Worker Co-ops and Workers, Unity vs. Cliques

How do we, as a movement, create a different organizational structure that creates synergy out of our differences? More importantly, how do we create a culture that overturns the worst lessons learned in the dominant paradigm?

To me, the Human Relations in a worker co-operative should be dedicated to the full human development of the individual as part of the overall community of the world. We should be borrowing the good things from our dominant culture and subverting or destroying the bad things. While it might be fair to argue over what is “good” or “bad”, we have a touchstone to rely upon. The Statement on the Co-operative Identity and the Mondragon Principles provide the cultural map required for co-operatives to engage their members and the community. We have to activate our concern for community in a way that humanizes our co-operatives and creates societies that truly deviate from the dog-eat-dog normality.

The first time that I heard the word “clique” was in 10th grade, I thought that my classmate said “click”. He was talking about all the cliques in our high school and how annoying they were. I thought this meant that kids had started “clicking” their tongues or something! I am glad that I didn’t start “clicking” to fit in! Of course, that is part of the socialization process in our culture. We create “the other” and then join groups based on not being “them” but on being “us”. My high school class only had 82 students and we still subdivided into three large groups and several smaller cliques.

Our willingness to self-divide and identify “us” verses “them” continues unabated in our society. Politicians (professional and otherwise) have long used this to achieve and maintain power. Corporations have used this to divide and conquer worker movements.

How do we use cliques in our co-operatives?

If we allow them to exist (and I imagine it would be impossible to banish them), how do we prevent the worst aspects of them (elitism, personality cults, discrimination, harassment and bullying) from destroying our co-operative ethos and the value of mutual self-help and solidarity? In my mind, I find the nature of cliques and sub-groups to be counter-productive and even the internal enemy of worker co-operatives. Ultimately cliques gain their power from destroying the social cohesion of a co-operative. I imagine that there are all sorts of self-esteem issues and personality types wrapped up into this.

In some co-ops, it may be easy to diffuse since the business is small, exists in one place, and everyone essentially works the same hours (think Cheeseboard). The “clique” essentially becomes the rather homogeneous group of members. However, in a large spread-out organization (like home care co-ops, taxi co-ops, or other organizations), members may be distributed across time and space to the point that workers might not even recognize each other as members of the same business. How do we work to overcome cliques in co-operatives where the membership might never meet the majority of the members due to work schedules?

I don’t really have a great answer for that question. I think, however, the key will always be in the values. Openness and honesty must be central to our work lives. I think, too, that we need to create a culture that doesn’t encourage one group of workers to be thought of as more important than another. We have to make equality and equity a reality in our co-operatives. At some level, it become an issue of individuals standing up and defending the values and principles of co-operatives. When we hear a member discredit another member (or work group within the co-operative) we need to risk our own popularity to explain why that idea (creating the “other”) is non-co-operative and even a danger to themselves (after all, they may become “the other” one day).

I imagine that co-operatives that have regular meetings and social events of the membership (on a daily or weekly basis) probably do better; however, that isn’t always practical and may pose problems in a 24 hour workplace.  The larger point, is that we can’t sit back and expect social cohesion to simply happen. As the co-operative grows and ages, the level of cohesion will change with it. In chemistry, the saying is that like attracts like (or that might be “like dissolves like”), so the job of a larger co-operative will be to help its membership see the similarities in all of the members of the co-operative. These similarities, of course, are the human qualities and desires that we all share. The idea shouldn’t be to build loyalty on a shift-by-shift basis (as a typical HR group might do), but on our humanity and co-operative membership.

A worker co-operators, we have an obligation to treat ourselves better than the bosses would treat the workers in their employment. When we act worse than our competitors in how we treat each other, we not only fail to honor each other, we fail the worker co-operative movement and the larger co-operative movement. We must institutionalize methods to help members unlearn the bad habits of the traditional workplace and learn the value of social cohesion with everyone in the co-operative. We need to eschew the cliques within our organization and see the co-operative (and its stakeholders) as our society. We need to create peer support structures within our co-operatives to develop and promote our solidarity with each other as members and teach other co-operatives how to do it.

Ghandi famously encourage us to be the change that we want to see. Worker co-operatives have an obligation to present a better option in how the company treats its workers and how its workers treat each other.

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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1 Response to Worker Co-ops and Workers, Unity vs. Cliques

  1. Bill Milner says:

    Very good stuff bro. I believe that we share ideals and our ideals may benefit from our sharing of ideas. Please, if you could be so kind, check out a project that I am working on at the URL above that addresses many of the issues that you raised. Thanks

    Peas & Luv,

    Zaragoza Bill

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