CICOPA: Worker Coop Relations with Employer Groups

This section of the Declaration on Worker Cooperatives (as the next one) consists of a short paragraph:

“Employers’ organizations can promote the development of cooperative worker ownership as an entrepreneurial form whose first objective is the creation of sustainable and decent jobs with and entrepreneurial added value, and as an appropriate exit strategy for the recovery of companies in crisis or in the process of liquidation, while respecting their autonomy, allowing their free entrepreneurial development and without abusing of this associative labour modality to violate the workers’ labour rights.”

Since this is an international statement, the definition of an employers’ organization will vary from country to country (as will its power in the economy and local government). I imagine that in some countries, an employers’ organization could even be a death squad with the mission of suppressing labor movements and union drives. For the purpose of this discussion, however, it seems best for those of us in the US, Canada and the UK to consider the role of worker coooperatives and the Chamber of Commerce. At some level, we may also want to consider groups such as the National Association of Manufacterers (NAM) and other groups.

This section seems like a call to worker cooperatives to educate their regional business groups. On the whole, this seems like a good idea. Cooperatives tend to get dismissed, in the United States anyway, as a bunch of tree-huggers, granola crunching, birkenstock pony-tailed hippies. By allowing this image to purvail, cooperatives in general and worker cooperatives in particular allow themselves to be ignored as a minor part of the economic model. We become a meaningless niche of the intelligentsia to be ridiculed instead of a model for a sustainable economy.

Our worker co-operatives must engage our local business community. We need to show them that the workers can run a business just as well or better than a single owner. We need to explain the co-operative difference. Isthmus Engineering won’t outsource their jobs to another part of the country to get cheap labor because the workers are the owners. City managers and politicians never have to worry about a worker co-operative picking up and moving out of the region (they might worry about a coop leaving the city proper, but that is a different issue).

This section of the Declaration provides a call to action on the part of our worker coopperatives. Specifically, we need to do the following:

1. When possible engage the local business associations either through membership or participation.*

2. Appoint someone in the organization to scan the media and respond to all mentions of cooperatives (especially negative connotations). Challenge the business community and the media to see co-operatives as valueable resources and sustainable assets to the community.

3. Show up, or monitor, city and county committees. Raise the cooperative model in general and the worker cooperative model in particular as viable means of sustainable economic development. This can be done through a regional or local coordination group or by individual cooperatives.

4. Create a united front of cooperatives to spread the word about cooperatives. Create the real image of our membership. Yes, there are people who fit the stereotype, but our combined memberships consists of hundreds if not thousands of workers and their families who contribute to the local economy as wage earners, property owners, renters, and consumers. The money generated in a worker co-operative stays in the community.

It is too easy for worker co-operatives to get lost in their operations. It is too easy for us to shrug and say that it isn’t our problem or that we have bigger fish to fry internally. That may be true, but we must engage the outside world. We need to be active leaders in the local economy. We need to raise the profile of worker co-operatives. Our co-operatives can only benefit from these actions. By engaging the employers’ organizations, we dispel the myths and untruths about worker co-operation and workplace democracy. We create a dynamic in which worker co-operation may be considered a solution to a problem from the early stages instead of as an afterthought. By creating a stronger impression with employers’ organizations, we create stronger co-operatives and may even create new business opportunities for ourselves.

*In Madison, two local booster groups, Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Madison, Inc, have chosen to endorse candidates in local elections. For co-operatives such as mine, this precludes our membership as our policies require us to remain neutral in elections and only lobby for positions.

Next Week: Relations with Labour Organizations

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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