AN OTHER SUCCESSFUL Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy
by John Lawrence, coordinating editor, GEO Newsletter

A Conference Inspired by Optimism

This year¬s Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) was held this past July at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A number of the workshops occurred on the tenth floor of the Campus Center which afforded a panoramic view of the lush, summer green hills of Central Massachusetts. The conference¬s tone was inspired by both the optimism of a nascent democratic movement and a keener sense of the challenges ahead.

The primary business conducted at the conference was the election of a 7-member (with two alternates) Coordinating Council chosen to plan future eastern regional conferences. Three members of this Council, Randy Zucco (Collective Copies), Lisa Russell (Equal Exchange), and Josh Brown (Casa Nueva) were re-elected, and will also represent East Coast worker cooperatives in planning the first national worker conference scheduled for May 24-26, 2004 in Minneapolis. Not only will this be the first national worker cooperative conference but also potentially the founding meeting of a national worker cooperative federation. In addition to the three just mentioned, other elected members of the Eastern Coordinating Council include Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo (Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community), Carol Haack (the Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership), Lynn Benander, (The Cooperative Development Institute), Jessica Gordon Nembhard (The Democracy Collaborative and GEO) and two alternates, Don Campbell, (Pioneer Valley Photo Voltaics) and Noemi Giszpenc (Ownership Associates, Inc.). €

Keynote speaker of the opening session, Bruno Roelants of CICOPA (a French acronym for International Organization of Industrial, Artisanal, and Services-Producer Cooperatives), gave an overview of the international worker cooperative movement. In reaction to economic globalization, worker cooperatives around the world have organized to protect their political interests and markets. Bruno cited several cases in which the economic or political viability of worker co-ops have been attacked. For example, Hungry and Poland have witnessed attempts to make worker co-ops illegal. In other places, there have been deceptive maneuvers to undermine the nature of worker co-ops. For example, in some Latin American countries feudal-like landlords have fired their peasants one day and told them to reorganize as worker co-ops the next day in order to cash in on the higher prices for their crops offered by fair-trade organizations.

On the positive side, Bruno stated that national and international federations of worker co-ops have quickly organized over the last ten years to protect worker cooperative interests. He noted that organizations such as CICOPA have played a key role in defending the social economy in the European Union. CICOPA has scheduled a potentially seminal meeting in Oslo in September, 2003 to create an international definition of worker cooperative. This definition will likely be a cornerstone for international policies regarding worker cooperatives for years to come.

Two other key note speakers, Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy and Tom Jurivich of Labor Studies Research Center in Amherst discussed the current political economy and labor movement, respectively, and the role of worker cooperatives in the larger social justice movement. Chuck Collins, who recently coauthored a book with Bill Gates, Senior entitled Wealth and Our Commonwealth, described the one-sided class warfare which defines U.S. politics today. He noted that states are all facing their worst budget deficits since 1945. As a result, social services provided by the states are being cut. For example, the school budget in Chuck¬s hometown, Boston, was cut by 15%. Congress¬s answer to the crisis was to cut taxes for the very wealthy. The right wing is using deficits as an excuse to cut social services and shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the working and middle class.

Likewise, Tom Jurivich outlined the attack on labor unions dating back to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. He reported that in the 1980¬s the rhetoric of workplace democracy was used to entice higher worker productivity but with no payback for workers. Due to the attack on labor unions and labor union conservativism, union representation in the private sector in the United States has shrunk to 9%. However, Tom reported there is now a resurgence of community-based union organizing, though it is too early to tell whether this new organizing effort can turn the tide in union representation.

Both Chuck and Tom noted the importance of worker cooperatives in the larger social justice movement. They reminded us that in the 19th century, a key goal of the Knights of Labor was a cooperatively organized economy. Moreover, Tom stated that the current labor movement is becoming more open-minded about worker ownership as they consider new strategies for saving jobs.

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Worker Owners Combine Democratic Values and Business Tactics

Breakout sessions of the conference were organized around three themes˜becoming a worker owner, democratic values, and business tactics. All were high quality and most were led by worker-owners themselves or members of support groups. In keeping with the theme of education and professional development, the Business Tactics track included sessions on marketing, advanced finances, meeting facilitation, and managing growth.

The sessions under Becoming a Worker-Owner included an introduction to worker ownership, introductory finance, decision making, linking with management, and members¬ roles in a democratic workplace. This track was lead by Jim Megson (ICA Group), who presided over almost all the sessions. On the first day, Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Jim provided an overview of worker ownership˜definitions, models, comparisons, examples. Jim, Don Campbell, and Tom Pierson (Seward Caf and North Country Co-op) led a hands-on session on consensus decision-making. After discussing elements of consensus building, we practiced using a number of group exercises. Facilitators of this session recommended a book by Monteze M. Snyder entitled Building Consensus: Conflict and Unity, published by Earlham Press. In a session on Your Role in Your Cooperative, Maureen MacLean (Rising Tide Co-op) described the uniqueness of Rising Tide and how its owners work together to organize their time, share ideas and responsibilities, and contribute to the community in ways that utilize and emphasize each member¬s strengths. In addition, participants previewed the new film on worker ownership, Made in the U.S. American Worker Cooperatives, by Laurie House and Colin Powers of Headlamp Pictures (distributed by the University of California, Davis, Center for Cooperatives).

The Democratic Values track included workshops on accountability, teamwork, leadership development, and inclusion and diversity. Carol Haack (SACCO) and Stephen Prieston (Community Builders Cooperative), for example, led a workshop on democratic values and accountability (see the box for more details about the accountability workshop). Bob Rottenberg (Cooperative Development Institute) led a discussion on workplace culture and diversity. Members of different co-ops described the challenges faced in creating diverse workplaces, as well structural impediments to diversity within the larger society such as racially segregated neighborhoods, unequal access to educational resources, and gender stereotypes about work roles˜all of which influence diversity and the work culture in their respective worker cooperatives. It was agreed that worker cooperatives must implement proactive diversity plans. Cathy McNally (NetMirth) lead a delightful teambuilding workshop using games and other activities to relieve stress and make teamwork fun.

A recurring theme of the conference was the need for greater inter-co-op cooperation. In a final problem-solving session at the end of the conference, cooperative support institutions did an impromptu information session on the services they have to offer cooperatives. Rebecca Dunn reported that the Cooperative Fund of New England had a recent influx of funds and is looking for loans to make. Bob Rottenberg described how the Cooperative Development Institute offers board and membership training and helps several start-up worker co-ops each year create and implement their business plans. Noemi Giszpenc stated that Ownership Associates focuses on helping worker cooperatives assess and improve the democratic culture of their business. Representatives of these support organizations stated they were not fully aware of each other¬s specialties. The group agreed that a centralized website with descriptions of all support organizations would facilitate inter-cooperation and maximize the utilization of the support organizations.

The conference also included a pre-session roundtable on the structure and mission for the eastern region and a business meeting for East Coast worker owners. And though there were many great workshops, the conference was not all work. During lunch on the second day, we were serenaded by Charlie King and Karen Brandow. On the final evening of the conference, Loren Rodgers of Ownership Associates was the auctioneer of a spirited and hilarious auction to raise money for scholarships for next year¬s national conference which netted over $1,000. There was an open bar and we danced to the excellent progessive music of Will Wilde Band.

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