Willy St: Co-op for Consumers, Union for the Workers

Beatrix Potter ( who with her husband Sidney Webb led the Fabian Socialists (predecessors to the Labour Party in the UK) generally opposed the notion of worker co-ops. The argument went something along the lines that all humans share the status of “consumers”. A worker co-op would create a tyranny over the consumer. For this, and many other reasons, the co-op movement in the UK has largely focused on consumer co-ops (until recently that is). However, the Fabians also supported labor unions and helped form the Labour Party (and to some extent the Co-operative Party). The Labor and Co-op Party run as sister parties in the UK and right now, I believe that the Co-op Party has a record number of candidates (50) for the current election. For many years then, the operating rule has been “co-op for consumers, unions for workers”.

Of course, that this the UK experience. In the modern US experience, consumer co-ops have generally only been friendly to labor unions in competing businesses, not their own. Right now, a historic effort is underway in Madison, Wisconsin to negotiate a contract between the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op and United Electrical Workers. UE won an election among the workers with a staggering 80% of the voting workers in support of representation by UE.

Willy St. Management, while claiming to be pro-union, hired a firm that specializes in helping companies undermine labor unions and sent out a 1950’s era management letter attacking the union right before the vote. Nevertheless, at this point, everyone seems to be negotiating in good faith.

The Union has been engaging the consumer-owners of the co-op as allies (and I am a former member). This short video provides a very concise argument for why anyone who supports cooperation should also support labor unions:

My take has always been that, in a consumer co-op, the consumers are joining together democratically to speak with one voice in the marketplace to meet their needs. Likewise, the workers should also be able to come together in a democratic fashion and speak with one voice. We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that just being a co-op makes a group of 35,000 people a “good employer” especially when almost all of the power of ownership is concentrated into the single person of a General Manager.

If the idea that consumers can band together to get a stronger voice in the market, why shouldn’t workers also band together to get a stronger voice in negotiating working conditions and compensation.

As Carl notes in the video, the wealth created by the Willy St. Co-op didn’t just happen or fall out of the sky. It came from the hard work of over 450 employees of the cooperative.

The co-op movement has always been about social justice. The Rochdale Pioneers started out as a means to gain universal suffrage, create a fair marketplace, and overturn the social injustices of the Industrial Revolution. The Co-op Movement and the Labor Movement began hand-in-hand in Manchester, UK. The board of the Willy St. Co-op and its management should be embracing the union, not fighting against it.

 

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Sociocracy: The Worker Co-op Operating System

Over the last couple of years, I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Sociocracy For All (SoFA). This organization has worked diligently to bring the concepts of sociocracy out of the “best kept secret” category and into the mainstream of organizational culture. I sit on the Co-op Circle for SoFA which meets about every four weeks to discuss the aspects of building sociocratic practices in the co-op community.

Sociocracy offers a form of governance and management that operates on the fundamentals of inclusion, transparency, and consent of the governed. In the US, it has been referred to as Dynamic Governance due to the tradition of red-baiting in the US. The method, however, seems like a perfect model for worker-owned and operated businesses.

If this is the first time that you have heard the term, I would invite you to visit SoFA’s website and watch a few of the intro videos. Essentially, it was a system of interlinked work groups (called circles) that are based on the primary aim of the circle. For instance the board of directors might be called the “mission circle” and it job would be that of any board: create policies that enhance the mission and review other circles in terms of their ability to enhance the mission.

In this sense, Sociocracy offers a different form of hierarchy. The format is often considered a “hierarchy of work, not a hierarchy of power.” It turns out, that worker co-ops create this concept even if they don’t follow all the standard formats. Two large co-ops, Union Cab of Madison and Rainbow Grocery Co-op both use a systems of autonomous management groups linked to a steering committee or team. Again, Rainbow and Union don’t use “Sociocracy”, but one can easily see the connection between these organic co-op structures and the official format of Sociocracy.

There are better posts and video about the ins-and-outs of sociocracy. The aspect of Sociocracy hat doesn’t always get discussed or understood is that it challenges the notion that “governance” and “management” are separate things. In a worker co-op, in my opinion, they simply aren’t separate. The same people making governance decisions make management decisions and often the line between the two is fuzzy. In a traditional organization based on the capitalist mode, Governance is designed to protect the equity of the owners against labor while management is designed to control labor in the furtherance of protecting that equity. When worker co-ops adopt this model, they fundamentally undermine their missions. The very aspect of a traditional hierarchy privileges capital over labor (see Kathy Ferguson’s Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy).

