Co-op Wars: Lessons for the Future from the Past

During the 1970s, I was a child and missed most of the craziness of that era. I only received driver’s license after the election of Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1980 which largely marks the end of the ’60s. I was too young to understand or even remember the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, jr, Bobby Kennedy and many, many others, the Watts Rebellion in 1965, the Democratic convention of ’68, Kent State murders, the Sterling Hall bombing, and the war between Irish and Italian mobs in nearby Cleveland, OH that resulted in a record 36 bombings in 1976.

The ’60s and ’70s was an era of national upheaval that makes even 2020 seem a bit tame by comparison (which is not to diminish the real pain happening to people in 2020, only to acknowledge that the 70s were extremely violent). According to my math, which might be in error, in comparing 1975 to 2019, there is a 35% drop in violent crime and 56% drop in property crimes.

What does this have to do with co-ops?

Last Friday, through the Cooperative Management Education Alumni and Student Co-op, I has the opportunity to screen a new film about the “Co-op Wars” that happened in Minneapolis in the 1970s. Producer Erik Esse, himself a former member and workers at the North Country Co-op Grocery, presented the film and led a discussion about the film and the moment. The film is directed by Deacon Warner, edited by John Dilley, and features Peter Coyote as the narrator. Radical Roots Films offers a preview as well.

The film does a wonderful job of documenting the events and speaking with the different actors between the groups vying for control, one of which is the “The Co-operative Organization” or CO. I don’t want to give the documentary away, I think that everyone should see it. I do want to talk about some of the lessons that I took form viewing it and chatting with my fellow alums.

Lesson One: Unplanned Growth Leads to Chaos

The first takeaway that I have is how unplanned growth and scaling can be disastrous for a socio-economic movement. In the US, the oldest co-ops tend to be producer co-ops in agriculture and credit unions. The rise of consumer and worker co-ops came out of the New Left and social movement related to the Civil Rights, Anti-War, and Environmental movements of the 1960s. People dove in and made up the rules as they went. The network of co-op developers that exists today was largely non-existent and the few centers that did exist worked with farmer and didn’t necessarily know what to make of urban counter-culture organizers.

This may seem like an overstatement, but even if the early 90’s when I attended my first director training with the Wisconsin Federation of Co-ops (now Cooperative Network) we were the only non-farmers in the room. It isn’t that there aren’t similarities, but a farmer’s co-op is about benefiting the producers and not the workers (or consumers for that matter). Things like “living wage jobs” and “humane work places” didn’t really resonate as board matters.

The result, in the Co-op Wars, was an ideological war that focused on power instead of creating a co-op difference. The wars also created a stifling effect on the memberships and this fueled the isomorphic tendencies of consumer co-ops to look like their non-coop competitors leaning on the natural and organic foods as the core competitive difference. It also reinforced the space of consumer co-ops as white spaces and largely mid-to-upper class spaces, which remains to this day.

Lesson Two: Consumer Co-ops Needs to be More Focused on Membership

The second take away is how consumer co-ops need a different means of engaging their membership. Being a member should involve more that paying a share fee. Especially given that only a small percentage of consumer members vote (around 6%). Yet, often, these co-ops are one of the largest democratic organizations in the counties that they serve (out stripping small cities and towns).

As my mentor Tom Webb often says, if a consumer co-op shut its doors, the next day, its former members could find places to meet their nutritional needs, but the workers would not necessarily be able to find new employment. The workers, as stakeholders, have more at risk as unemployment may lead to houselessness, divorce, physical and psychological illness, and other risks. In a worker co-op, before someone becomes a member, there is usually a probation period, training on being a member, and other steps (such as attending a board meeting).

Should consumer members be expected to undergo a similar process prior to becoming voting members? I subscribe to software applications that offer an orientation. Perhaps that could become a thing for consumer co-ops? A monthly orientation for new members that explains membership, the bylaws, etc. Perhaps even a screening of Co-op Wars would be useful to help new members understand their role. A monthly or quarterly training program to help people understand the roles of different parts of the co-op (directors, management, staff, labor unions), decision making processes (and why the co-op uses the one it does).

Lesson Three: Community Development Needs Support

As the Co-op Wars demonstrate “building the road as you travel” can only take us so far. To create a socio-economic enterprise that serves the entire community where it is located, requires thoughtful planning, testing models, engaging everyone in the community, and baking the co-op values and principles into the co-op’s DNA. As a socio-economic entity, however, the development never really stops. Each new member, brings new perspectives. Arizmendiarrieta like to say that co-ops are both economic vehicles with an educational purpose and educational vehicles with an economic purpose.

Today, there is a vibrant community of experienced and skilled co-op developers. I don’t really like that term, I prefer cooperative organizer. However, no one has to invent the co-op model or guess at what to do. Co-op developers even have their own code of ethics and values, The Madison Principles. With assistance, people can be very intentional about creating their co-op’s culture and practices of engagement that honor the participants as human beings with respect and dignity baked into the core.

The Co-op Wars provide a lesson that our co-ops are not just businesses and they require nurturing and support to meet the mission and provide a true human-centric difference in the economy. The 70s were a time of heightened calls for change and aggressive organizing tactics. We need to be careful not to fall into that trap as we try to rebuild our economies and communities today.

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October is Co-op Month!

