Wow! What a Conference! Report Back from the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy
By John W. Lawrence

The historic Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, which convened at the University of Maryland from July 19-21, 2002—the first of its kind in over 20 years—was a smashing success! The Democracy Collaborative and the National Cooperative Business Association hosted the conference. Over 100 members of 34 different worker cooperatives, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), collective non-profits and support organizations gathered to discuss the nuts and bolts of worker cooperative organizing in the United States today and to plan for the expanding cooperative movement of tomorrow. Optimism permeated the conference. Participants told stories of personal liberation originating in their democratic work. Based on the freedom, justice and solidarity founded in their work experience, the participants’ commitment to expanding workplace democracy was palpable.

The conference program consisted of a variety of workshops and panel discussions on specific topics. The opening keynote panel entitled The Historical Perspective on Co-ops and Worker Ownership touched on the two major themes of the conference: 1) improving internal cooperative governance and 2) building a cooperative movement. Tim Huet of the Center for Democratic Solutions moderated the panel consisting of Frank Adams, Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership (SACCO); Hazel Corcoran, Canadian Worker Co-op Federation; and Jim Megson, The ICA Group. Frank Adams briefly outlined the roots of co-ops and linked co-op development to the historic struggle of labor. He pointed out that co-ops play an important role in the current global justice movement because they are organizing for a better future not simply against current injustices. Jim Megson stated that the workplace democracy movement is coming of age. There has been an increase in the number and types of worker-owned enterprises that are sustainable. He also saw strength in diversity; that is, there are now a variety of models of democratic work organization (e.g., traditional 1-vote 1-person co-ops, collectives, co-op nonprofits, ESOPS). Moreover, he stated that there are more sources of financial capital for start-ups. Hazel Corcoran described how Canadian co-ops are organizing as a movement through the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. The Federation consists of 300 co-ops with over 15,000 co-op members. Its goals include setting up services for co-ops, being a political voice for worker ownership, and creating ways to develop new co-ops. The Federation has been given a 1.5 million dollar grant from the Canadian government for capital funds for new co-ops.

A number of workshops focused on cooperative governance and human resource development in the workplace. Presenters repeatedly emphasized that a necessary component of a successful worker-owned enterprise is a “good internal culture.” Marc Rudnick of Community Builders Corporation, Loren Rodgers of Ownership Associates, and Tim Huet led a workshop on Democratic Participation and Leadership Development. They emphasized consensus building, making leaders out of all members, and addressing diversity issues. While there are a variety of leadership styles, Tim offered a working definition of leading as “influencing others to adopt and/or achieve collective goals.” Tim’s inter-active, outside-the-box discussion of leadership was convincing that we are all capable of, and in fact do exercise leadership. In the workshop Developing our Human Resources, Renie Marsh of Equal Exchange and Jenny Silverman of Red Sun Press explored how to use co-op principles in human resource development, and dramatized varying scenarios. Participants then broke up into small groups to address issues around benefits, worker-management relations, hiring, evaluation, and self-management.

In a session on Recruiting and Educating Members, Gordon Edgar discussed how new members are oriented at the Rainbow Grocery located in San Francisco, California. Rainbow Grocery is a 200 person, 14-department grocery store that is organized into 14 semiautonomous departments with no managers. Prospective Rainbow members undergo a series of orientations. The topics include: (1) the co-op’s history and structure (2) discipline, grievances, and conflict resolution, (3) safety, (4) customer service, (5) meeting process and (6) financial orientation. In the future they are planning to add an anti-oppression training workshop. Two sessions entitled Understanding Financial Statements and Open Book Management focused on teaching requisite business skills for democratic management (the first presented by Jennifer Sporzynski, The ICA Group and Susan Cole Halevi, Cooperative Fund of New England; the second presented by Bill McIntyre, Ohio Center for Employee Ownership).

Participants chose twelve different open space topics for afternoon sessions, including: hybrid coops, coops in low wealth areas, handling growth, globalization, continuing education, and financing. The day culminated with a successful scholarship auction, led by Loren Rodgers’ wonderful stand-up auctioneering. We raised $1,255.

The second major theme of the conference was “movement building and the future of workplace democracy.” This included such things as growth of existing co-ops, developing new cooperatives, the availability of financial capital, inter-cooperative cooperation and the role of support organizations. In a session entitled Building and Replicating Models, Randy Zucco of Collective Copies in Amherst, Massachusetts gave a fascinating account of how Collective Copies expanded to two stores. He also outlined Collective Copies plan for “franchising” Collective Copies. He argued that this might be a particularly good time for the development of democratic workplaces in the photocopy industry because many of the private owners who started their business at the birth of the industry thirty years ago are retiring. Stu Schneider of the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute discussed Cooperative Health Care Associates (CHCA) expansion difficulties. CHCA is a 550-member home-health care co-op in New York City. It is unique in that its members are often very poor. Worker owners reported having a yearly income of $4,500 prior to starting at CHCA. After two years with CHCA, workers average $14,000 a year. Stu stated CHCA has had difficulties replicating the success of CHCA in other cities because of changes in the market. Most devastating was cuts in home care funding by congress in 1997.

Gar Alperovitz, progressive author and member of the Democracy Collaborative, gave a moving talk entitled Movement Building and the Future of Workplace Democracy on the last day of the conference. He emphasized that cooperatives and employee-owned organizations are a critical component of the struggle for long-term progressive change. He described worker-owned enterprises as “a moral and practical spearhead” of the global justice movement in that they model “how to live democracy daily.”

Erin Rice of Collective Copies with Lynn Benander of Cooperative Development Institute led us in an uplifting wrap up. Erin made sure that we applauded and appreciated folks with varying years of involvement in workplace democracy (from 25+ years down to 1 year or less). We could tangibly feel ourselves connected to one another. To further cooperative development, co-op members at the conference decided to endorse a plan to organize a national worker cooperative conference in 2003 or 2004 presented by a delegation from the Western Conference on Workplace Democracy. Three co-op members volunteered to participate in the conference committee, Randy Zucco, Lisa and Josh Brown. Also Tom Pierson volunteered to represent the mid-west and is organizing a mid-west regional conference in early 2003.

John W. Lawrence is an activist, and psychologist in the Department of Psychology at the College of Staten Island. He can be reached . Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
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