Deep Thoughts on Coops

“Cooperation summons people to a collective project, but leaves each person with his or her own responsibility. Cooperation is the development of the individual, not against others, but with others. The objective is the human person, not the monstrous development of the individualist who is determined to, or at least at constant risk of , crushing other. Rather the objective is the development of what is the best and most sacred within each human person. Cooperation is something that is close to humans. Cooperativist philosophy rejects both the collectivist and the liberal conceptions of the human natures. It recognizes instead the unique value of the human person, but insists that this person cannot be totally him or herself until entering into creative as well as spiritually and materially productive relationshps with the worlh  or she is part.” –Don Jsoé María Arizmendiarrieta (spiritual founder and leader on Mondragon Coopertive)

This statement provided the basis for this workshop at the US Federation of Worker Cooperative National Conference. The title of the workershop, Deeper Meanings of Cooperation, was meant to get at the society of our cooperatives and, as facilitator Rebecca Kemble noted, how we refashion ourselves as humans and deal with co-workers who either won’t or can’t refashion themselves.”.

It was a round-table discussion that focused on the issues of self-responsibiitiy and self-help. We discussed how we work with conflict in our cooperatives and how we manage disputes. Part of this discussion involved the reason that people choose coopeatives. While some come to the coop movement out of a desire to work in a democratic environemnt, others come becuase the coop succeeds in providing good jobs and benefits for the industry. As Adam Chern of Union Cab pointed out that it isn’t neccessarily discussed in the lofty terms of coops but in the simple concepts of thsoe who see the need for long-term sustainability and those that want short-term gains. It reminded me of the analogy of the the Grasshoppoer and the Ant. These are two very different world views and as coop leaders, we need to figure out how to manage them.

There was a lot of discussion about creating strong educational programs and better communication structures. Lisa Russell from Equal Exchange noted a cultural part of our country. In her travels with EE, farmers in Salvador noted taht the Americans talk in small groups in the hallway, but stay silent in meetings. While the farmers make a point of airing their differences and working them out.

Peter Hough of the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation noted that conflict may also result from the lack of a formal business plan and vision of the organization while John Langley suggested that we also need to recognize that “getting rid of the boss” doesn’t ensure change. Further, that people may start out with very idealistic goals but can gravitate towards a narrow self-interest.

There are a number of great comments along these lines. We ended the session with a discussion about pay levels and how that can create conflict when it seems to run counter to the vision or ideal of cooperatives. We also discused the cultural differnece between physical and intellectual labor. This drifted into a discussion of the social capital that we create. Not all of the wealth is financial. We need to find a way to reach out to those that only see the financial and help them see the social capital that they build.

I felt that we were getting at a lot of issues in our cooperatives. How do we create a truly meaningul community and society within a larger paradigm that seems to champion the antithesis of our values, ethics, and principles. One person suggested that the tension between capitalism and cooperation can be a good thing and help us impove.

Ultimately, I think that our discussion was getting at the concept of Entropy. In the physical world, Entropy is part of teh second law of thermodynamics. Without working on a system, it will decay to its most unorganized state. So it is with our cooperatives. We cannot expect people to simply walk in from the outside world and embrace the cooperative ideal. We need to create institutional norms and mores. We need to work against the entropy of our cooperatives that leads people to narrow their self-interest. This means creating and defending structures within our cooperatives to educate and inform on the cooperative identity. It also means that we need to be willing to confront (in a cooperative way) the negativity and we need to support each other.

In her opening remarks (held after this session), Executive Director Melissa Hoover said that we need to quit thinking ourselves as the “alternative”. We need to see ourselves as the model.To do this, we need to discover ways to help workes “refashion” themselves. Arimendiarietta famously asked if the worker co-operative is an economic movement with an educational component or an education movement with an economic component. He believed in educaiton. He also saw work as a form of social transformation. We need to see our workplaces as places to create social capital which can be used to help people reach their potential as humans. If not, then we must ask, as Sidney Prohubischy once did, “why work so hard to be a capitalist?” We have a responsibility to reach higher.

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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