Here we are again! October is the time to celebrate the cooperatives in our communities throughout the US and Canada. The last year has not offered a lot of hope and has tested our resilience, let’s take this month to make sure that our co-op family and community feel our love and support!

Last year, I did a short post on a specific co-op every day, I don’t know that I have the time or stamina to do that this year. It is a busy time. People always turn to cooperatives in times of crisis and this year and 2021 create a moment for cooperatives that might not have been seen since the aftermath of the 1848 economic crash.

Let’s celebrate this month! Let’s celebrate our communities! Let’s celebrate our victories!

The Co-op Decade might just transition to the Co-op Century.

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The Friedman Doctrine 50 Years On: A Total Disaster

On September 13, 1970, Milton Friedman penned and Op-Ed for the New York Times that was essentially the opening shot of the economic civil war between the rival economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes and F. W. Hayek. Friedman, a disciple of Hayek, argued in that op-ed that the only social responsibility of the corporation was to maximized the return on investment in which he ultimately argues, “in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception fraud.”

A few years after the coup in Chile, Thatcher won election as Prime Minister of the UK and Regan followed in the US. The counter-revolution against Keynesianism was brutal and swift. As Naomi Kelin points out, though, the establishment of Friedman’s doctrine never worked without brutality and a high body count. by 2001, even the Chinese Communist Party folded and allowed “capitalists” to become party members.

Trickle-Down Ethics: Why innovation won't save us. | by Ruth Coustick-Deal  | Medium

This is not meant to be so much a review of the article (rife with straw man arguments, ignoring the reality of “corporate democracy”, and generalizations), as it is a review of the devastating damage that 50 years of adherence to the Shock Doctrine and primacy of profits has unleashed upon our world and our communities. The documentary, Commanding Heights, by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, provide a decent review of the attack on local communities and “logic” of the neo-liberals. It creates an interesting construct of Keynes v. Hayek v. Lenin early on and then dives into the collapse of the planned economies and primary of Friedman’s view. It largely ignores co-operation as an economic model (although the uprising in Bolivia during the water wars was led by the co-ops).

Friedman is to economics what Ayn Rand is to literature.

Today, we battle the ravages of climate change that have brought the second most devastating plague to the world within a century and record setting destruction by fire in Australia and the western United States. Not to mention a prevalence for “market solutions” to social problems, a withering of the social safety net, and a destruction of our access to information and news through for-profit social media. The world we live in today, with massive unemployment, significant environmental degradation, and a democratic republic exposing its prevalence for a police state is the end result of the belief that corporations can be legal people AND not have any social responsibility.

The roots of our dystopia lie in Friedman’s simplistic argument for greed. He ignored the ability of those with vast wealth who depend on maximizing profit to be able to corrupt the political system. He argues that that corporations should stay within the “rules of the game” while ignoring that they have the power to write those rules through campaign donations and access to power. Friedman is to economics what Ayn Rand is to literature.

Fortunately, the world is changing even if it might be too late for many of us. When I began my journey into the co-op world outside of Union Cab in 2004, there were an estimated 300 worker co-ops in the country. Today, that estimate is over 800! In addition, more people are starting to see co-ops as a means of rebuilding our communities. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity, a doctrine in its own right that focuses the purpose of the economy on supporting people, not profit.

We have a long way to go and some of the damage may be irreversible. However, everyday I am amazed at the intentions of the people that I meet to redesign the world. One group that I am working with, a farm worker co-op, has the mission, “we grow food to employ people, we don’t employ people to grow food.” Arizmendiarietta would be glowing at this slogan. The work we do is about creating a community built on human development and engagement, not on enriching a smaller and smaller class of the world.

Friedman liked to pretend that stockholders were everyday joes and that corporations were democratic. It was the Big Lie that he peddled and many politicians (and union leaders) believed. Everybody could be a stockholder and enjoy the benefits of corporate America, but the reality is that only a tiny fraction of those shareholders have any agency in the company and realize the real benefits. As the wave of panics and recessions have hit our economy since 1970 (about 6 in 5 decades), the small investors and pension funds have seen only dashed hopes and disaster. He also had a Pollyanna-ish belief in open and free competition: it has never existed and by his own doctrine, a corporation should seek to establish a virtual (if not actual) monopoly. His logic is broken.

On this 50th Anniversary of Friedman’s attack on our community, let’s renew our faith in cooperation (and celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the International Cooperative Alliance). To do so, let’s push our co-ops to reject the false promises of neo-liberalism and embrace the co-operative definition, values, and principles. Let’s start rebuilding this world out of the literal ashes of Hayek’s Hellscape that lies before us.

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Make USPS a Solidarity Co-op!

The recent fight over the post office has been dramatic and hyper partisan while also obscuring the causes of the financial problems of the post office. These problems largely result from one major decision by the Congress known as the Post Office Accountability and Enforcement Act in 2006. This vote passed 410-20 in the House. The “Aye” votes included such progressives as Tammy Baldwin (now Senator Baldwin) and Bernie Sanders (now Senator Sanders). The crucial provision of the bill required the Post Office to maintain a $72 Billion dollar fund to guarantee 75 years of pension payments into the future.

The Congress created a financial fiscal crisis that no corporation or government agency could survive.

