“Cooperatives,” states the background paper on the Cooperative Identity, ” are based on equality. The basic unit of the Co-operative is the member, who is either a human being or a grouping of human beings. This basis in human personality is one of the main features distinguishing a cooperative from firms controlled in the interests of capital. Members have rights or participation:
- a right to be informed
- a right to be heard
- a right to be involved in a way that is as equal as possible
(sometimes a difficult challenge in large co-operatives or in federations of co-operatives). In fact, concern for achieving and maintaining equality is a continuing challenge for all co-operatives. In the final analysis, it is as much a way of trying to conduct business as it is a simple statement of rules.”
In a worker coop, the concept of equality gets wrapped up into the personalities of the people involved. Favoritism and cults or personality can destroy worker co-operatives precisely because it contradicts the concept of “equality”. At the same, time equality can be used as a cudgel to beat down any attempt to recognize service or to build the business.
The value of equality in a worker co-operative should inform the leaders’ decisions on how to act. They need to (whether as a individual or as a group) consider how their treatment of their co-workers and development of policy works to create a level field within the cooperative. It is also the individual members responsibility to strive towards a workplace dedicated to seeing the individual member free from the distractions of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and all of the other groupings of what we now refer to as “protected characteristics”. Worker co-operators must go beyond this, though, and also filter out friendships, animosities and loyalties.
As mentioned in the background paper, co-operatives are made up of humans not dollars. As a result, we have different challenges. We work together in our co-operative and form relationships. Sometimes, these relationships are fantastic (I know people that have met and married in my coop). Sometimes, they are not (I know people who have gotten restraining orders against other members). In either extreme case or the large middle where most of us exist, we need to balance our emotions about the individual relationship with the overall health of the co-operative and the value of equality.
Allowing friendships to influence decisions made (especially if one is a manager in a hierarchical structure) is detrimental to the cooperative, even if the decision is ultimately a good one. To this end, I think that the value of “equality” in a worker co-operative means that we must strive to flatten hierarchical structures whenever possible.
Because pay scales tend to be flat, the issue of equality tends to show up in the form or discipline and accountability. We also need to develop strong measures of accountability. We need to develop support mechanisms to resolve emotional conflicts and force “old boy style networks” (please insert any preferred term for “boy”) into the open. Having a supportive network of friends is important to anyone’s sense of community, but when it is used to advance a personal agenda or development, then it can be a negative force within a cooperative.
The value of equality plays a strong role in worker co-operatives. A lot of us come to the co-operative movement precisely because we were treated unfairly by the traditional corporate/business model. This makes our expectations high and, in contrast, the anger greater if we feel that we have been wronged and that the value of equality has been ignored or manipulated.
As worker co-operators we must struggle to create a sense of fairness. Not just in hiring practices and the legal concept of equality. Nor just in right of participation as outlined in the background paper. We must create a sense of equality that ensures accountability of the membership to each other in terms of the values of self-help and self-responsibility. These values of the identity statement do not stand alone, but act in unison to build a strong community.
Next Week: Equity: the other side of Equality.