Worker co-ops need a different governance model. The Collective/Consensus model works as long as the co-op is small, but it can also be difficult to change once the organization gets too big to effectively manage as a collective and can also be rife with informal hierarchy and soft power. Sociocracy allows small co-ops to learn strong transparent governance/management practices in a system that grows with the organization.

Sociocracy, of course, doesn’t automatically remove soft power and informal hierarchies, but it does create a place where those aspects can be contained, exposed, and reduced in power. When I first learned about it, I realized that Union Cab effectively stumbled its way into a sociocracy-like model. It seems to be an Operating System for cooperation in general, but for worker co-ops in particular.

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The Worker Co-op Movement in 2040: Revisited

Ten years ago, when I was blogging much more regularly, I wrote a series on envisioning the worker co-op movement in 2040. You can read them here. As the Co-op Decade comes to a conclusion over the next couple of weeks, where should the co-op movement in general and the worker co-op movement in particular set its sights?

There is an effort by the Democracy Collaborative to create 50 million worker-owners by 2050. However, this includes worker co-ops (ownership and control of the means of production) as one of several tools. ESOPs will likely be the major driver. As I mentioned in my initial post on this topic in 2010, I will be 76 years old in 2040 and likely not working (although I hope that I am still engaged and writing about co-ops).

I imagined, in 2010, a goal of tripling the number of worker co-ops each decade (I’m nothing if not an optimist). It is always hard to count the number of co-ops in existence, and I am hopeful to see better statistics in this area soon. Olympia definitely met that goal, but on the whole, I am guessing that worker co-ops increased by 50% over the last 10 years, which is still an achievement. I am hoping that the efforts to secure new generations of ownership through the co-op model increase the rate of worker co-op development, and maybe with some of the new plans for capitalization it will ramp up the pace.

I also suggested this crazy (but I think attainable goal):

  • Worker co-operatives will exist in each of the top 150 MSAs in the United States.
  • Worker Co-operatives will account for between 0.5% and 5% of the GDP for the each MSA
  • Worker Co-operatives will be part of the planning documents for the regional and municipal planning departments in at least 1/2 of the top 150 MSA and in all of the MSA’s in which co-ops already existed in 2010.

Although perhaps it would be smarter (and more attainable) to include the Combined Statistical Area that would include a lot more communities such as Olympia and Port Townsend that otherwise would not register high enough as their own MSA. As you might have guessed, I’m still really into “SMART” goals.

Capturing and reporting this data would be, in my opinion, much more valuable than the annual report trumpeting the top 100 co-ops in the country based on revenue. This data would point directly to local community impact. It would help us learn from successful communities and where to put resources more effectively.

I also argued about making cooperatives part of the electoral discussion and we did that in Madison in 2011. It paid off for co-ops and Madison joined the select cities that see worker co-ops as a pathway towards a resilient local economy.

I am glad to see it happening at the presidential level in 2020 and hope that more local and statewide elections start seeing co-op development as a real (and non-partisan) campaign topic. Building local economies through cooperatives is a efficient use of tax payer dollars compared to corporate tax breaks that create a race to the bottom in the attempt to lure “job creators” to the community. Policy makers should create the jobs that will never leave through a worker co-op.

We should all be working to help 50 by 50 meet its goal and to help as many of those organizations either be worker co-ops or democratically worker-controlled as well as worker-owned organizations.

I close with a quote from Don José María Arizmendiarrieta: “The future is never as uncertain as it is believed to be and is more conditioned than may seem to us, not as much for what we lose our interest in as for what we try to adopt and improve according to our taste.” We build the road as we travel and the first step of achieving our goals is to state them.

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The Quest for Capital

The final goal for the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade focused on capital (although in a lot of ways, the other goals also touched upon capital as well). The goal states, “Secure reliable co-operative capital while guaranteeing member control”.

Starting a business still tends to draw start-up capital from the the following: friends, family, and credit cards. Although there have been changes to the landscape over the last ten years, most notably investor co-ops, the means of getting start-up capital for co-op ventures remains difficult.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t options and plans for the future. Shared Capital does everything that it can to support the co-op movement and definitely assists in conversions and other co-op development projects. The National Co-op Bank continues its efforts at this as well. But, as with co-op development, the demand for capital far outpaces the supply of capital.