The reality is that the Post Office has been profitable for that last six years. It is covering its operational and debt costs with the exception of the pension fund. The crisis is manufactured and fake. It was designed to force the economic collapse of the agency and require it being sold off to private interests. Sadly, the problems facing the Post Office today have become part of the overall crisis of 2020. The occupant of the White House is trying to destroy voting by mail (even though he, his family, and even the Postmaster General all vote by mail). To do that means destroying the Post Office. This is a crisis that goes beyond the election.

Forty years of neo-liberalism has actually created an incredible role for the Post Office. In rural communities, the closest pharmacy might be a 60-90 minute drive (one-way). The consolidation of business under the attacks of Wal-Mart and Amazon, have made rural communities dependent on the post office for basic needs such as medicine and (quite frankly) even healthy food.

The USPS is still an amazing deal. For 55¢, you can send a check to your landlord, a letter to a friend, or even make a donation to a fund. Compare the 55¢ to the finance charge for making a payment through a system (which might be externalized to the receiver)? Compare it to the cost of using a private service (over $20 dollars). Even the priority mail for the USPS beats any competitor price. FedEx, which does not have a labor union unlike UPS and the USPS, cost significantly more at every level.

More importantly, the USPS is an American institution. It was formed early in the Republic with the great cooperator, Benjamin Franklin, as the first postmaster. Franklin was also the first founder of a cooperative in the United States: Philadelphia Contributorship, a mutual insurance company.

The Post Office is important. It pulls our country together as a nation.

The fight over the Post Office needs to stop. The post office is an essential service for the nation. Once the fight is over, though. We need to fix the post office. One proposal by the Institute for Policy Studies makes four good points:

  1. Repeal the prefunding mandate and allow USPS to use accumulated post-retirement reserves to fund future pay-as-you-go costs.
  2. Adopt generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP accounting as set forth by the Financial Accounting Standards Board) for determining USPS liabilities.
  3. Medicare integration for future postal retirees.
  4. Eliminate the requirement to invest solely in Treasury bonds.

The Post Office should become a solidarity cooperative.

The US Post Office is an “independent agency of the Executive branch” of the US Government. It is explicit authorized in the US Constitution. Clearly, though it isn’t independent in the sense of what most of us would consider being independent. The 2006 POAEA is proof of this, so is the ability of the Executive Branch to appoint the Postmaster General who has incredible authority. When this is all over, the Congress should re-establish the Post Office as a new organization with true autonomy and control. Make the USPS a solidarity Cooperative as a Public Benefit Corporation independent from government control but with a long term contract with the United States to serve as the official post office of the United State (99 years).

To see what this co-op looks like, we only need to consider an existing co-op that has government, worker, and consumer members: Mondragon University. If I remember my 2007 visit, the membership consists of institutional members (the Spanish government, the Basque government and maybe some others, the workers (professors and other staff), and the students). Obviously, the institutional members cover a lot of the costs as do the consumers. Co-ops operate on a at-cost basis so the goal is only to cover the operational and capital expenses (pensions include), but can be done so on a rolling basis that reflects reality not dramatic methods attached to the Post Office.

What would a Post Office Co-op look like?

The institutional membership would include the Federal government, the States, and the territories (um, colonies) and District of Columbia. This group would receive one-third of the votes and one-third of the board seats. The workers would comprise another third of the membership and board. Finally, the consumers (those who choose to formally join the co-op) would have the final third.

The consumer group would likely include an organizational and individual membership.

The institutional members would guarantee budget efficiency through the respective budgets of the state and federal government with the goal of the USPS being self-sufficient. Pricing of postage would be based on the needs of the organization.

A board (I would suggest 27 people) would be elected by each group. For the 9 institutional members I would suggest a guaranteed seat among for the Executive branch, 1 for the territories, 1 for DC, 1 for the Tribal nations and the remaining five to represent 5 geographic regions of the 50 states). For the workers, 9 seats. For the consumers, a breakdown again similar to the institutional members to ensure diversity and inclusion of the entire consumers (including the organizational members).

As long as I am dreaming, I would also encourage a mandated form of dynamic governance. The Post Office is an ideal organization for the sociocracy circle method. Circles at the local post office level with engagement of all three stakeholder groups moving up to the state/territory level and and finally the federal level. double linking might push the board up to 54 people but I don’t think that is a bad thing given the size (in terms of people or geography). There top cirlce (or board) might need special rules to be less than full consent (maybe a 2/3 majority or 3/4 majority).

Obviously, the current fight over the US Post Office has a lot to do with electoral politics, but the challenges forced onto the USPS were non-partisan. The fix should also be non-partisan. An independent, publicly owned, and community controlled Post Office could remove it from the hyper-partisanship of our era and create a stable means of communication and unity in our nation. A successful Post Office Co-op could also be a model for other independent agencies such as Amtrak as well as more regional and local public utilities such as mass transit, water and sewer, and even power. We can make a more democratic and engaged community without actually recreating the wheel? We need to take this moment to make the world one that is focused on people.

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How Do We Sense Make Of It All

picture shows large masked crowd at Black Lives Matter protest with most prominent sign reading "No One is Free When Others are Oppressed"
Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire from BBC News

Several years ago, in the aftermath of the protests in Wisconsin supporting labor unions, I wrote about sensemaking and how resilient cooperatives can be in adjusting to the changes in the economy and providing an antidote to the Shock Doctrine. Essentially, Karl Wieck argues that we are constantly building our identities through a process that he calls “sensemaking” and at times a shock can cause this process to founder. When sensemaking breaks down, it can have disastrous consequences. I ended with a quote from Arizmendiarietta, one that I return to constantly in 2020 when working with co-ops (especially those where the membership is predominantly older and whiter):

Our co-operatives must primarily serve those who see them as bastions of social justice and not to those that see cooperatives as refuges or safe places for their conservative spirit.

