Business or Democracy? Why Is That Even a Question?

“To be successful, co-ops must lead with a competitive, quality product, not their cooperative values.”

“The is no mission, if there isn’t a margin.”

Sound familiar? I’ve heard both in the last couple of days. The latter was part of a dialogue deconstructing the former. Nevertheless, I am sure that you have heard.

There are always those that want to make this differentiation, but it is a false dichotomy. Our worker co-operative of socio-economic organizations. There is no difference between being a successful business and a democratic workplace. In fact, it is the democratic nature of our businesses that make us successful (if we chose to embrace that aspect). It allows us–our front line staff–to make the key connection with the consumers that other businesses simply cannot do.

I would argue that if a worker co-operative cannot run a sustainable democratic business then it is either in the wrong market or has something wrong internally that doesn’t recognize the real value of their product or service. It may be that they are not charging enough to meet their needs or have too high a price to engage the critical mass of the marketplace that will help them survive.

Regardless of the situation, it is a mistake to claim that the co-operative values are atavistic or alien to creating a large enough surplus to meet the capital needs of the business or have the best pay and benefits in the industry. If a worker co-op can’t accomplish that, then it needs to re-focus. In terms of co-operative values, the value of “self-responsibility” clearly speaks to this dynamic.

We have to be both a well-run business and a democratic business. Otherwise, we might as well give over to the capitalists, admit that we can’t do it, and unionize. If we really want to create a new world, we can’t pretend that it is impossible to achieve. We can’t forsake our values and principles to survive–in fact, we need to push those values and principles to the forefront and make them our competitive advantage! This is what the MOCA (Marketing the Co-op Advantage) is all about.

Again, I have to channel James Connolly. In his sarcastic, satirical essay, “Let Us Free Ireland!”, he ridiculed those who wanted an Irish Nation, with English governance:

“After Ireland is free, say the patriot who won’t touch Socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you won’t pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under the command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you our on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic. Now, isn’t that worth fighting for?”

So I say to our worker co-operatives: what, exactly, is the point of being a worker co-operative if you aren’t creating a better world? If you aren’t leading your industry in wages and benefits and being sustainable, then what are your really doing? If you aren’t changing the way the work is done in your industry (allowing the front-line workers and all workers to participate in the strategic planning and goal setting of the organization), then what are your doing? We don’t need paternalistic do-gooders telling the working class what to do. We can get that anywhere.

If we want to change the economy to something more sustainable and fair, then we need to begin in our own co-ops. If we really don’t believe in that, then we should get out of the way of those who do.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University and hopes to finish his Ph.D. in Business Administration soon. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle and Mission Circle for Sociocracy for All. He teaches on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College.
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2 Responses to Business or Democracy? Why Is That Even a Question?

  1. The idea of a quality product and co-ops is not irrelevant, but raises the interesting differences in motivations. Coca-Cola produces a carbonated beverage that is popular worldwide, as can be appreciated from a websearch I’m sure, and which I have seen first hand in Africa and South America. The example of Coke, a non-nutritional beverage with a highly refined flavor that has been equated through marketing and advertising technique as “refreshing” along with the caffeine ingredient, a chemical substance and stimulant.
    I think the natural foods industry offers us a good example of the quality vs. company question.
    It has been refreshing for me to learn about diverse efforts to produce alternative cola sodas. Blue Sky beverages has produced one with vitamins, as has Santa Cruz sodas. A German firm makes Afri-cola, raising the subject of the cola nut’s origins, although not its nutritional value. A number of firms here in Latin America’s Brazil also produce colas, though not with nutritional or cultural value. Steaz came out with a green tea line of sodas that have organic and fair trade ingredients. The taste of their sodas is particularly refreshing, and there is some nutritional value.
    Compare Coke to these options, and then the question enters the realm of the iconic John Connolly and the concept of social capital and employee and human rights. Is a product’s quality the result of a CEO, or of a range of employees who support the entrepreneur in the first place, and can come to manage in a co-operative fashion?
    Steaz Cola for me, for one.

  2. Pingback: Speaking of Laws: CA AB1161 « The Workers' Paradise

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