Some exciting projects in the works include Co-op Exchange in the UK that will allow anyone in the world to invest in cooperative projects. The exchange promises to allow microinvesting by people at any economic level and this, in turn, can create a huge fund for co-ops. If the 1.3 billion co-op members each contribute just 1 penny (US), that $130 million for co-op capitalization.

Start.coop has also created a business accelerator model. This takes a cohort of co-ops through a process and helps them message to and find social impact investors. It is still in its infancy with the first cohort, but offers an exciting opportunity.

I believe that there is also an investment co-op program being formed in California, but I cannot remember its name and my attempts at searching on-line have not yielded any information.

Ultimately, though, the existing co-ops need to find a way to divert some of their member equity to funding new co-ops and helping existing co-ops expand. This is difficult, but the infrastructure already exists through the NCB, Shared Capital, and CDFIs. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the economic power of the existing co-ops could fundamentally change the local economies where they are concentrated and this, in turn, would change the policy maker discussion about sustainable economic development. It is a fundamental part of the value of solidarity and the 6th principle of cooperatives.

I am hopeful that as we turn the page on the Blueprint for a Co-op Decade, the formulating strategies will come to fruition, but we also need to the leadership of existing co-ops to commit to investing in the co-op economy through development and solidarity funds. As has been pointed out a couple of times this week, the aggregate economic power of co-ops and their members could really “move the needle” on co-op development in the US and world-wide.

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The Legal Framework

The 4th goal of the Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade has also showed significant advancement since 2010. This goal states, “ensure supportive legal framework for cooperative growth”.

At the state level, the spread of Limited Cooperative Association (LCA) acts have gained speed. Washington and Illinois just passed versions of it. In Illinois, the law is called “Limited Worker Cooperative Association” (LWCA) and specifically authorizes workers as “patron members”.I haven’t studied the LWCA enough to understand how it compares with LCAs, but it does seem to allow an investor class of membership although much more limited than most LCAs.

In Washington, however, the LCA introduces investor owners into the mix. In Washington, the voting can be weighted based on equity. This seems, to me, a violation of the principle of “one-member, one-vote” and effectively scuttles the basic difference between cooperatives and other corporations. I have been trying to keep an open mind on this model since it might offer some means of raising capital, but any plan that changes governance to appeal to investors should remember the adage, “he who pays the piper, picks the tune.” I am not telling people not to use it, but it seems to me that a social purpose corporation or using preferred stock could achieve the same goals. There is a potential that the LCA can be used for co-ops to access the patient capital of Economic Opportunity Zones and this could be beneficial since selling owners can defer capital gains on the sale of the business and the Zones cancel the tax after 10 years. It will be interesting to see how this develops and if it really helps co-ops.

The major piece of legislation that has moved this goal forward, in the United States at least, is the Main Street Employee Ownership Act. Main Street, for those of you not familiar with it, is the first piece of legislation with regard to employee ownership passed by congress in over 30 years. It provides new mandates to the Small Business Administration to open of guaranteed loans to worker co-ops and support the conversion of existing businesses to employee ownership through either ESOPs or worker co-ops. Further, the law also mandates that Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) around the country support employee ownership and conversions to worker co-ops. This has potential to be a major catalyst as it comes at a times when business owners are retiring at record rates. The current estimate by Project Equity is that only about 20% of existing businesses will transfer ownership to a new generation.

The hard part, now, is about changing the culture at SBA and helping them engage with this new law. The mandate came without funding as well, despite being part of a 700 billion dollar defense bill. One particular area of difficulty is the requirement for personal guarantees for loans associated through the SBA. This doesn’t have to be the case, especially when their is collateral at hand. Signature loans can create power imbalances within the organization and effect hiring.

This brings up an important area that the ICA is working on and that is in regards to how co-ops in are treated in terms of accounting. Many co-op statutes treat co-ops the same as “for profit” organizations when they are really social purpose organizations. Laws need to change with that regard, but also accounting standards need to reflect that ratios and measurements that show strength in cooperative institutions are not always the same as for-profits (and by for-profit, I mean where the purpose of the organization is to maximize rate-of-return for investors).