Don José María Arizmendiarietta, Reflections, 461

This year has created a massive shock to all of our systems:

  1. A global pandemic with a sneaky virus that doesn’t create the physical threat like Ebola, but slowly creeps up with some not showing any symptoms (but maybe have long term health consequences) and others dying.
  2. A global economic shutdown coming on the heels of a recession caused by a trade-war between China and the USA.
  3. A global uprising against the continued attacks on Black people and demonstrations denouncing systemic white supremacy.
  4. New youth leadership and protest methods that break from the polite parades of a previous generation.

In 2012, I commented that our co-ops aren’t facing forest fires, but a new economic challenge. Today, we are facing a whirlwind of change. We need to adapt to that change and this requires us (as co-op leaders, developers, and members), to adapt our organizational and personal identities to be true to the foundation of the Cooperative Identity. Critical Sensemaking offers a methodology to make the change.

. . . critical sensemaking provides a framework for understanding how individuals make sense of their environments at a local level while acknowledging power relations in the broader societal context. The critical sensemaking framework takes a very complex combination of variables including social psychological properties, discourse, organizational rules, and the formative context in which organizations exist and offers an analysis of how these forces combine to allow individuals to make sense of their environments and take action on a day-to-day basis. Critical sensemaking . . .is useful in analyzing the relationship between individual actions and broader societal issues of power and privilege. It also provides a lens through which to view connections between the formative context, organizational rules, and discursive and socio-psychological properties of sensemaking that influence how individuals· make sense of the world around them.

Helms-Mills, Thurlow, Mills (2010) “Making Sense of Sensemaking: The Critical Sensemaking Approach” Qualitative Research in Organization and Management: An International Journal. 5 (2)

The protests for Black Lives Matter along with protests against the right-wing militias have created some significant angst among our communities and has threatened the ability of some co-ops to continue. Part of this is that the nature of the protests are not as polite as people have become accustomed. Statues are being toppled as emblems of racist power, organizations are being expected to do more than simply put of “BLM” sign in their window or issue a board statement that says they support “Black Lives Matter”. It is a difficult time. Co-op leaders are now expected to act, and they should. We can’t just write a statement, we need to be the change.

What I have found disturbing is that a lot of people (mostly white and mostly older) are feeling defensive and challenged. I hear from so many that they are scared to offer an opinion for fear of being called “racist” or that they will be pushed out of the organization that they love and care for. It is a scary time–behavior and language that might have been acceptable just a decade ago is no longer acceptable. For them, I have to tell a secret: it was never acceptable, but no one on the receiving end of that behavior or language felt that they had the ability or the power to challenge it until now.

I should own that I have definitely used a lot of words, made jokes, and engaged in behavior that I regret–I don’t want to sound like I figured it all out. I often have flashes of memory that cause me to want to just hide in a closet in shame, but self-flagellation doesn’t make the world better. Change makes the world better and adjusting one’s identity with the new information helps make the change real.

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrong-doing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

Aldous Huxley, (1947) Forward to “Brave New World”

The current protests are rooted in three of the Co-op values: Equality, Equity, and Solidarity. The system that our society has lived under since 1492 attacks these values every day and it is our obligation to support and nurture these values in ourselves and our organizations. These values were present in the founding of Rochdale in 1844 when only white men who owned property had a voice in government. These values live in the Black co-ops formed in the United States during Jim Crow, and these values are at the heart of every worker co-op and solidarity co-op.

As cooperators, we have the set of values, ethics, and principles to adjust to the demands of the world today. We, on paper, exist as a place committed to social justice through caring for others, concern for community, and social responsibility. However, some might be going through an identity crisis and the staff and membership of every co-op will need to figure out how to work through these issues. Those of us who have been around for a while (2-3 decades) need to learn new ways of engaging. We need to adapt our personal identity to the changing world around us. We need to trust the people coming into leadership. They have a lot to offer just as we did in our 20’s and 30’s.

One of the thinkers that I follow likes to say “good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions.” In that sense, I have always believed that people are only free when they can make mistakes. The role of older co-op leadership should be to offer our experiences and help use that information to make a good decision while recognizing that the world we live in today has never existed before (economic collapse, pandemic, and revolution against white supremacy all at the same time).

People don’t have to be part of the physical protests to make a difference. Due to issues around the pandemic, I have only attended one demonstration in person and it was a youth of color led event that organized it in a manner that it centered the discussion physically with black and indigenous people in the center surrounded by other peoples of color and white people on the outer ring. It was a very powerful and emotional event. There are plenty of places for people to be of service to building a better world.

What we can do is work to build that same energy in our co-ops–recruit youth and youth of color into leadership, review policies with an eye towards decolonizing the process and language, be willing to step into a support role over a leadership role, and challenge ourselves to adjust our identities based on the information of today.

