Inter-Cooperation is Alive and Well in the Bay Area!
GEOInterviews Tim Huet of NoBAWC
The Network of Bay Area Worker Co-operatives (NoBAWC, pronounced "no boss" ) is one reason the San Francisco Bay Area is the cutting edge of America's worker cooperative movement. Getting 55 of the nation's roughly 250 worker cooperatives (about 25%) into NoBAWC was partly due to Tim Huet, a lawyer and a NoBAWC co-founder. Most NoBAWC co-ops are in Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Its mission is to promote worker self-management, to "build a movement" for it, and to encourage information and resource sharing among worker co-ops.
How was this generator of new co-operatives assembled? One answer is that Bay Area co-ops are only 30-minutes from a central meeting point. For the nuts-and-bolts, GEO editors Mike and Bob Stone sought out Tim Huet in his tiny office in San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery. Rainbow is a huge organic supermarket that is a worker cooperative. Tim also works at Arizmendi, an Oakland-based co-op group, and at the Center for Democratic Solutions. The interview was held on Aug. 14, 2000.
Mike & Bob: Inter-cooperation was part of the Mondragon network\rquote s concept. How did NoBAWC start?
Tim: It started 5 years ago, after several monthly meetings sharing experiences on common problems. They were how-to problems: hiring and evaluating members, handling patronage refunds, finding good co-op lawyers, accountants or bookkeepers. We identified the best practices. We didn't even know what worker co-operatives were out there.
We soon developed joint projects. This was hard because, we were different businesses. We found two projects: a facilitating guide for new co-ops, and our 10% discount at each other's co-op. We explored network health insurance, but in California different employers can't group employees for insurance. Still, NoBAWC has grown. We're hiring a staff person.
Tim: Members used to attend the California Co-operative Conference (CCC) at UC-Davis, near the agricultural co-ops. But the center of gravity of California's co-op movement has moved to the Bay Area where worker co-ops dominate. Recent CCC meetings have been in the Bay Area. But the Breitenbush Hot Springs worker co-op conferences have eclipsed CCC as a forum.
Mike & Bob: What are the Breitenbush Hot Springs conferences? (See report on New England inter-cooperation on page 8).
Tim: Oregon worker co-ops met at this retreat in Detroit, Oregon, near Portland. Conferences expanded to include Washington, then California, now the Northwest, Montana, the mid-West, and a few from Canada and the East, including Equal Exchange. Our sixth conference is October 24-26 (see calendar). One co-sponsor is National Co-operative Business Association. Breitenbush organizers have moved to the Bay Area due to our co-op activity.
Mike & Bob: How does NoBAWC function and what are its problems?
Tim: We started loose but recently elected a steering committee to work out jobs and funding for a part-time staff person to advise co-op start-ups or conversions. Incoming questions now go to about ten NoBAWC volunteer experts on "best practices" in insurance, hiring, etc. Most belong to three co-op groups: WAGES, in non-toxic house-cleaning; Arizmendi, a bakery, pizzeria and Berkeley's Cheese Board [the oldest Bay Area co-op]; and Manos, with janitorial, health care, day labor and management co-ops. With questions multiplying we've hit this structure's limit. We now need a staffer.
Mike & Bob: How does the mutual NoBAWC 10% discount work?
Tim: All members of NoBAWC co-ops get a card to present. Some co-ops want additional ID. We pitched the idea to our co-ops. In already discounted health care co-ops, the added 10% makes little sense. But all observe the discount-in different ways-both in solidarity and to bring in new business. A NoBAWC printer donated labor for the card; Rainbow donated materials. Each co-op specifies how it participates. Missing Link Bicycle Co-op does not discount bikes but gives 15% off everything else. A 10% discount at Red Vic Movie Theatre means an odd 75 cents off, so it gives a $1.00 discount. And so on.
Mike & Bob: Could network printers meet network printing needs?
Tim: In principle our two printers could supply NoBAWC printing needs. It hasn't happened, but the discount encourages us to move in that direction.
Mike & Bob: NoBAWC has only worker co-operatives as members?
Tim: Yes. Consumer, agricultural and other co-ops are listed in the regional directory of the Center for Co-operatives. Rainbow is a worker co-op only. Many Bay Area consumer co-op grocery stores failed, or converted to worker cooperatives. Other America Food Store converted and is doing fine.
Mike & Bob: Why was evolution of NoBAWC so slow?
Tim: The key is grassroots face-to-face meetings from which reps get useful knowledge. Worker co-ops wanted to learn what others do. This self-study developed trust. The discount and manual grew from that. Some co-ops held out until NoBAWC proved it would last; earlier attempts failed and much effort was lost. The Inner Collective held conferences and put out a directory and a map. But when its members moved it dissolved. Arizmendi believes you can't know all businesses, so a general organization wouldn't work. They focussed on baking. But NoBAWC, building on that, has brought out commonalities.
Mike & Bob: How does NoBAWC fund projects like the new staffer?
Tim: NoBAWC's steering committee of six representatives, not including me, will decide the amounts from co-ops and from grants for the position. The problem will be how much only one person can do. NoBAWC needed funds only for the card, announcements, and stamps for conferences. Members contribute as they can. With $25,000,000 in yearly sales Rainbow can contribute fairly easily.
Mike & Bob: What lesson from NoBAWC would you pass on to inter-cooperating New Englanders?
Tim: Everything starts locally. You then build to state, regional and national levels. It's all by geographic area.
Mike & Bob: Any feedback for GEO ?
Tim: I resubscribed but later realized it wasn't coming. I liked it. With Z Magazine, its one of the few places offering alternatives, not just criticism.
Mike & Bob: Do you see a relation between the co-op movement and the protests in Seattle, Washington, and now at party conventions?
Tim: I didn't go, though many NoBAWC folks did. I see cooperatives as training grounds for the skills to build a truely democratic society. But at Rainbow we're debating a boycott of Power Bars, just bought by Philip Morris.
Mike & Bob: Are cooperatives a non-exploitative alternative to sweatshops and abusive working conditions imposed abroad by multinationals?
Tim: Yes. One of my life goals is to set up a network of democratic workplaces in the Bay Area in which all of one's life needs can be met through cooperatives without recourse to multinational corporations.
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