The Co-op Decade did bring significant changes to the worker cooperative legal landscape and more needs to be done. The Creating Jobs Through Cooperatives Act of 2013 failed to draw bipartisan support and would have provided support for cooperative development in urban communities (over 50,000 people). I won’t speculate on its demise, but hopefully in the next congress a new attempt can be made after the success of Main Street. At the local level, more city governments have started understanding the co-op model and its ability to build sustainable local economies and this could be an important avenue both as a means of finding immediate support and building future support at the state and local level (as local leaders become State and National leaders).

We have the momentum and need to keep it going!

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Centering the Co-op Identity

The third goal of The Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade engages the Co-op Identity. Specifically, the goal states, “Build the co-operative message and secure the co-operative identity.”

The authors comment, “Co-operatives need a more sharply articulated message so that people are more aware of what they are choosing when faced with the option between a co-operative or an investor or privately-owned business.

Studies routinely show that when consumers understand the values and principles behind cooperation, they would prefer to do business with a cooperative. How well are co-ops doing?

I think that worker co-ops tend to be in the lead in this area. Worker ownership is a key part of any worker co-ops messaging. It immediately lets the consumer know that the store or service operates around human dignity. By creating humane and safe workplaces for its membership, worker co-ops also create humane and safe places for the consumers.

Of course, Grocery Co-ops have focused on the messaging very well and being a co-op is a core part of the store’s identity and has been long before the Year of the Co-op. The bigger hurdle for these co-ops is connecting with values and community instead of organics, now that Amazon is in the whole foods business.

Credit Unions have definitely stepped up their game and out in the west BECU has some excellent message with the slogan “BECU You Own It”. The subtlety that allows the readers to change BECU to “Because” is genius.

REI has also started adding “coop” to its name and even has a “Coop” branded bicycle and has talked about values in its decision to close on “black friday”

The marketing co-ops (Ace Hardware, Best Western, Sunskist, Dairy Queen, and Thriftway to name a few) need to do more. They have a message and a co-op story to tell. People need to see co-ops to understand how much they impact the economy and to also understand that there is almost always a co-operative alternative.

Another part of the suggestions to this goal involve getting co-ops into education. This is a slight overlap with sustainability, but very important. Creating a class curriculum on co-op economics at the high school and college levels is vital. Some groups are working on this. 1Worker:1Vote is developing a Community College curriculum. DAWI has a management training program at Rutgers. The Wisconsin Farmers Union Camp Kenwood has a worker co-op store staffed by campers who are junior high and high school age. I have always thought that it would be great for NCBA/CLUSA to develop a co-op alternative to Junior Achievement in the high schools.

Co-ops Need to Support Co-op Development

The other part of the identity goal that I want to focus on may seem a bit self-serving, but it isn’t. I have thought about this since I visited Móndragon in 2007 and learned how they controlled their capital and created development and solidarity funds. Co-ops need to commit to the development of co-operatives either through supporting financial institutions in the co-op world (National Co-op Bank, Shared Capital Cooperative, and ROC Capital) and development centers. Today, most of the co-op development work is funded through the USDA Rural Development program and provided through a community of co-op development centers. USDA funding is under constant attack regardless of the administration. Ag secretaries rarely come from the co-op community and as a result, the programs continue to be on the chopping block. Further, this funding only allows work in rural areas which is currently defined as under 50,000 and not adjacent to a community of greater than 50,000. There is little to no funding mechanism for urban development of cooperatives.

If every co-op, credit union, and insurance mutual contributed just 1% of sales to co-op development, that would amount to about $6.5 billion dollars a year to help new co-ops and existing co-ops develop. That dwarfs the current $5.8 million dollars of the Rural Cooperative Development Grant. It is a true expression of the co-op value of solidarity and the 6th principle of cooperation. We already have the infrastructure through national organizations to handle processing and distributing development funds.

The Co-op Identity is definitely stronger today than at anytime that I can remember. More people know (or at least kinda know) what a co-op is. Unfortunately, many of them don’t necessarily know that they do business with a co-op. As better as things are, there is a lot of work to be done to make this a success for the co-op decade.

