#8 Honesty-The Lonely Word

The first time that I met Ian MacPherson, one of the key drafters of the Identity Statement, I mentioned how my co-operative, Union Cab, created our core values the same year that the Identity Statement came into existence. Even though we were completely ignorant of the larger movement, we chose many of the same values including that of openness and honesty.

Ian responded that I must be a trouble-maker. If you’ve met him, you know that he has a wicked sense of humor and I think that he uses it to test people that he meets. He went on to tell me that the group discussing the Identity Statement took an entire day (8-10 hours) on the concept of honesty in a co-operative. It dominated the discussion of the “ethical values of co-operatives” which include honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

Honesty is a lonely word. It creates a series of difficulties for us as humans since we are such social creatures. The concept of honesty and its confusion in society is the primary reason that the neo-liberal economic model fails. For Milton Friedman’s policies to work, every merchant and corporation must be entirely honest. Otherwise, the consumer cannot make a true choice. Capitalism, however, doesn’t encourage honesty. Quite the opposite. So it was, in the days of “pure capitalism” circa 1810 or so, that merchants mixed chalk in with the flour, rocks in with the coal and even today there are the jokes of the butcher with their thumb on the scale. This led to the Rochdale Pioneers championing honest weights and measurement and unadulterated food.

In worker coops, honesty is vital to the organization. We have to be frank with each other. This is true in our dealings with management of the co-operative and in dealings with each other as humans. This can be difficult, especially in co-ops that have traditional hierarchies in their management, however we need to be able to honestly appraise the business decisions and avoid cults-of-personality

The cults of personality in a worker co-op might be the biggest danger. We aspire to a democratic workplace, but can allow personalities to take over. We create “ladders of inference” about people and this precludes our judgement about their proposals and ideas. On the other hand, leaders may act dishonestly to manipulate people in order to maintain a position of authority. The latter situation, in my opinion, is the more dangerous and it can happen anywhere. Even flattened structures run the risk–maybe they are even more inclined to allow it to occur. The Tyranny of Structurelessness is an excellent essay from the ’70’s that explores how in the vacuum of structure, a secret structure takes hold and creates a power dynamic that may be difficult, if not impossible, to expose or challenge.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that it is a good practice to tell your manager that their idea is “stupid” even if you add the phrase “just sayin'” to it. We still need to be aware of people’s emotions. However, we should set up structures that encourage honesty at all levels of our organization–to me this means giving people freedom to speak their minds and reducing the ability of any one person to affect the livilihood of another.

It also means creating a strong code of ethics. Sometimes, this might meet resistance and I think it comes from people feeling affronted that they need a code of ethics. I think that we tend to have very high opinions of ourselves, as worker co-operators. As a result, the suggestion that we create a code, that we are honest about relationships that might affect our jobs or the jobs of people under our control, or that we codify in any way our values gets received as a suggestion that we aren’t being honest in the first place.

We have to keep in mind that not everyone comes to co-operation with the identity statement burned into their soul. Many are fleeing the failed economics of capitalism. They are in a state of post-traumatic stress from being a wage slave. Sadly, they may bring the negatives of the larger economic system with them. For example, some otherwise very honest people might not think twice about stealing (or “liberating” as I have heard it called) from the corporation (they get paid so little and the CEO spends millions on luxuries), but in a co-op that assymetrical tactic of labor-management class war can’t be condoned. We can’t assume that honesty is inherent in ourselves or the members. It needs to be supported by our structure.

In co-operation, there is an economic advantage to being honest. In worker co-operatives, it is imperative as a means of building trust and social cohesion among the membership. Worker co-operators depend upon each other as a community to meet our socio-economic needs. Without the trust of honest communication and dealings, that bond will breakdown and lead to the path of internecine strife and the failure of the co-operative.

Next Week: Openness

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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