Education Matters in Worker Coops

A friend and colleague of mine recently posted a letter to several people about troubles in a particular worker coop. I won’t name the people involved for obvious reasons (and if you comment on this, I will insist that your comments don’t mention it either).  My friend posed an interesting question and one that should receive some debate by coop developers* and organizers.

Do worker coops require a critical mass of college-educated members to succeed? Are high school/GED blue-collar workers too ignorant to escape the culture surrounding their workplace to build a better workplace? Will they simply translate their bad habits to the coop and bring it down?

I don’t know if we have ever done a survey of the worker coops in the US to determine the level of education, but it might be worthwhile.

The foundation of the worker cooperative movement in Mondragon was education. Don José began his work by creating a school for the children of Mondragon’s workers when the factory owners refused to let them in their schools. From that basic concept arose ULGOR and then Mondragon as we know it today. Mondragon continued that tradition by creating a k-12 and University system that serves the next generation and continues to make education the foundation of the modern cooperative movement. Workers who are unemployed in the Mondragon system are encouraged to take classes at the University of Mondragon to improve themselves.

We don’t do that in the US. We aren’t that connected, we don’t have the money, we are too small. As a result, we take workers as they are and try to teach the cooperative principles and concepts. At the smaller cooperative/collectives, this is relatively easy as the shared vision is stronger. At larger coops with hundreds of members or at those with three or more shifts, it can be difficult. Add in a dispersed workforce (such as cab driving, home care, and cleaning) and developing a coop culture to replace the capitalist culture can be difficult.

It isn’t that workers are stupid and perhaps even the word ignorant is incorrect as well. The dominant culture teaches us to compete, not cooperate. We are taught from the moment we enter the world in kindergarten that some people are better than others (I won’t even get into sibling rivalry) and that competition is not only good but that selfishness is a good quality (see Adam Smith and Ayn Rand). In college, we aren’t taught to challenge that, but we are taught to think critically. It isn’t that people won’t learn to think critically out of college (or that those in college will learn), but as people become more educated they do get exposed to cooperation and to learning how cooperation allows people to succeed easier in a group than alone.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is an anti-intellectual vibe in worker coops. The “bean counters” and management in the capitalist organizations do engage in a antagonistic relationship with the labor force. It is easy to build solidarity among a work force by creating the “other” of the college educated middle manager who doesn’t really work like the blue collar crowd who earn every penny or their pay and more.

In all of this, what role should education play in a worker cooperative. Can a group of working class people with a high school education create a democratic society and escape the dominate culture or do they need educated people to help lead them?

This sounds very elitist, but it is a legitimate question. Mondragon argues that workers must be educated to be owners before they can take ownership. In their new plan to convert a for-profit grocery store into a worker coop store, they estimate that it will take five years of education to develop the critical mass of an ownership mentality among the workforce for the transition to succeed. I don’t think that any of us would expect a worker coop to succeed by simply selling the workers a membership share and letting it occur naturally.

So how should organizers address this issue? How do we overcome the elitism of the educated (real or perceived)? Saul Alinsky argued in Rules for Radicals that the organizer should always be in the background and help people come up with their own ideas (which are those of the organizer). What sort of system could we create to help incubate and develop people in worker coops that don’t have access to well educated?

In my Human Resource class, I suggested that part of the role of a cooperative, as an agent of social transformation, should be to develop workers. HR in a capitalist business tends to develop workers by “moving them up or moving them out”. The traditional HR approach seems to make workers as efficient and effective as possible as workers. Worker development in a worker coop, should be to develop the human being and help them reach their potential as a human being. To this end, I think that we should consider a maturity curve of the cooperative worker. People might enter into the coop at different points of the curve, but the coop should establish institutions to move people along the curve (I have this in a nice table, but can’t figure out how to present it here):

  • Stage
  • Concept
  • Comments
  • Initial
    o    “You’re not the boss of me”
    •    Worker can’t be told what to do because there are “no bosses”
  • First Understanding
    o    “Win-Loss”
    •   Coalition building around self-interests against other coalitions (pro-worker vs. pro-management)
  • Common Good
    o Consensus
    The success of the cooperative helps all workers.
  • Cooperative
    o    Solidarity
    •   Sees success of cooperatives as a means to support own cooperative.
  • Community
    o    “The cooperative is a microcosm of the community as a whole”
    Sees cooperative as part of larger community
  • Model
    o    “Be the Change You Want to See in the World”
    •   Sees the community as a global environment. The actions of the cooperative interact on a large scale. The cooperative creates a model for others.

Worker Cooperatives are more than simple economic engines. They are, and should be, agents of social transformation. We need to recognize that a growing movement has to extend beyond those that have already figured out coops or opted out of the dominant paradigm of capitalism and self-interest. We need to teach people about mutual self-interest and how to be cooperative.

I think that my friend who asked the question was feeling extremely frustrated. Working people can create coops and democratic societies without a college education. However, they must of a cooperative education and this has to be institutionalized in our coops, our organizers, and our networks.

*(rant)I actually hate the term “coop developers”. I find it classist. It suggest community organizing which I tend to see as a top-down method of feel-good liberals who want to help the poor plug into the machine, not question the machine itself. Saul Alinsky called himself an organizer and I much prefer that term especially for worker coops as it evokes the labor organizers and that is really what we are doing. That a strong community develops from a well organized workforce is one of the benefits, but the focus should be on labor organizing and challenging the status quo. (/rant)

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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