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Sustainability-Coops Leading the Way

In the 2013 Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, the ICA authors make the following case:

“Quite simply, a co-operative is a collective pursuit of sustainability. Co-operatives seek to ‘optimise’ outcomes for a range of stakeholders, without seeking to ‘maximise’ the benefit for any single stakeholder. Building economic, social and environmental sustainability should therefore be one of the over-arching motivations and justifications for a growing co-operative sector. It offers an answer to the question of why co-operatives are necessary and beneficial, at this historical juncture. Put simply, co-operatives are more efficient than investor-owned businesses, once a more complete range of costs and benefits (present and future) is taken into account.”

The concept of sustainability includes more than being good stewards of the Earth and the life it supports. The blue print specifically calls for action in the co-op community regarding innovations in accounting, promoting distinct management practices, strengthen and integrate the co-op business network, and be leaders in human centric technology advances. The authors also urge evidence gathering and case studies to further promote the co-op difference and advantage in creating true sustainability beyond a marketing message.

Co-ops have definitely led the way on this front over the last 10 years. Even I have played a role in helping to meet this challenge goal.

  • In the worker co-op world, at least three bookkeeping/accounting co-ops have sprung up to provide support for co-operative with co-op knowledgeable bookkeeping. The ICA just recently announced a push for a Co-op version of accounting standards distinct from those designed for capitalist profit centric firms.
  • A number of colleges picked up co-op management classes (Amherst, The Evergreen State College, and most recently Rutgers) as well as a broader offering by my alma mater, St. Mary’s that includes a certificate and diploma option along with its Masters. Some have these efforts include partnerships with development groups such as DAWI and NWCDC. In the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, The Cipriani College of Cooperative and Labor Studies has been active in creating a 4 year degree on co-op management. Even Mondragon University moved slightly away from its traditional “Chicago School teaching” and created the Teampreneur model the Mondragon Team Academy.
  • NCBA and others have worked to help create regional and local networks. Locally, through initial leaders of the Olympia Food Co-op, an organization called Co-Sound seeks to promote and network co-ops in the Thurston County community. The recent series of roundtables were part of this effort as well.
  • NCBA/CLUSA also created the annual Co-op Impact Conference held in D.C. with a biannual fair on the Capitol Mall to promote the co-op model to policy makers.
  • The year after the blueprint, Canadian co-ops and universities published a collection of case studies and reports on the community impact of co-ops (which you can download here). I authored one of the case studies based on Union Cab and was also an editor. If I can further toot my own horn (and why not), my dissertation was a comparative case study of three types of worker management in cooperatives (you can access it on the resource page).
  • Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative and 1Worker:1Vote will be launching a national network of union-coops next year and holds its 4th biannual Symposium in a couple of weeks (I will be there and reporting).
  • CDF started a National Homecare Co-op Conference to specifically assist the home care co-ops (about 15 of them now) in networking and mutual support. I think that they need to move it away from Dulles and not make it an annual event, but it is a very important event.
  • CooperationWorks! celebrates its 20th anniversary and has created a strong network of co-op developers based on a set of ethics known as the Madison Principles and committed to build mutual support within the co-op development community.

I think that the only area that I haven’t really seen the co-op world move forward, in a really focused way, is in creating new technological tools. Of course, this is starting to change. Groups like Clatskanie Co-op offer a model for controlling our internet. There is a new push by Electric Co-ops to offer broadband. Platform co-ops are being talked about and there are some apps such as Resonate which is a multi-stakeholder version of Spotify. Both Resonate and Clatskanie use blockchain technology and digital currency. I’m a member of social.coop which is trying to create a social network to offset Twitter and Facebook (but its functionality is a bit limited). Resonate needs a couple of big names to move from Spotify to its platform. Most of the tech is nibbling around the edges, but I can that they are today’s version of the “buying clubs” that created the consumer food co-op network that we have today.

Could the international co-op community create its own digital currency that would be accepted by every co-op on the globe?

I haven’t talked a lot about carbon sequestration or the more traditional concepts of sustainability with regards to environmentalism. Largely this is because co-ops tend to already be ahead of the curve (although some producer and electric co-ops still cling to carbon fuel). Organic Valley has been a major leader with a pledge to use 100% renewable energy by 2019. Worker co-ops also tend to have a strong environmental focus since they live in the community where they work.

In terms of the Co-op Decade, Co-ops have absolutely led the way in terms of creating sustainable, human centric communities. There is always more to do, of course, and in the US co-ops still largely remain isolated from each other by sector and industry (and even within sectors at times).

