Fuel to the Fire: Reflections on an Amazing Conference

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By Len Krimerman, GEO Collective

I had expected the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) conference to be extraordinarily good, but it exceeded even that expectation. There was a wonderful mix of energies, ages, languages, cultures, regions, sectors, perspectives...that often found common ground; there were issues discussed that usually are kept off the table; there were ever so many signs of a movement matured, full of experience and promise, ready to take risks and take off.

My own personal experience had a mysterious coherence. Rather than a series of fine but largely disconnected workshops, the sessions I attended all shed light--of different sorts--on a single fundamental issue. This process started with the first event, held on Friday afternoon at Colors restaurant (NYC), hosted by Omar Freilla of Green Worker Cooperatives (Bronx, NY). After the invited speakers were finished, Omar opened the microphone up front to any of us in the audience. But he did so by suggesting that we address the issue, "If cooperatives are such a good thing, why are there so few of them?" A risky move, I thought; but it brought forth a tide of spontaneous and impassioned contributions.

Early the next morning, we all gathered in the first floor auditorium to hear Rick Surpin tell the fascinating story of Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), with its ever-increasing workforce (now over 1,000) and its recent difficult decision to unionize within SEIU 1199. As Rick forcefully brought out, though this move raised the specter of outside control of the co-op, it also provided a rare opportunity to help transform the entire home healthcare industry. (More on this to come.)

Moving from the 1st to the 12th floor, I now walked into the GEO workshop, which I was to facilitate. Setting aside a prepared outline, I challenged the thirty-five or so participants to revisit Omarâ??s risky question from the preceding day. Adding a bit of fuel to the fire, I suggested that one factor in our continued lack of presence and influence might be that co-ops--of all sorts--rarely see themselves as part of a larger family of progressive social change movements. That is, though co-ops might cooperate with other co-ops and on occasion support social justice, peace, or environmental, etc. groups (e.g., by giving them discounted services or products), they shied away from actively collaborating or coalitioning with such non-coop organizations. As an example of this, I argued, consider the large and growing movement of citizen dialogue and deliberation, which in just five years has created a coalition of several hundred organizations and many more individuals. One of these, the Study Circle Resource Center, has just published a manual to guide groups in overcoming poverty. This manual contains zero references to cooperatives, and more generally, workplace democracy is not represented at within the dialogue and deliberation coalition. Nor, I continued, have we yet had a presence in any of the nascent participatory budget coalitions in North America.

Reactions to my claims were immediate, strong, and very divided. Most intriguing to me: adamant opposition in the room came mainly from practitioner worker owners: they saw no good reason to collaborate beyond the cooperative family, and indeed, questioned whether doing so might violate a commitment to political neutrality or otherwise jeopardize the viability of cooperative enterprises.

As I tried to digest this experience, I moved into my next workshop of the day, one given by Tim Huet of Arizmendi and NoBAWC. Little did I expect the epiphany I was about to experience. Tim spoke lucidly on several key co-op questions, but what caught my attention (actually knocked my socks off) was the issue of whether coops are growth-aversive and if so, why. To address this issue, Tim compared the slow, halting replication of Cheeseboard, the highly popular cheese and bread cafe in Berkeley, with what might have happened had Cheeseboard been privately owned. In the latter case, the single entrepreneurial owner would have had humongous incentive to create and develop dozens of additional Cheeseboards (or, maybe, Cheesebucks?). But where, Tim asked, was the incentive to do this within a cooperative that was already doing quite well for its three or four dozen worker owners?

Yes, Tim granted, aversion to growth is not an iron law for coops. Notable exceptions include Equal Exchange (EE) and CHCA. Both of these have in fact actively and successfully sought growth; in fact, they made it part of their mission. But these co-ops, he said, were exceptions that "prove the rule".

Though Tim did not elaborate on this last thought, it suddenly helped synthesize the messages I had received from the preceding workshops. That is, perhaps the reason that EE and CHCA were both successful and growth-seeking was that they had chosen to step beyond their own membership, join forces across organizational boundaries, and work to transform an entire industrial sector and undo a systemic injustice.