To refer back to the Mann Gulch Fire, we need to either drop our tools or jump into the fire circle. We need to recognize that the events of today are outstripping our experience. If we can’t do that, they we need to step back from leadership positions. For many in the Boomer generation, this might sound familiar in a more musical context:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A Changin'”

I know that am being a little tough on “the olds” in this post (and I consider myself in that category). It is my hope, though, that people who are experiencing issues in their organizations take a moment to understand that the older generation in their co-ops might be undergoing a crisis of their own that they may not recognize. Part of the very values and principles that cooperatives embrace should also guide us as we try to address people who should be allies (and likely believe that they are allies). We should try to meet people where they are and help them manage this process in sensemaking. In some ways, I think that people are in a grief process for a world that they knew that is dying. This world needs to die, but it is a world tied to their identity and it might need grief counseling or therapy (and I’m not being flippant).

Our organizations should be centered on social justice and building a resilient society. Ultimately the arc of history moves towards justice, I hope that we can bring as many people with us, but a change is going to come.

Recommended Reading:

Jacques, Roy (2005) “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Reflections of a Pale, Male, Stale in Managing the Organizational Melting Pot: Dilemmas of Workplace Diversity. Sage Press

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Abolish The City

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed how the co-op model might change policing in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Since then, the US has seen over four weeks of consecutive protests, calls to de-fund and abolish police departments, the tearing down of racist symbols of the Confederacy. NASCAR has banned the use of the Confederate flag at its events and on its properties. Old racist brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being discontinued and a majority of US residents now believe that the NFL owes Colin Kaepernick an apology. It is a fundamentally amazing time to be alive and seeing the “arc of history” actually bending towards justice right before our eyes.

It has been a little difficult to compose my thoughts with regards to these events. I definitely come from a privileged place having grown up in a wealthy, white suburb of Toledo, Ohio with its own k-12 school district and all of the other benefits of white privilege. The cooperative movement in the US also tends to be segregated and has not always been very good at engaging the values and principles of cooperation to decolonize and challenge systems of oppression. My ideas expressed here are mostly about my thinking through our structures and how to make systemic change, but I would never presume that I am correct, and always welcome the opportunity to learn.

In saying “abolish the city”, I am not striving for hyperbole. I really mean let’s get rid of our cities. The modern city is a social structure created and developed in the feudal Europe and then transitioned to capitalist engines and exported through European imperialism and cultural hegemony. These structures are not designed to support humans, they are designed to control people for the benefit of the few. The architecture even aims to minimize us as people while elevating institutions of power.

What would replace our cities? What would a more human community look like? Our cities should not exist to govern people but to administer to the needs of the people who live, work, and visit them. We need a completely new concept of community that combines a modern economy in a way to facilitates the best of human life in harmony with the ecosystem that supports human life.

There are many options and attempts to rethink cities and even larger communities. Rojava, Cooperation Jackson, for two and we can even looking back at how indigenous communities managed these lands before their sovereignty was usurped. Cooperation Jackson seeks to build a community and a new society. It imagines more than a few co-ops, but a society of worker cooperatives and other democratically managed enterprises combining the values and principles of cooperatives and Mondragón, and based on the Jaskson-Kush Plan. Cooperation Jackson has inspired similar efforts across the country.

Rojava is another example of one way that this could work. Rojava is a Kurdish autonomous region along the Turkish and Syrian border. It is focused on direct democracy and combines commune and cooperative models. As I understand it, to join the commune means contributing and participating in a cooperative that works to meet the needs of teh community. This keeps the workers providing services from exploitation by the larger community. I don’t know enough about Rojava to say this is a working model, but it has shown that the traditional Eurocentric concept of the “city” is not the only way.

One source is a very controversial thinker: Thomas Jefferson. The former US Senator Gary Hart provides an stimulating discussion in his book, Restoring the Republic, which is largely based on Jefferson’s concept for what a new democratic nation would look like. Jefferson, while authoring the Declaration of Independence was in France during the drafting of the Constitution and had little input into it. Jefferson, of course, was a slave owner and a hypocrite. In fact, he knew that he was a hypocrite. As Hart acknowledges, Jefferson could have only become “Jefferson” because of slavery. He lived his life on stolen land supported by stolen people. However, his words inspired the following generation to due what he could and would not attempt.

Jefferson actually coined the term “American” which so many non-US citizens despise. Unlike today, the word was not meant to be a synonym for the United States, it was to create a response to the aristocracies of Europe. Hart goes into the details of Jefferson’s ideas of creating a basic unit of community at 5,000 people with expectations that these would be largely autonomous entities that would interact with nearby communities to meet common needs. Jefferson’s concept quickly starts to look like a sociocratic governance chart or even like the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation. Jefferson saw the military then, as a collection of militias from each of the communities.

But that is enough about Jefferson, I just wanted to acknowledge that this isn’t a new idea. We can abolish our cities and replace them with small interconnected communities. There are modern examples and efforts that we can draw upon.

These communities could be solidarity cooperative societies in which different groups of the members of the community have equal representation in the functioning of the co-op, the services of the co-op for its members might include education, healthcare, transportation, mutual aid and security, housing, etc. It could be a type of intentional community or it could have independent businesses–it would depend on what the co-op members wanted. The solidarity cooperative societies could join federated cooperatives societies with representation equal for each member co-op (this would eliminate states as we know them) or remain independent.

All three of these examples (Rojava, Cooperation Jackson, and Jefferson’s townships) promote direct democracy and community democratic control and democratic operation of the community. The purpose of these communities are not to foster and protect private ownership, but to build a life-affirming and human-centric society based on solidarity, equality, equity, and democracy. The examples show that the model of governance that we use for our communities and economy are not the only way or even the preferred way for many people. We can build a better world based on people not wealth and profit.