There is also a fair amount a territoriality and sectarianism within the development community. Some groups really don’t play well in the sandbox with others (refusing to share resources, operating in territories without giving a heads up to the local developers, refusing to acknowledge other groups in the same development arena). I have gone to conferences where I hear speaker from some groups talk as if they are the only ones doing co-op work in the country or even in State of Washington. It is frustrating and can cause a lot of confusion and distrust.

Nevertheless, the co-op community is growing. Its overall message of sustainability resonates with more and more people everyday. I recently attended a traditional business conference and found a general understanding of co-ops and eagerness to engage with co-ops. That would not have been the case 10 years ago. Co-ops are human centric and non-partisan. That strength provides them with the ability to push this message of sustainability that other business models can’t.

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Participation Reward

In the Blueprint for a Co-op Decade, one of the five pillars is “participation” with the stated goal: ““Elevate participation within membership and governance to a new level”.

I am not sure how this will be measured or even if it realistically can be measured. Of course, participation is really what make a co-op “cooperative”. The word essentially means “work together”. This pillar also attempt to address the rather passive nature of ownership that exists in the consumer sector (food co-ops, credit unions, etc.).

From my experience, a lot of co-ops don’t seem to really want their members that involved except as consumers. The demutualized Group Health Cooperative (PNW) created incredible barriers to voting (members had to opt-in a certain number of days prior to the vote or meeting and figuring out how to do that was almost as complicated as figuring out how much a procedure would cost out of pocket).

Most co-ops, in my opinion, use relatively passive methods: signage in the store and blurb in the newsletter. What should co-ops do to meet this goal?

I’m mainly thinking about consumer co-ops since the worker co-ops tend to have a fairly engaged membership (although I imagine larger worker co-ops might have problems as well). Some things that hinder participation that I see all too often:

  • Nominating committees that screen out potential board candidates instead of inviting people to run for office.
  • A nominating process that privileges connected social groups within the co-op.
  • A committee structure that only includes directors.
  • Not providing childcare for membership meetings
  • Not providing interpretation at meeting or multi-lingual publications.
  • Not enabling direct communication between people running for the board and the membership.

Here is one approach:

Assiniboine Credit Union has a very proactive path for its board nomination. Each year, its nominations committee conducts a gap analysis of the current board to determine areas where the board needs support (this is based on a number of criteria). As they note on their website:

“ACU’s board is committed to strong, responsible and ethical governance of your credit union. Integral to this commitment is ensuring that the composition of the board has an effective and well-rounded mix of skills and experience in the following areas: finance, community development/social inclusion, human resources, co-operatives/credit unions, community involvement and leadership/business acumen.

In addition to the mix of skills and experience noted above, the board wishes to be representative of the members and communities we serve. We strive for gender balance, ethnic and cultural diversity, and diversity of age and life stage.”

The nomination committee will create an “endorsement” for candidates that fill the gap, but that doesn’t preclude other candidates from running. Sometimes, even incumbents don’t receive the endorsement because they don’t meet the gap criteria.

Keeping Participation Centered

There are other things that co-ops can do. A credit union here in Olympia has a monthly social event at all of its branches so that members have a reason to engage with each other and staff outside of the day-to-day business. At Union Cab, we tracked engagement outside of normal operations and considered ways to support that work. Ultimately, it seems that the co-op leaders need to see the co-op as a socio-economic enterprise, not just a business. We are creating a society.

For example, the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op based in Madison, WI is actually the fourth largest democratic organization in the county. Its membership is bigger than every other community in the County of Dane except for the City of Madison. The other two organizations bigger than the co-op are the Madison Metropolitan School District and the County Government. We should definitely start thinking of our consumer co-ops in this light. Likewise, directors at these larger co-ops should also see themselves in a role similar to a city council member.

It would be great to see organizations such as NCG, USFCW, and NCBA develop some methods for tracking aggregate data, create a database of practices used by co-ops to spur participation by sector, and otherwise create a bigger discussion of how to get members to engage as collective owners. What does participation look like in a healthy co-op? I think that for a start it would include competitive elections, a committee structure with members and directors (and staff if not a worker co-op), and ownership activities (such as social events, letter writing campaigns, and other activities aimed to allow people to engage as owners outside of normal operations.

