Taking the Next Steps in Solidarity: Moving Toward a National Worker Co-op Federation
by Frank Lindenfeld

The Breitenbush Conference

Further steps toward the creation of a national worker co-op federation were taken at the recent Western Worker Co-op Conference. Tim Huet, of the Arizmendi Co-op, presented a proposal for such a national federation which had been approved by the western conference Board.(See the proposal for a US Federation of Worker Co-ops reprinted on page 3). Attendees unanimously approved moving forward with this idea, and elected delegates who would join with East Coast and hopefully Midwest co-op delegates to organize a national worker co-op conference and a national federation next year. Temporary delegates of the western conference are Tim Huet, Gordon Edgar, and Andrew MacLeod; the conference Board will make a final selection of delegates at its Dec. 5 meeting.

The conference, held at Breitenbush Hot Springs, Oregon, October 20-23rd marked the 8th annual gathering of west-coast cooperators. Logistic details were ably handled by conference staff-person, Kirsten Marshall. It was attended by a record 96 registrants, plus an additional 6-8 members of the hot springs collective who live and work at the Breitenbush spa. Breitenbush is a healing community, owned by its 30 or so members.

The mood of the conference was upbeat, with a marked feeling of camaraderie. Most of the co-op members appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. Breitenbush boasts a number of hot springs on a large tract of land adjacent to a national forest, at the foot of a dormant volcano, Mount Jefferson. Most of the electricity is supplied by a hydro turbine, powered by the Breitenbush River. The cabins are heated by geothermal power. The conference registration included three delicious vegetarian meals a day. Attendees had time to hike in the mountains, sweat in the sauna, soak in the hot tubs (clothing optional), and (at extra cost) enjoy massages.

Attendees represented three dozen cooperatives, plus several support organizations including the conference≠s main financial sponsor, the National Cooperative Business Association. The largest contingent of cooperators from a single co-opĺ14ĺcame from the Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco.

Numerous workshops were available, some of them held at the same time. These included introductory and advanced sessions on finances, personnel issues, multiculturalism in the workplace, developing and supporting cooperative leadership, and orientation and training of new worker-owners. Other workshops discussed discipline and sexual harassment, and creating autonomy with accountability for work teams and individuals, and co-ops. The sessions were well organized, with many useful handouts. (See, e.g., ≤Some Possible Elements of a Leadership Development Program, reprinted below).

Open space” discussions were held on topics that had been omitted from the formal program, such as co-ops and political action. In addition to the two days of conference sessions, there was an optional additional day of intensive workshops on meeting facilitation as well as on conflict mediation.

The intensive experiential facilitator training, which I attended, was led by Arizmendi Cooperative Facilitation Team members David Freund and Darren Korn. Topics included proven practices for making agenda preparation, meetings, and decision follow-up more effective. The main focus of the workshop was on experiential training, including participation in mock meetings, highlighting examples of how facilitators might deal with disruptive members. (See the handout When does a proposal reflect group consensus,” reprinted on page 7).

Cooperative Equity Fund

pOne exciting proposal circulated at the conference was for the creation of a Cooperative Equity Fund. The proposed venture capital fund would have made use of 5-$10 million of the profit to midwestern cooperatives resulting from the sale of the Bloomin Prairie wholesale co-op to a large transnational corporation. The fund would have been administered by the North Country Development Fund, a midwest loan fund for cooperatives. This particular proposal, unfortunately, fell though; it was not supported by enough of the member cooperatives that had a stake in Bloomin Prairie.

pNevertheless, the establishment of such a venture capital fund seems a very desirable goal for the U.S. cooperative movement. A worker co-op equity fund would be used for investments to promote co-op startups and expansions. Such a fund would help to build the U.S. cooperative movement, with a role similar to that of the Caja Laboral (workers≠ credit union) in developing the Mondragon cooperative network.

Next Steps

÷÷ The proposal for a national worker co-op federation ratified by both the East Coast and West Coast worker co-op conferences will be presented for approval by the Midwest worker co-op conference slated for spring, 2003. Plans are afoot for a national conference of worker cooperatives that would take place subsequent to the midwest meeting. That conference would move forward with the establishment of a national worker co-op federation.

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