On the Olympic peninsula here in Washington, many of the modern cities started as cooperative communes (again, co-ops have not been good on decolonization). I am now writing outside of my knowledge, but I understand that indigenous nations of North America and South America also managed alternatives to the top-down hierarchy and extractive nature of the European feudal-capitalist model.

I recognize that there are some problems to think about (mobility and the freedom of movement for one); however, what would a community look like where its success depends on people working together, engaging each other as equals, and replacing the profit motive with a drive for mutual aid, meeting common needs and aspirations. But our current system is broken and takes power away from the majority and gives it to a small group easily manipulated and controlled by special interests.

In Olympia, 52,000 people devolve all their power to 5 elected council members. What if Olympia became a federated co-op of 10 semi-autonomous solidarity cooperative societies with representatives using consent as a decision-making model or the New York City metro area a collection of 3,761 semi-autonomous solidarity co-ops each with the individual right and responsibility to manage their own affairs? What would cities look like if more than 1 out of 10,000 people actually had the power to make decisions?

It wouldn’t magically erase racism or other forms of societal oppression, but it would create a different way of living that values our humanity in each person. A core problem is the segregation of the United States territory since the arrival of slavery. Our neighborhoods and communities have been designed to separate us and without some means of accounting for that and making changes that don’t further attack or traumatize people, it will be difficult to break down these barriers. Because of this, though, segregation and some of the hard racist attitudes won’t simply disappear. Over time, natural movements of people would change the cultural foundations that have created the world that we live in today.

Workable? possibly with a well thought out structure and agreement between societies. Obviously, this isn’t a blueprint, but more of a concept. Possible? yes, but I wouldn’t pretend that this is more than a thought experiment; it would be exciting to see a demonstration project and it might require a lot if support (and maybe therapy). Would it change the way that we engage with each other? Absolutely, instead of farming out the work of governing and administration, people would be doing themselves with each other. To paraphrase Arizmendiarrieta, “each is responsible for all” or Robert Owens’s slogan “one for each and each for all”. Over time we could create a more human system of governance in which centers on the human being and acknowledges the core solidarity that every human should have with each other.

Abolishing the police ultimately requires us to change the culture and that requires us to re-think how we organize our lives as humans. The European city model is designed to create consumers who interact with other consumer and work to earn money to consume. A different approach could focus on people working together in a democratic community to meet their needs and common aspirations. It would be more work that just consuming in isolation from each other.

A month ago, I would not have conceived of ever seeing what I have seen happen over the last three weeks. This is a time for people to think big, not just practical. To paraphrase an old adage whatever is not impossible, no matter how improbable, is entirely practical.

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How Do We Change the Police?



The rate at which black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans. This is a non-comprehensive list of deaths at the hands of police in the U.S. since Eric Garner's death in July 2014.
LA Johnson/NPR
The rate at which black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans. This is a non-comprehensive list of deaths at the hands of police in the U.S. since Eric Garner’s death in July 2014.
LA Johnson/NPR

The above image comes from NPR’s Codeswitch and a show entitled “A Decade of Watching Black People Die“. A similar report from The Guardian based on 2016 numbers also notes that people of color are generally significantly more likely to be murdered by police.

Like all of us, the events of the last week since the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer and his accomplices (also Minneapolis police officers), have been heartbreaking, illuminating, infuriating, and demanding of a new paradigm. I have read posts from many people that I know and respect who are in local government wondering how to change this. George Floyd was not the first black man or person of color murdered by police and these demonstrations are not the first time that agent provocateurs have spurred violence to discredit protests. Most of the discussion of political leaders centers on policy and comprehensive plans, but as the adage of one of my favorite management icons notes:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Peter Drucker

We cannot create stronger cities through policy, we need to fundamentally change the culture of how our cities manage the needs of the community. Local elections generally pit those who own property against those who rent property and the property owners almost always win. Seattle, for example, is a very “progressive” city with socialists on its council, but only one member of the council is a renter. Why is this important? I offer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s motif in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that has been my true north since reading him in 10th grade:

“A [person] who is warm can never understand a [person] who is freezing.”

Solzhenitsyn

Our cities are built to grow and protect wealth. They are not built to be human places, but economic engines. As long as this is the basis of cities, we will never escape that the role of police “to protect and to serve” is focused on property not humanity. Added to that is the historic culture of the United States that sees certain people as property and completely devalues labor, and the result is a toxic culture. To change the police, we need to fundamentally change the organization of city government.

To do this, the worker co-op movement offers a number of lessons: flattened hierarchy, openness and transparency, and accountability structures that operate in a 360 degree manner. We need to rethink cities as solidarity cooperatives in which the residents control and operate the functions of the city.* Such a model would focus on the needs of the community as opposed to growth and creating business opportunities.

What would this look like in terms of the police? Using sociocracy or dynamic governance as a model, it would create significant community engagement with an entity that today seems, even in the best communities, an occupying military force. The first thing that I would suggest would be to change the name of “police” to something aimed at a community support concept such as “stewards”. A mission statement created by the people who live in the city. A redefinition of the job to focus more on community support and stewardship rather than finding “bad guys”. Imagine an oversight board elected by the community but in a way in which it represents the diversity of the community (the different sociocratic circles appointing a representative) and from this group a Police Leader is elected for a set term, with a representative elected up from the police force. The leader of the police might not have police experience, but great management and empathy skills. A hiring circle made of up civilians and active “stewards” to focus on ensuring that people hired align with the mission of community support.