They were both co-ops with what we might describe as a mixed or double mission: to serve their members and to serve another constituency as well. In the case of EE, this was the constituency of small family farmers chiefly in the southern hemisphere, and routinely exploited by the established systems of finance, production, and distribution of agricultural products. For CHCA, this additional constituency was the huge home health care workforce in this country (close to a million by some estimates), whose workers were kept at the very bottom of the health care industry by avaricious home care agencies.

SOME LESSONS

The lessons seemed clear (at least to me):

(i) There are fewer coops then we would like to see because (in part) of our own tendencies to be averse to growth, one manifestation of which is our disinclination to join coalitions and develop cross-organizational alliances.

One possible remedy or way out is for cooperatives to adopt mixed or double missions; i.e., to serve both the interests of their own members, and those of a wider constituency which would include more than cooperative members.

(iii) In short, both for our own growth and development and because of what can we learn from and contribute to wider social justice movements, we may want to adopt, and be guided by, an 8th cooperative principle(in addition to the generally recognized seven cooperative principles --eds.):

8. COOPERATIVES COLLABORATE TO BUILD A JUST, FULLY DEMOCRATIC, AND PEACE-BASED SOCIETY

Co-ops collaborate with a diverse range of other citizen groups to build, and share power in, a, fully democratic society whose institutions, resources, and opportunities are accessible equally by all, and where non-violent dialogue and conflict resolution are widely used to prevent and manage conflicts.

 

ADDENDUM: ACROSS THE BORDER, A DIFFERENT REACTION....(Notes from the 2006 Canadian Worker Cooperative Conference)

In contrast to the USFWC workshop, a group of Canadian worker cooperators gave an enthusiastic response to a collaboration-based 8th principle at a workshop I gave at their annual Conference this past November. And this was coupled with a nuanced and instructive discussion of strategies to increase support for such a principle within the cooperative community.

The Canadian workshop easily reached quite general agreement that the "traditional seven" principles should be expanded beyond inward-looking goals, and on the value of collaboration with other non-coop groups allied in building a just and fully democratic society. Marc, a participant from Nouveau Brunswick, exclaimed that he saw an 8th principle connecting co-ops with wider social justice and peace-building movements as a way to recharge and rejuvenate the cooperative movement.

More specifically, the notion of joining participatory budget processes and more generally of having a direct voice in the allocation of public resources, struck a resonant chord, especially in light of the recent replications of this Brazilian innovation notion in such Canadian cities as Guelph, Toronto, and Vancouver. (See Josh Lerner's article on this in the Summer, 2006 issue of Shelterforce.)

Even more concretely, people were enthusiastic about giving priority to cooperatives with multiple stakeholders and missions that were not limited to serving the interests of their worker owners; cooperatives, in short, like the Multi-Cultural Health Brokers of Edmonton (see article in this issue of GEO).

But how to gain acceptance for a cross-organizational collaboration-based 8th principle? This was a question I knew had to be addressed, but on which my own ideas were sparse. Not to worry--the participants readily filled the gap. Overall, they urged a gradual and gently expanding process whereby cooperative practitioners, enterprises, and associations would eventually see the 8th principle as good for cooperatives and their development, rather than as a prescription of what (someone else thinks) is right or just or best for the world. In particular, they suggested that:

  • the 8th principle be discussed from the ground upwards: initially, by individual cooperatives which could add it to their mission statements; from there, it could percolate out to secondary support organizations, as well as regional, national, and, eventually, international associations.
  • official endorsement, at any level, should wait until there was widespread readiness to "walk the talk" and implement the principle in practice;
  • existing models of cooperatives that already fulfilled the 8th principle should be learned from, celebrated, and if possible, replicated;
  • ways of fulfilling the principle without jeopardizing, or over-burdening, individual cooperatives or practitioners should be clarified; e.g., a single and rotating delegate could represent the entire cooperative community within a city or provincial participatory budget coalition.

I left the Canadian workshop on a very high cloud, and with lots more clarity about and confidence in the 8th principle than when I began. Which is not to say that I wasn't puzzled by the wildly different reactions to this principle in New York City and Edmonton. Still am.

And Iâ??d still welcome any and all comments and suggestions on the 8th principle, critical or otherwise; these can be sent to me at editors@geo.coop

Note: My full Canadian presentation, as well as many others from that Conference--including an excellent update on Mondragon by Javier Salaberria of Mondragon and CICOPA--can be found here, under "Resources."