The Co-operative and Its Workers

How should co-operatives treat their workers?

This is a bigger question that simply one of worker rights. In worker co-operatives, the workers are the owners. What expectations should they have from the General Manager (if they use that structure) or the board of directors? In a consumer co-operative, many of the workers are also consumer members-can they really divorce themselves as members from their experience as workers? Of course the Ag Coop’s workers have the more traditional corporate worker dynamic, but what should be expected from a socio-economic entity that supports honesty, openness, caring for others and social responsibility as corporate values?

Over the next few Mondays, I will talk about these issues by sector. What I think co-op workers should expect and be entitled to in a co-operative workplace. I might ruffle a few feathers, but I have become quite good at that lately!

This will create a category of “Worker Rights”. I really hope that people engage with comments. I won’t be inflammatory on purpose, but I want to really explore this issue. To that end, I want to explain my opinion on an important word choice right now. That word is “exploitation” I printed most of the following to start a class on personnel management through the MMCCU:

I use the term exploit in its classical sense with two definitions:
1. To make productive use of
2. To make use of meanly or unfairly to promote one’s advantage.

For exploitative, the dictionary uses “unfairly or cynically* using another person or group for profit or advantage”. However in a capitalist system, all labor may be considered to be exploited since labor (even in a unionized environment) has no control over how it is used. There is an inherent “unfairness” in the system that cannot be entirely erased by good behavior of individual managers or boards of directors.

To that end, I use the term exploitation and exploit to mean any use of labor when labor does not control the means of production. The existence of a contract reduces the level of exploitation, but does not erase it.

Now to be fair, I don’t think that cooperatives are evil tyrants over the workforce, but labor is one of the things that members exploit. Some cooperatives don’t allow workers to join, others might allow them to join, but not serve on the board. Each cooperative is different. The key is that workers do not control the means of production. In the US, few cooperatives are unionized and most have fought against unions when the opportunity arised–this means the each worker must negotiate with the cooperative separately (and the co-op’s policy committee). It is hardly an equal relationship.

A great example is my local consumer cooperative which “proudly” pays its workers the “County Living Wage”. That sounds nice, except the coop exists entirely within the City of Madison, not rural Dane County and the City’s living wage is almost $2 more per hour. To change that would require workers to go against management before the policy committee and get the board to amend the “means” policies to allow the board to set wages instead of management. I think that it should be quite easy to see the power-dynamic that exists

I also use the term “self-exploitation” in terms of worker cooperatives. This is one of the reasons that labor unions do not always work well with worker cooperatives. This happens when worker cooperatives pay less than scale and short-change themselves on benefits to be competitive on price. Rather than raising the bar (as a labor union might do), they lower the bar on working conditions and pay. However, when workers engage in self-exploitation, they do so democratically.

I think that as long as cooperatives are the secondary model to global capitalism, they will be forced to engage in some sort of exploitation and (as with Union Cab and Mondragon) self-exploitation. That we have a democratic process to limit it and can change the way that we manage “human resources” to mitigate its effects, is one of the values of cooperatives to the world at large and our local economies.

When I use the term exploitation or exploits, I am not trying to call anyone out on poor labor practices of their cooperative. I am using the term that I think correctly defines the power situation within the workplace as it exists in today’s marketplace.

This is the end of my rant–I just want to clear the air on this word choice so that it doesn’t become the focus of discussion. Thanks for reading!

*I would argue that all Human Resource discipline is based on the cynical notion that people are only motivated by self-interest. This is diametrically opposed to the cooperative principle (as explained by Tom
Webb) that all cooperators must be motivated by the core belief that people are inherently good.

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.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Worker Rights and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Co-operative and Its Workers

  1. Greg Dean says:

    This is easy, multiple categories of membership. So that no one interest group (consumers nor workers or adjunct service providers and community groups) can alienate the rest of the community in policy… And in fact well rounded policy is almost guaranteed by a multi-stakeholder co-op.

  2. Greg,

    I agree most certainly–and I will get to that discussion soon. Of course, turning existing co-operatives into multi-stakeholders means uprooting existing power structures, hierarchies and power cliques (a lot easier said than done). Also, keep in mind that a lot of consumer (George Bernard Shaw included) don’t believe in the ability of workers to manage let alone participate in governance. That is what should make this a very fun discussion!

  3. Greg Dean says:

    Ya, that’s why I’m hardly bothering with doing it with existing co-ops. IMO, you have to establish good models and have some sexy infrastructure (like mesh networks that can offer significant marketing to co-ops), then you say to co-ops that entry to federation and all it’s benefits requires that they become a participatory co-op with say-proportionate-to-stake, multi-stake holder structure, tax savings, and powerful finance/equity structures. That’s what I’m doing, because I can’t stand the morally bankrupt reasons why all the co-ops and/or collectives won’t change into participatory co-ops. It’s not hard to get them all to balled-faced admit they don’t want full community democracy involved in their operation, they almost all want to hold out for becoming successful and having their own fiefdom controlled by a clique. Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.