santiam River through a gorge that becomes more beautiful the farther you travel upstream into the Cascades. To see the fall colors better, I stopped at a rest stop below Detroit Lake. There I saw the river up close and heard its waters, white capped and loud enough to drown out the sound of traffic. For a first-time visitor to the area, the effect was calming and reassuring.
The operation of Breitenbush reflects the commitment to preservation and gentle use of the land that Oregonians are known for. Vehicles park at a respectful distance from the cabins and common buildings. Electrical energy comes from the Breitenbush River, which, although at low level because of the western drought, was able to drive the turbines with occasional help from a diesel backup. This was sufficient to light the cabins, all equipped with energy-efficient lamps. The buildings get heat from the geothermal source that gives the center its name. The lodge and cabins belong to the landscape like the trees they came from. The sound of the river, and the pine scent make you forget that there are no telephones, radios, or television sets. Even cell phones are out of antenna range.
In the conference meetings and workshops, we sat shoeless on the carpeted floor, bolstered by stadium seats that eased the backs of some of us older attendees. I could best describe the mood of the sessions as one of relaxed discipline; relaxed because of the setting and facilities, disciplined because the facilitators knew how to keep the sessions on track and on schedule and because the participants helped.
The first session on the day of arrival was devoted to introductions and a brief description of each cooperative, its line of business, and its successes and recent struggles. Of the thirty-five co-ops represented, fourteen had come to the conference for the first time. Some had come from cities outside the region including Minneapolis, Amherst and Canton, Massachusetts, Lawrence, Kansas, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. As a gauge of the growth of the cooperative movement, this eighth western conference drew attendance similar in size to the eastern conference held at College Park, Maryland in July.
My conclusion from listening to the participants at the first session: the lagging economy is affecting almost all of them. Those with the longest history are doing better than those started more recently. Some are struggling to keep the number of members they have and to provide each of them a living wage. Others had success stories such as having to decide what to do with their growing prosperity. Randy Zucco told us how Collective Copies competed with a national chain of copy centers so well that the competitor’s local store closed. Overall, participants were committed to staying in business as cooperatives and were eager to learn how to be more effective.
I attended several focused workshops. Two finance workshops, one led by Beth Doyle of Good Vibrations, San Francisco, and the other by Marty Childs of Burley Design, Eugene, Oregon, made the connection between financial statements and decision-making. Beth illustrated how the income statement and balance sheet not only tell how well the business is doing, but give information for planning and making needed changes to budgets and investing. Marty used the example of reports required by banks to illustrate how cash management depends on good record keeping and how bank-required reports can be used internally to increase financial strength of the business. The sessions were especially valuable for members unfamiliar with financial concepts who need to understand business as more than just production and sales. Tim Huet and Beth Doyle together led the session on leadership development, explaining the need for leadership in any ongoing enterprise and the possible ways of viewing leadership. Tim referred to his experience in conducting workshops on leadership for cooperatives and the initial negative associations with the term “leader” among new members. As they become more aware of what a true leader is and does, negative feelings toward the position tend to change. Beth pointed out that because of a desire among workers for autonomy, many cooperative members deny that they have leaders, believing that leadership and autonomy are incompatible. The task is to change perceptions about the meaning of both, so that people can recognize legitimate, voluntarily given authority and distinguish leadership from authoritarian behavior. She said, “Denying leadership makes cooperation difficult.” Tim emphasized the importance of skill as the basis for leadership and the dangers of founding leadership on charisma. “Leadership based on charisma is often met with passive resistance. Leading and managing are distinct activities, each with its own skills,” he said.
Mealtimes and breaks gave me a chance to meet owner-members of cooperatives and to learn more about them. Perhaps as important as learning about daily life in a cooperative was getting to meet people who are dedicated to workplace democracy and who struggle with the challenges it entails. For them, economic democracy is not just a problem with a technical solution. It is part of a sustainable way of life they are developing in their daily work. That is the lesson I took from Breitenbush.Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.