Of course it can’t be just the police that changes. The idea that the police are a separate and unique part of the local government needs to be destroyed. The role of the police should be equal in power to that of sanitation and transportation. The entire city government needs to divorce itself from hierarchy and adopt a cooperative model of governance and management that combines citizen engagement with the people doing the work. This creates a stronger new culture of community.

Instead of electing a council and managing through an adversarial hierarchical structure, what if the cities were grouped into to circles that aligned voices of the community: a small business circles, a renters circle, a homeowner circle, a houseless circle, demographic circles and , yes, even a landlord circle. From these circles, they could appoint a council circle that would elect an administration circle leader (mayor). This would create a larger council, of course, but it would be one that would bring all of the voices into the actual governance and management of the city.

I am going to end with a quote from Mondragon’s spiritual founder Arizmendiarrieta. He understood that the co-op model could not simply replicate the system of oppression that the workers were attempting to replace. As with Irish rebel James Connolly, who argued in Let Us Free Ireland!” that having an Irish sheriff evict a poor family was cold comfort.

A society that seriously intends to plan the development of human greatness needs to be able to count on a staff of competent persons who are willing to assume positions of high responsibility and quality. This can be accomplished only if these capable people do not demand, as individuals or for their families, a superior level to that of the rest of the people.”

José María Arizmendiarrieta, Pensamientos #468

We can’t fix a problem 400 years in the making through policy and comprehensive plans. We have to fundamentally change the culture and that means changing how our cities govern themselves and prioritize value for the citizens. If all that comes from the protests today are hearing and a couple of convictions, we will all be back here again in short order. We need systemic change in our culture.

*I 100% support city residency requirements for city employees, especially for the police. We don’t need paid mercenaries patrolling our streets.

Posted in American Dream, Conversion, Human Relations, Management, Pensimientos, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Solidarity: We Don’t Need to be Perfect

Is there anything in the world of work that at this moment that is required more than unity? And is it possible to consider unity rather than trying identify ourselves with the values that are already universal?

José María Arizmendiarrieta, Reflections

Recently Brian Donovan, a fellow traveller and co-op thinker, wrote about interdependence and the survival of humanity. His article discusses the special need right now for unity across the globe.

In Pendlum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, the authors Roy Williams and Michael Drew discuss a cycle of human behavior and thought that moves from the “Me” to the “We” based on the Strauss-Howe “Generations” or “Fourth Turning” concept. We are a couple years away from the zenith of the current “We” generation (2023). Corresponding times in this concept would be 1940 and 1860. Other years in when the world seemed to be both falling apart and coming together. We are in the moment that Williams describes as “I’m not OK, You’re not OK (we are both broken)” and approaching the zenith (“I’m OK, You’re not OK”). The good news (assuming Williams and Drew are correct), is the the era of 2033-2053 will be “I’m OK, You’re OK (Rainbows and Unicorns): think 1953-1973, marks being half-way down a “we” and half-way up a “me period.

The Pendulum of Generations

The period that we are in, 2013-2033; however, is different. It is one marked by “witch hunts”. Witch hunts (a problematic phrase in its own right) mean dehumanizing people to achieve short-term gains in power and the wealth that comes with it. Williams and Drew predicted the 2012-2033 period as such:

Yes, “working together for the common good” can quickly become self-righteousness. In the words of novelist David Farland, “Men who believe themselves to be good, who do not search their own souls, often commit the worst atrocities. A man who sees himself as evil will restrain himself. It is only when we do evil in the belief that we do good that we pursue it wholeheartedly.”

Of course, we can’t simply wait and hope for the best until 2033. In many ways, this “we” generation has a greater ability destroy itself than any before it. The combined effects of climate change and politicization of the most dangerous pandemic to affect humans in over a hundred years creates a special existential crisis for us.

We need to avoid the temptation to join in the witch hunt, engage in ideological purity, and otherwise dehumanize those we might be in temporary disagreement. Cooperatives operate on a foundation of values and ethics. These values in a worker co-op create a workplace based on human dignity, solidarity, and social responsibility.

I’m not arguing for any of us to ignore bad actors and people seeking to manipulate the genuine fears of people right now for their own power and wealth. Any value based system needs a form of accountability. This begins by creating a culture of communal support (mutual self-help) and transparency. I think that Arizmendi’s argues wrapping ourselves in our values as a means to judge others, defeats the very act of solidarity.

To refer back to Brian’s post on Medium, we as cooperators need to recognize the human even in people with whom we disagree. For those engaging in the unproven hypothesis (sometime pejoratively called “conspiracy theories”), we need to understand the “pull” of those narratives (because the “We” generation is about a strong “pull” while the “Me” is all about the “push”).

Cooperatives offer a different view of the world that is based on mutuality and society. We have a great moment now to act as a “we” that focus on our humanity and prepare for the coming era of “rainbows and unicorns” by building a solid foundation that will create communities that can resist the worst effects of the pendulum (the witch hunts of the “we” and hero worship of the “me”).

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The Weeks of Decades Is Upon Us

The sign of vitality is not to endure, but to be reborn and to be able to adapt.

