40 Ways to Build the Cooperative Movement

Moving Forward Nationally and Internationally
Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo
Ajamu Nangwaya

[Editor’s note: Below are summations of two parts of an Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy workshop that was held July 17, 2005. It is encouraging to note how many of the goals that were set for the movement a decade ago have been, or are in the process of being, accomplished.  Besides offering some recent historical perspective, these notes also provide a still-relevant list of prescriptions for forwarding our movement both domestically and on the global stage. Part one provides an overview of movement goals, while part two offers suggestions for individuals and enterprises to help realize them.

Part one

The Big Picture

1. Build the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Help the Federation to recruit a majority of worker cooperatives, democratic ESOPs and other democratic workplaces in America to become a powerful political force to help create jobs, more dignity in work, and a more humane world. The force of numbers will strengthen our advocacy in the best interest of workers in democratic workplaces.

2. Make education for worker ownership and management a top priority in all of our work: inside our co-ops and other democratic workplaces, networks and other social and political contacts and organizations. This includes basic cooperative information, as well as more management and technical information. The development of movement-controlled educational structures and institutions will be fundamental to our evolution as a democratic movement. The following actions merit consideration:

  • Reserve the equivalent of 5-10% of total wage bill or 5-10% of surplus, or net income, to the education of worker-members on cooperative values and practices and the knowledge, skills and attitude to ensure the viability and growth of the cooperative or democratic workplace.
  • Provide an organizational space that facilitates a constant learning culture.
  • Develop teaching institutes that provide cooperative management with high level business skills/technical competencies to maintain the cooperatives’ competitiveness, innovation and democratic practices in the face of non-cooperative competition and aggression.
  • Collaborate with Southern New Hampshire University, The Democracy Collaborative, and other progressive educational entities to create the teaching institutes that are able to provide cooperatives’ management and workers with appropriate training and credentials in areas of critical needs.
  • Develop movement-controlled and -financed educational structures as a medium- to long-term goal. We must create the educational institutions that prepare our members and prospective members for worker ownership, governance and management. A modest percent of the surplus of each worker cooperative or democratic workplace could be provided to the apex worker cooperative organization to help sustain our educational facilities.
  • Build alliances to promote the inclusion of cooperative management and worker ownership in the curriculum of educational institutions that are financed with tax dollars.

3. Develop financing structures to help start-ups and to maintain and expand existing firms. This includes fundraising, starting or supporting loan funds, seeking foundation support, and/or creating a foundation.

  • Creation of financial institutions to provide debt financing of worker- owned and -managed businesses. Mondragon Cooperative Corporation’s Caja Laboral is a great example of the usefulness of a movement having its own financial institution to capitalize its businesses.
  • Strategically target credit unions in our areas of operation for their suitability as centers of financing for worker ownership and community economic assets. Community organizing and education may have to precede the integration of the appropriate financial cooperatives into the network of local and regional worker cooperatives. We must approach this task with the necessary delicacy and ethics, but still resolutely execute our plan without fear or favor.
  • Proactively and purposively effect the creation of community development credit unions where "strategic takeover" is not appropriate or possible.
  • Facilitate the emergence of worker cooperators with high levels of knowledge and skills in the operation of financial institutions. We exist in a hypercompetitive market economy and it is necessary for us to achieve this to realize our objective of worker ownership that is widespread, effective and the antidote to work without dignity.

4. Actively increase cooperation between worker cooperatives specifically and other cooperatives generally. We mean facilitating local federations and/or networks and sector organizing (i.e. retail stores, restaurants, manufacturing, etc.) so that members can economically support each other with purchases to ensure discounts, help to educate communities about the value and benefits of cooperatives, as well as to work together to achieve economic, social and political goals. We should explore:

  • Facilitating operational integration between cooperatives. In order to become dominant economic players in our sectors and communities, worker cooperatives must do business with each other, share business resources, and engage in cooperation to achieve economies of scale. We can remain as small and medium-sized businesses only on the basis of close collaboration to achieve economies of scale. This type of operational integration would allow us to compete with non-cooperatives enterprises. The cooperatives in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy and the Mondragon cooperative network are examples of cooperatives that practice cooperation among cooperatives.
  • Promotion of local or regional network of cooperatives, because they will be the foundation on which we will push workplace democracy throughout society. We have a few promising examples in the United States, but we have to find ways to make cooperation deeper and wider. Information sharing and networking are good first steps, but their potentialities will be truly magnified when they engage in joint purchasing and marketing, cooperative sharing and/or provision of professional services, collectively-financed educational programs, assist in the formation of new cooperatives and pooling of capital.
  • Deepening of business cooperation between credit unions, food cooperatives, housing cooperatives, agricultural cooperatives, other forms of cooperatives, and worker cooperatives. Economies of scale will also come from doing business within the wider cooperative movement. The idea of the cooperative commonwealth would certainly benefit from this type of cooperative practice.