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The Co-op Decade and After

This month, I have posted about different co-ops every day in celebration of National Co-op Month (celebrated in Canada and the United States). I did this in conjunction with NWCDC’s daily Facebook post about the same co-op. Today, on the last day of Co-op Month in the last year of the Co-op Decade, I want to talk about our mutual success and what is next.

In 2012, the International Year of the Co-operative, the General Assembly of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) drafted a document known as “The Blueprint for the Co-operative Decade“. The blueprint called for co-ops to work towards the following by 2020:

  • The acknowledged leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability
  • The model preferred by people
  • The fastest growing form of enterprise

Cooperatives, in general, have made great strides in terms of leadership in economic, social, and environmental sustainability. The Blueprint considers five key factors in achieving its Vision 2020:

  • Participation: by members in their co-op governance.
  • Sustainability: co-ops leading the way on reducing C02 and being good stewards of the earth.
  • Identity: promoting the co-op identity as a preferred way of doing business.
  • Legal Framework: expanding the legal protection for co-op businesses to operate.
  • Capital: strengthening the network of capital and building more access to capital within the co-op community.

Overall, I will say, at the outset, the the Blueprint has succeeded. It was approved in late 2013 and launched in 2014.  How much of the success of the plan was due to the ICA catching a wave that started with the 2008 economic crisis and how much was because of the plan’s articulation is debatable. Nevertheless, I think that I can definitely say that the co-op community in 2020 has become remarkably stronger in all aspects that it was in 2010.

My initial idea for today was to talk about how well the blueprint was implemented since 2020 is just 61 days away. I wasn’t able to find much in the way of reporting on it (which is to be expected with strategic plans). I also forget how detailed it was for a single post. As a result, I am going to keep the daily posts going for another 6 days (skipping the weekend) and discuss what I have seen with regards to each of the 5 factors and then a general summary on November 8.  My summary will largely be limited to my area of the world: the Pacific Northwest and worker-coops. However, if you are reading and want to offer your take, please comment!

I hope that people have enjoyed these daily takes. I want to thank GEO for pulling the post and pushing them out to a larger community. They are currently doing their annual fundraiser. Support them (especially if you found your way here through their page). Your comments are always welcome as are guest posts–I never pretend to have either all of the answers or all of the questions. More voices are welcome!

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All Systems Go! Working Systems Co-op

In July of 2018, while the Main Street Employee Ownership Act was working its way into the Omnibus Defense Bill and NWCDC was preparing its Legacy Project aimed at raising the profile of worker ownership, I got a call from a senior worker at Working Systems about the possibility of converting the software company to a cooperative. 12 months later, Working Systems, Inc. became Working Systems Cooperative.

A Gear with the words Working Systems

One of the owners (who continued with the co-op as a worker-owner) told me that his parents were union organizers in New York City and they also helped create housing co-ops. I don’t know if they were part of this cohort, but it is wonderful to see his parent’s legacy transform a new generation of worker-owners.

Working Systems immediately became one of the more unique co-ops in the nation. They are software developers (both for desktop and web based apps). However, they write their software to support the missions of their clients. All of their clients are labor unions. They work with small locals and large internationals. The workers of the company were also unionized with Communications Workers of America.

Working Systems, already something of a unicorn in the tech world as a unionized workplace, is now the State of Washington’s first “union-coop”. There is a national movement channeling the synergy of labor unions and worker cooperatives and the Union-Coop Symposium will be held in Cincinnati in mid-November hosted by the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative. I am glad to see my home state with representation in this community!

This is a great group of people to work with! Without breaking any confidences, it was exciting to see how software developers write bylaws. They also had two members of the former Beluga Software Cooperative (also based in Olympia) and featured in the documentary: Beyond the Bottom Line. This was useful since they had practical experience of how to improve the co-op model. They a very high functioning community, thoughtful, and a strong focus on equality and equity.

It was also my first chance to work with Shared Capital that did an excellent job of working with the crew and being flexible to meet the needs of the membership. I served on Shared Capital’s board for a time (when it was still North Country Development Fund). I look forward to the next project with them.

Today, Working Systems Co-op is holding its first Annual General Meeting. They will be electing their board, amending their bylaws, and celebrating the transition from employees to worker-owners! They asked me to facilitate and I really consider that an honor. Solidarity and Democracy in action!

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