Worker Co-ops and Workers or All in the Family

This might take several posts to really work through the issues, but the nature of worker coops conjures up visions of a workers’ paradise (and the source of the name for this blog); however, too often conflict rises and worker co-ops easily devolve into a deformed workers’ state (the alternative name for this blog when I am cranky).

Without a doubt, the biggest strength and greatest weakness of worker co-operatives revolves around the internal issues of discipline and treatment of workers. An acquaintance of mine in Madison told me about his two experiences with worker co-operatives. Both were bakeries (one small one and one large factory style).

The small one was controlled by the members who were mostly, in his words, Trustafarians. They weren’t interested in growing the business because they didn’t need to do so. For stiffs like my friend, who didn’t have a trust fund, this meant working for minimum wage. The love of making bread and doing one’s own thing didn’t pay the rent. To make matters worse, the paychecks would be distributed together in a basket. The core group often didn’t pick up their checks for months at a time! This only highlighted the economic disparity among the membership and made my friend feel belittled and embittered.

The larger bakery produced at a level where wages and benefits were competitive, but it was really controlled by management and had little input from the worker members. To highlight this, at the annual summer “employee” picnic, management provided commercial mass produced white bread and  buns and bread. My friend was shocked that management wasn’t even willing to spring for the worker’s own bread for the picnic and went for the cheapest crap that they could find.

My long career in worker co-ops (22 years) has seen a lot of internal disputes. I remember a trying time when it was external forces that threatened the co-operative and one fellow member noted that the success or failure of our co-op lies entirely within us. Regardless of the external economy or attacks on our company, we are, as Moses Coady would say, the Masters of Our Destiny.

I would like to pretend that size matters, but it doesn’t. As the tale of two bakeries suggest, the real struggle comes from activating co-operative values and interpreting them in the real world of worker co-operatives. There is a very interesting paper entitled Dispute Resolution in Worker Co-operatives: Formal Procedures and Procedural Justice by Elizabeth Hoffman. My co-op was the subject of this case study and I was president during the period of study. I have a few issues with the work (she never interviewed me or other officers for our perspective of what happened), however, I completely agree with her analysis and it ties in well with another important work, The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman. Co-operatives are societies and they require a certain level of bureaucracy and structure to work effectively. Unfortunately, a lot of people come to worker co-operatives because they want to get away from “the man” and stupid rules, and all the other BS of corporate America. As William Golding taught all of us, however, it just isn’t that easy. Humans are social animals and will establish a social order. It can be an order based on personality, mythology, power, or humanity (ethics, values and principles). For co-operatives, we choose humanity (or I hope that we do).  The point, however, is that an order will be created with or without our efforts.

How often do we hear bosses talk about their company as “being like a family”? I always find that annoying. How patronizing! However, they are simply trying to describe their structure which is based on personality and power. Sometimes I hear that language in co-operatives. We talk about the Yellow Family at Union Cab, but no one is talking about parents, we are talking about siblings, cousins, and weird uncles (I think after 22 years, I get the cranky weird uncle title). Of course, if we really think about this analogy, aren’t we also talking about sibling rivalry and all the BS that goes into dealing with families. There is a great line from the play, ‘night, Mother in which the protagonists speaks to her inability to choose her family.

The difference is that we chose to be part of our co-operatives. We voluntarily choose to join and participate. We don’t have the right to act like obnoxious siblings. We have an obligation to interact with our co-operative on the terms of the ethics, values and principles of the co-operative movement. This is not an easy step. Corporate America and the dominant paradigm created by them encourages us to act as siblings to their parenthood. Workers in our society are encouraged to fight each other (over race, immigration, gender, sexual preference, religion, creed and a host of other false differences) and let the parents (managers, politicians) control our lives.

Unfortunately, we sometimes bring this corruption into our co-operatives. Not all, but many, co-operatives mirror the paternalistic hierarchy of the corporate world. We create a “dad” or “mom” in the form of a General Manager and then act out the role of obedient and disobedient children (and attack each other in miming sibling rivalries). We need to be better than this and we can do it. Some feel that having more that 40 members means being forced into this world. Others might argue “human nature”. I think that we can do more and better by simply focusing on the Co-op Identity.

Rainbow Grocery is a great example of a large co-operative that has flattened its hierarchy. I am not on the inside, so I can’t speak to how their conflict mediation works, but they have shown a way that even a large co-op can eschew the Family Circus. Union Cab is currently revising its dispute resolution system holistically (for the first time in 30 years). The challenge for getting rid of “dad” or “mom” is that we can’t simply replace them with “big brother” or “big sister”. We have to really find a way for all of us in the society to exist as equals and take that responsibility seriously. This means spending a lot of money (co-operative assets) on education, training and information (the 5th Principle). It also means making requirements on our membership that may seem onerous (such as participating in the education, training and information).

I believe that part of the duty of a worker co-operative involves elevating its membership from the siblings of corporate America’s “families” and creating fully-developed human beings that can interact as equals and recognize their connection to the larger world of workers and economics. This will be how the worker co-operatives grow and move forward, not by imitating our former bosses but by creating a truly new paradigm based on our identity.

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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