5. Integrate rural and inner-city communities as critical areas for growth of the movement. These communities are among the poorest and in dire needs of transformative and innovative solutions to deal with poverty, unemployment, social devastation, political marginalization, and economic neglect.

  • Inner-city communities have been devastated by de-industrialization, middle class and past white flight (impact on tax base), and political neglect. At the end of the last century it was estimated that inner-city communities have a purchasing power of $331 billion dollars and an unmet demand for goods and services of $76-85 billion. It is for this reason that many non-cooperative businesses are seeing the inner city as an emerging market. Many food companies have exhausted their growth potential in the suburbs and are now looking to the inner city for the expansion of their operation. We must develop a worker ownership strategy to guard our inner city flank against the penetration of non-cooperatives entities whose values represent the death of ours.
  • We must grow the worker cooperative movement within racial communities of color. It is the morally right thing to do but it is equally strategic of our movement it move in this direction. People of color will be the majority demographic group in the United States in about 50 years. When the equation of oppression is disturbed by the voiceless and the marginalized through purposive action it tends to reverberate throughout society and influence other societal relations. Remember the Civil Rights Movement and the manner in which it spawned or facilitated the other freedom movements in the United States. The worker cooperative movement as a transformative movement has that potentiality.
  • Many rural communities, especially in the South, serve as internal colonies for mainstream America. They supply a disproportionate number of the soldiers in the armed forces. The poverty and hopelessness in rural America give rise to a reserve army of recruits. Worker cooperatives represent an alternative to the status quo. Rural communities need to take an "export-led" development approach in their production of goods and services for the wider American market. The worker cooperative enterprise with the development of support services by local and regional cooperatives can be a catalyst in this development process. Interestingly, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency is promoting non-agricultural cooperatives in rural communities. That initiative is a progressive one, but it represents the lack of strategic thinking among us as cooperators in not getting there before this state agency. There indeed may be something to the notion, "good things come to those who wait, but only what’s left after those who hustle." Our mantra should be, "Hustle or Death!"
  • We must develop a national worker ownership educational project that places rural and urban communities and people of color at its strategic center. Education is a sacred cow among us as cooperators so we need to make it a reality in our organizing work, rather have it end up on dominant society’s grill as a hamburger patty.
  • We have to build relationships with community organizations, progressive forces, and other stakeholders in rural and urban communities and among people of color to actualize the emergence of worker cooperatives and worker ownership as an economic and social development alternative. Let’s seize the time!

6. Develop a government strategy. Do legislative work on local, state and national levels. Organize to get tax monies to fund develop of worker cooperatives and other employee-owned businesses as a means of community economic development, to develop legislation to benefit democratic workplaces and to mandate current government business assistance to also work with employee-owned businesses.

  • If economic and social transformation is the objective of worker ownership and self-management, the development of relations with the state maybe a double-edged sword that is not for the weak of heart. However, we are trying to create the embryonic form of the free and just society while living in the oppressive one, so we may be called upon to cultivate ties that are fraught with tension or may appear contradictory. We must be guided by the goal of freeing enslaved labor from current work relations, and using workplace democracy as a model or midwife for the birth of community self-management and freedom.
  • We should lobby municipalities, states and the federal government to include worker-owned businesses in the set-aside purchasing and contractual programs that currently have for small businesses and other types of businesses. The benefits of locally-owned business should merit our inclusion in these programs. However, it may not be that easy so we will have to undertake the necessary initiatives to make it happen.
  • We must lobby the states without worker cooperative legislations to create laws that regulate the operation and affairs of worker owned, managed and governed businesses. It is important for organizations that represent worker cooperatives to be at the table to ensure that the content of these legislations respond to the special features and needs of worker cooperatives and other democratically managed and collectively owned enterprises. Too often prospective worker-owners are forced to incorporate their businesses under business statutes that were designed for other business forms.

