GEO SPECIAL SECTION:
U.S. FEDERATION OF WORKER CO-OPS
THE CASCADIA COLLECTIVE CONFERENCE
While the corporate media continues to spread the myth that capitalism is inevitable, organizers in Oregon and Washington are demonstrating that cooperative and democratic alternatives are not only possible, but in fact already exist. The Cascadia Collective Conference, April 28th-May 1st in Portland, Oregon will bring together many thriving worker cooperatives and collectives throughout the Pacific Northwest to share skills, build relationships, and demonstrate the power and viability of democratic worker ownership and collective management.
The Cascadia Collective Conference (CCC) was born after the May 2004 founding conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Taking inspiration from this historic event, Members of the Portland Alliance of Worker Collectives (PAWC), together with coop organizers from Olympia, Washington, began to envision a conference that would build on local successes and develop a stronger cooperative movement in the Northwest.
Similar networking events have been organized for a number of years on the West Coast by the annual Western Workers Coop Conference. The new U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (www.usworker.coop) aims to build mutual support between democratic workplaces on a national level. Yet large federations are only as strong as their local bases. As one CCC organizer, Andrew McLeod of the Olympia Food Coop, suggests: “We need to fill in the new U.S. Federation with strong local organizations. This is what the Cascadia Collective Conference is about—bringing our networking to a more local and regional scale.”
The Portland Network
In recent years, Portland has developed a vibrant network of democratic workplaces. Thirteen of these enterprises came together in 2003 to form PAWC, “a mutual beneficial association for Portland area cooperatives and collectives that are directly controlled by the people who work and live in them and are owned either by the community or their workers or residents” (www.pawc.net). As the sponsor of the Cascadia Collective Conference, PAWC is taking one more important step toward strengthening its network and building a local cooperative movement.
Meanwhile in Olympia, Washington, recent organizing efforts are giving birth to an exciting and diverse array of new and emerging cooperative endeavors. Current projects underway include: working to create a biodiesel gas station coop, an art center and a cooperative café using gleaned agricultural products; envisioning a local, collective health insurance system; developing a cooperative of healthcare providers; and creating a new high-speed wireless and internet coop. A spark of cooperative energy is in the air, and the CCC comes at a perfect time to build on this enthusiasm.
Building Mutual Aid Relationships
Conference organizers see this event as a way to build stronger relationships of mutual aid between these existing and emerging collectively-run enterprises throughout the Cascadia region. “Our hope is that the conference will allow people to continue to cultivate connections beyond the event itself,” says Lori Burge, a primary conference organizer, PAWC council member, and Development Manager of People’s Food Cooperative in Portland. “It is crucial for us to build ongoing mutual support relationships, to be able to ask questions of each other and to ask for help when it is needed. The best way to build these connections is to make it personal, to have face-to-face relationships on a regional level.”
In addition to connecting already-established collective businesses, the CCC will also allow newcomers to the cooperative movement to find inspiration and resources for creating their own initiatives. “What’s most exciting to me,” says Andrew McLeod, “is that the conference provides space for people who are new to coops to come and learn and get involved. And people who are just starting coop projects can go to the conference and talk with experienced folks. Hopefully they’ll say, ‘Wow! I don’t have to figure it out from scratch!’”
Practical, “nuts & bolts” workshops will be led on Friday and Saturday by cooperators from throughout the region and will include topics such as: consensus and meeting process; cooperative communication systems; basic finances for co-managers; leadership and empowerment; personnel issues, including hiring, training, staff development and evaluation; strategic planning; and “niche marketing”—building community support for your enterprise. There will be additional opportunities for conference attendees to create and facilitate their own topical discussions. Friday’s schedule will include a tour of collective businesses in the Portland area.
The conference concludes on Sunday, May 1st with group participation in the Portland May Day march. As Lori Burge describes, “We want to create a strong voice for worker coops and collectives as valuable parts of the labor movement and as important institutions that work to promote worker’s rights.”
For more information about PAWC or the Cascadia Collective Conference, visit www.pawc.net, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (503) ORGANIC.
Ethan Miller is a musician, writer and organizer. He rocks out with RiotFolk, an artist-owned and run record label (www.riotfolk.org), and lives at the JED Collective, an agricultural mutual-aid community in Greene, Maine, that works to support local and global movements for justice, ecology and democracy.
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