Recently, The Nation sent out a broadcast with an article about the emerging worker cooperatives of Cleveland asking those of us in the bog-o-sphere to comment. As someone who has been an active member of a worker co-operative for over 20 years and involvement in the national and international movement for the last 4 years, I definitely have some ideas.
The folks are really doing this right. I spoke with one of the organizers of Evergreen Laundry a few years ago. They lined up the customers as part of the planning stage. The idea wasn’t to struggle as so many worker co-ops do in the beginning, but to start-up with a strong source of work (this was touch and go, but it appears that Case Western and other institutions will be sending their laundry to Evergreen). Second, the Mondragon style commitment to return 10% of surplus (the article calls it ‘pre-tax profits’) to a development fund. Third, I like the commitment expected from the workers that may require a long-term buy-in—I think that low-cost buy-ins have a tendency to devalue the membership or ownership aspect of the experience.
I’m a bit stunned at the amount of capital amassed. One of the well identified stumbling blocks for worker co-operative development in the United States has been the lack of access to capital. I realize that there are a number of groups, involved, I would like to know where the $5 million came from and what strings are attached to it. I’m not casting aspertions, but I just have to assume that these organizations that ponied up the start-up cash expect to getting something out of the project and won’t want it to fail. A look at their website suggests that all three of the start-up co-operatives have the same group of customers (Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve, City of Cleveland, and Housing Network). This project is a great example of what can happen when different organizations working around economic justice, worker rights and sustainable communities break down the “silos”. I do hope that other communities learn from the Cleveland model especially Milwaukee and Madison (sadly, Madison’s current Economic Director doesn’t really seem to know much about that subject other than the standard refrain that government should get out of the way).
This does turn the traditional model on its head in that this was a top-down organizing effort. This likely helped with fund-raising as established rain-makers were able to tap into professional relationships where a gaggle of workers would likely be turned away with a shrug. I’m not so sure how I feel about that. I’m happy to see the effort up and running, but I wonder how much of the paternalism associated with a top-down organizing effort will interfere with the transition to a true worker democracy in which the workers may make decisions that the founders fundamentally disagree with. I can see a dynamic where there could be a difficult (even fatal) transition in generational succession. This may be exacerbated by the management being chosen from a management class that may not really have anything in common with the workers. Will future managers be developed within the organization or sought within the existing worker co-operative movement?
Another issue with the top-down model involves labor relations during the start-up phase. Who will decide who gets off of probation and becomes a member before there are members? Will there be an appeal process? How will disputes get resolved without ownership or a labor union? They are creating good paying jobs (although the article didn’t really mention expected pay and benefits) in a very depressed area. I imagine a lot of people are looking forward to the work and see the ownership part as an abstraction. Working is a worker co-operative is not for everybody (at least not without a lot of therapy and training). We don’t refer to the Yellow Family at Union Cab for nothing, the relationships are very personal and very difficult to walk away from when times get tough. The intimacy of the work relationships due to ownership can make the disputes powerful and difficult to manage. Not everybody is ready for that or can deal with it.
This brings up my other concern: how will these co-operatives interact with the co-operative movement? A similar co-operative is Co-operative Home Care Associates of New York that generally doesn’t interact with the larger movement despite being the largest worker co-operative in the country. Will the Cleveland Model co-operatives join the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives? Will they subscribe to the CICOPA World Declaration of Worker Co-operatives? Will they subscribe to the Statement on Co-operative Identity?
I raise the last question because it seems that there is a trend to see co-operatives and worker co-operatives as an extension of the not-for-profit model of community development. We’re not. The growth of social workers creating co-ops is, I think, a danger for US co-operatives as they become more identified with a movement that tends to enable the worst aspects of capitalism. The rise of Policy Governance Model among consumer co-operatives is, in my opinion, a travesty that has allowed small cabals of managers and directors to create fiefdoms and barriers to expressing the user principles as well as the values of co-operatives. I would hate to see that cancer emerge into the worker co-operative world.
Finally, I have a small bone to pick. The authors make this comment, “These are not your traditional small-scale co-ops.” <COUGH, COUGH!> Union Cab with 230 members, Rainbow Grocery approaching 250 members, CHCA with over 1,000 members have been “traditional “ co-operatives for over 25 years. Granted the common stereotype is 5-10 member organizations, but the Cheeseboard and Arizmendi co-operatives all have over 30 members. The Cleveland co-ops are only looking at around 50 jobs per co-operative (according to The Economist). What makes these co-ops Mondragonish is the funding and mutual support mechanism, not the size of the organization.
I think that the Cleveland Model is an exciting development in the worker co-operative movement. However, it is one aspect. Our movement has been active for decades if not centuries. I am glad to see journals such as The Nation finally discover the co-operative model, although they probably could have covered the Democracy at Work Conferences (2006 in New York City and 2008 in New Orleans, and the 2010 conference in San Francisco). Perhaps they could ask their colleagues over as Dollars and Sense for tips on covering worker co-operatives.
To me, the best thing about the Cleveland Model is that it promises to open up some serious capital for worker co-operative development. It will still need to be determined how the strings attached to that capital work. It will also need to be seen if a top-down organizing model works to create a truly democratic work place and governance model or becomes another version of ESOP. Finally, after all the news of 2009, it is nice to be in a movement that isn’t entirely invisible any more.
We can, however, definitely agree that CLEVELAND ROCKS!