Democracy in the Workplace:
Three Worker-Owned Businesses in Action
A video by Robert Purdy and Margot Smith
Reviewed by Robert Marshall
Worker-owned co-ops in the Bay Area have organized the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC) to develop institutions which support intercooperation. Their goal is to find ways for existing worker co-ops to help start new worker-owned co-ops.
The video Democracy in the Workplace features three member co-ops: The Cheese Board Bakery and Cheese Shop, Rainbow Grocery and Inkworks. These worker cooperatives have been fixtures of the cooperative scene in the Bay Area since the late 60's when they were founded.
Democracy in the Workplace is not a technical manual on how to spread cooperation to more workplaces. It is rather a workers' testimonial to the attractiveness of co-ops÷working together without bosses, confronting and managing problem such as those with co-workers and the changing markets in which the cooperatives operate.
THE CHEESE BOARD
At The Cheese Board, the 25 members all receive the same compensation and terrific benefits: four weeks paid vacation, health insurance and profit sharing. Some years ago, they bought land in a popular nearby recreation area in the mountains and built a cabin there for members to use. Now they routinely give a substantial portion of their earnings to charities and other organizations.
The Cheese Board members refer repeatedly to the high degree of satisfaction they feel with the process through which they arrive at consensual decisions. They strive to build solidarity and support for member unity even, or perhaps especially, when one or a small number of members object to a proposal with clear majority support. Scrupulous regard for the objections and thoughts of members in an apparent minority allows the organization as a whole to use the full range of knowledge, experience and understanding of its members.
Inkworks, a printing cooperative of 18 members, credits its cooperative way of working with its ability to both keep up with the newest electronic print, graphics and information processing technology and yet still feel like the members are all "one big family." Their daily work requires many different skills, and they do not all do the same tasks. Decisions to bring in new members, purchase equipment or accept different kinds of work are all made collectively and democratically.
Inkworks arose in the progressive labor movement, and all members belong to the graphics communications union. They pay themselves all the same, i.e. the prevailing union rates, and they provide all members the same excellent benefits. As part of the labor movement and a resource for the progressive left, they have printed many splendid political posters on display at www.igc.org/inkworks/gallery.html. Inkworks represents a goal that the union movement has sometimes pursued but rarely achieved: democratic control of a workplace that pays a living wage and offers steady work to skilled workers.
At Rainbow Grocery, all members start with the same compensation. Decision-making committees and their procedures are extremely important at Rainbow. They have no formal structure of managers nor CEO even though they have over 150 members. The workers emphasize their determination to work without bosses and the importance of "selling your ideas to your co-workers."
Rainbow Grocery tries to draw local people into its membership. Rainbow shows its commitment to the area which is relatively poor through its willingness to employ and train workers who are not well educated. This policy has developed great feelings of loyalty among members, many of whose children also work in the co-op.
NoBAWC has started another co-op, the Arizmendi Bakery. The enthusiasm of its members work and their satisfaction they express with working cooperatively is visible.
The acronym "NoBAWC" is pronounced "no boss" and it expresses the members' feeling of: Why would anyone want to work under a boss rather than cooperatively? For more information, see Bob and Mike Stone's interview of one of NoBAWC's founders Tim Huet in this issue.
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