7. Develop programs to educate, organize and integrate youth in the movement to develop democratic workplaces. This would help to build an economic future for young people, allow the movement to benefit from the energy, enthusiasm, fresh perspectives and openness of young people, as well as to ensure the continuation of the work we are doing now to build a better and more prosperous economic life for American workers.

8. Reach out to and build alliances with unions and the larger movements of people disaffected by the economic and political system and with whom we share important goals. Take the cooperative/democratic workplace solution to environmentalists, marginalized communities: women, lesbians and gay men, people of color, differently-abled, as solutions to businesses ravishing the environment and building sustainable development, as a way of dealing with discrimination in the workplace, etc. Work for worker’s right overall!

9. Unite with other groups to develop a marketing campaign to spread the word about the differences in and value of cooperatives. This would include videos, radio, cable and television advertising, publications, and op-ed pieces in local and national media.

10. Facilitate capacity for entrepreneurial development, innovation and business intelligence. This unit would conduct market research, intelligence to assess the competition, provide technical assistance, and other information to ensure that worker cooperatives and other democratic workplaces are competitive in the types of products offered, quality assurance, development of new products, forecasting, in their respective markets, to facilitate sectoral organizing and marketing. This unit would also work to come up with innovative solutions to problems to ensure that democratic workplaces are competitive with traditional firms.

11. Develop joint ventures, trading systems and other business models to cooperate with cooperatives on an international level. We live in a global economy and should seek business relationships outside our borders to facilitate prosperity with international worker cooperatives and democratic workplaces. Equal Exchange is a shining example of this idea in action.

12. As individuals, assess and develop our personal commitment to work to build the movement, by volunteering time and money and by, "voting with our dollars" -- buying when possible from cooperatives, local businesses, and nonprofit and progressive enterprises.

Part two

What You Can Do to Build the Employee Ownership Movement

As An Individual

  1. Teach cooperative values and cooperation to the young people in your life.
  2. Commit to honest, thoughtful and loving communication, interaction and criticism in your life, cooperative and organizing so as to ensure the smooth running of your life, organization, and dealings with other people.
  3. Educate yourself on issues that would make you a better, more informed member/owner/worker.
  4. Put energy into one idea or skill that would improve your workplace.
  5. Take a leadership role in your cooperative, workplace and/or community.
  6. Talk to your friends and acquaintances about democratic workplaces.
  7. Organize a local federation of cooperatives or a network of democratic organizations.
  8. Help to find other progressive people in your community who you can talk to about cooperatives.
  9. Volunteer to work on a committee or project, to serve on the ECC or the Advisory Committee.
  10. Plan now to attend the Federation conference in 2006.
  11. Operate/make decisions in the best interest of the cooperative (not you individually or to support friends)
  12. Make financial contributions to groups and subscribe to publications that support your interests.

As A Co-op

  1. Create honest and ethical business practices that will grow your business specifically, and that will enhance the reputation of cooperatives and democratic workplaces generally.
  2. Educate your members and organize meetings to ensure adequate organizational communication, and to get everyone’s input in running the business. Pay the workers, and understand that this is an investment in your business.
  3. Create a cooperative culture that makes cooperatives a great place to work. Make sure your workplace supports the development of all workers/member-owners and that it encourages cooperation.
  4. If you haven’t already, adopt the International Co-operative Alliance co-operative principles and actively work to understand them and put them into practice (some are on this list).
  5. Do business with other worker and other types cooperatives (credit unions, purchasing, consumer, agricultural, etc.), and local and progressive businesses.
  6. Make sure there is transparency in your organization regarding compensation formulas, expenses, management, etc.
  7. Work to make strong the Eastern conference, national federation and any other organizations in which you participate by voicing ideas, suggestions and criticism in an open, honest and non-hostile way.
  8. Assess your cooperative or workplace for commitment to quality, superior customer service, and financial planning and business strategy. Make sure you give co-ops a good name by being the best you can be.
  9. Help to organize your sector.
  10. Become a dues-paying member of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (when the process is finalized) and work to build a strong national organization.
  11. Help to organize the national conference planned for 2006 and plan to attend and participate.
  12. Fill out and return the USFWC survey and encourage others you may know to do so as well (the survey will be on the ECWD, USFWC websites)
  13. Consider donating to a fund to help finance cooperative development.
  14. Consider donating a portion of your profits back to the community.
  15. Support the regional conferences through in-kind and financial donations, and volunteer work.
  16. Maintain the larger vision. When or if a serious conflict arises, take the higher road toward building the movement.

 

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Publication Date: 
Wednesday, March 9, 2016