Don José María Arzimendiarrieta

There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.

V.I. Lenin

The worker cooperative community was already having a “moment” before the pandemic hit with all its fury. The aging small business owners were starting to see the value of their employees as potential successors and the offer of worker owned businesses as vehicle for their own ability to retire safely. Efforts to create local cooperative economies sprung up out of Occupy and organizing to build a solidarity economy. One example is Cooperation Jackson (which has strong roots in the Jackson-Kush Plan) but there are many other models to create a version of Mondragón in the US. Symbiosis is a congress of municipal movements bringing many of these local organizations together.

Of course, it is not just the worker co-ops and solidarity economy seeking to make fundamental changes in our society. There are others that also want to make changes that would revert our economy to the era of The Gilded Age. That is why our co-ops and support organizations need to be agile and move quickly. This can be difficult. Part of the difficulty is that many worker co-ops are just trying to survive until they can re-open and until the pandemic dies down enough for people to feel safe in public. There is a level of paralysis that I have seen a result of isolation. Co-op and community development is a face-to-face process at some level. We might be able to have a mass meeting on Zoom, but we lose the humanity of those meetings.

In addition, in some ways we have already been socially distancing ourselves. Part of this is from the use of social media to present “hot takes” with little discussion. A cute meme or picture only feeds into confirmation bias. One of my frustrating issues arises from privacy rules. While those rules are in place to protect us from bad actors, they also make it very difficult to organize. How can you organize a group of people if you have no way of contacting them? Of course, you can use paid advertising and other top-down organizing practices but this is a difficult and expensive process.

As Arizmendiarrieta reminds us, it is not enough to “endure” we must adapt and become re-born.

That all said, the use of technology is providing a moment for national and international connections and development. Next Friday (May 15th), I and many others will be participating in the Worker Co-op Weekend. Normally, this UK event is outside of my orbit, but we can participate this year on-line. Later this fall, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives will hold their National Worker Co-op Conference on-line. The USFWC also has a number of councils that meet regularly to help people interested in building an economy based on human dignity. Conferences and council meetings, though, are just the beginning. We need to take the energy from those events and others like it and begin putting plans into action.

If you have an idea for a worker co-op, the time to start creating it is now! I have been fielding a number of calls from people who are seizing the moment to create new structures such as a food delivery system in a way that connects small farms, unemployed chefs, unemployed drivers, and consumers. There are co-op development resources available and while it helps to have someone help, people have been creating co-ops for centuries all by themselves. The most important thing is to begin.

If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.

Marshall Rosenberg

We are essentially in the chrysalis right now and while the old economic patterns dissolve before out eyes, we need to focus on the work required to emerge as a new and wonderful community.We don’t have decades to build an economy based on the health and well-being of humans and the planet. We have weeks. I hope that when we look back on this era, one of the great stories will be that of the beginning of the Cooperative Century.

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May Day 2020: A Day of Solidarity and Support

Normally, I see May Day as the international workers holiday. It would, in my view, be an international paid holiday where nobody labors and celebrates the value of people. A number of worker co-ops close to celebrate (Rainbow Grocery Co-op and Olympia Food Co-op to name two of them). This year, however, I think that we need a different way to celebrate especially since many workers have been idled and many worker co-ops are struggling to survive.

Celebrate May Day by supporting worker co-ops or co-ops that include workers as owners. Celebrate businesses in your community whose workers are unionized and let those union members know that you have their back.

For the co-ops, do what you can. For instance in Olympia, people can order coffee from Burial Grounds, order a meal from New Moon Café, order a book from or join Orca Books Co-op, support home care workers like Capital Homecare and keep entertainment venues like Le Voyeur on life support. In Astoria, OR, Blue Scorcher Bakery offers incredible bread, chocolate, and more! You can probably google “co-op” to find co-ops in your community but you can also access the US Federation of Worker Co-op’s Directory. The Federation also has a page for co-ops seeking support.

What else can we do? Write a letter to the editor of your paper supporting workers, write/call your elected representatives AND their opponents in the fall election: those on the front lines helping us shelter from the virus and those hoping that they can manage the economic crisis that will follow the virus. Let’s make worker co-ops and worker dignity a major campaign issue this fall.

I say this in all seriousness, but one of the most formative books in my childhood is Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day“. At one point, he proclaims “Everyone is a Worker”

Why Does “Busytown” Love Bernie?

Of course, “almost” everyone is a worker. People who don’t produce, manufacture, provide a service aren’t workers. We need to create an economy that values the workers and the humanity that they represent. People who spend their day to make something of value or provide a service to others are the heros*. Our economy should be built around the value of their humanity.

Can May Day 2020 be the beginning of a new labor movement? A labor movement not divided by credentialism, artificial class divisions* and other systemic systems designed to divide us? I hope so. I think that this is a generational moment. We have a pandemic that cares little for people’s identity and we have had to rediscover the concept of mutual aid and support to manage through it. Perhaps we can keep this energy moving, growing, and creating a new world.

Let’s make this May Day the beginning of a new world.

*people who provide capital stolen over generations from laborers and then extorting contemporary workers (including small business owners) to get access to it are not providing a service. Theft is not in my definition of work.

**imho a “small business” means that the owner works on the line with the people that they hire in addition to managing the business. They may take a draw or a wage, but they are actually working, not idling away on a golf course or beach.

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