Great Negotiators

What is the role of “management” in a worker co-operative?

In some, it seems that they take over, effectively adopting the role of Agency in the organization and turn the membership, the workers, into passive actors in their own enterprise. In others, a great effort is made to deny their existence–this can be through the use of titles or structurally choosing to have no formal power in the organization.

Most of our co-ops, I think, settle along this continuum. In our worlds, the “managers” by name or otherwise, have the ability to make some decisions, but generally can’t really tell anyone else what to do. This puts them into a very interesting role–that of negotiator.

In the role of negotiator, the “manager” assesses the needs of the organization, the needs of the membership, the needs of the consumers. Balancing all of this against the Co-operative Identity and the co-ops own mission and values. It isn’t an easy job. In fact, I would argue that “managing” a worker co-operative is a quantum level higher than managing a non-co-operative in the same industry (or even a consumer co-op in the same industry). Of course, the benefit of the worker co-operative world is that we don’t have to make decisions alone. We can, and should, bring the other members into the discussion as much as possible.

Some might think that this sort of participatory, democratic management might slow the organization down. It doesn’t as long as the communication lines are kept open. If the group is kept in the loop, then a quick decision, generally, can be made with a few phone calls, emails, or based on the pre-arranged parameters established by the group. Of course, this depends on the level of functioning as well. If the group is committed to things such as Robert Rules of Order and other mechanisms designed to ensure “sunlight” in democracy but horrible for timely decisions, then the process can really bog down. To overcome this, we only need take the concept of Sarbanes-Oxley to heart. SOX was the law written after the Enron debacle to help stop Enrons from happening again. Ultimately, it presumes that separation of duties and knowledge will stop most conspiracies. The Enron conspiracy consisted of about 4-5 people. The idea, here, is that if the teams report their actions, if the ability to sign of on deals requires 2-3 people, and if the decisions need to be noticed, it will be possible for quick decisions to be made in a democratic structure without opening the door for corruption.

In worker co-operatives, this may mean assigning a person to negotiate and sign off on insurance policies, but requiring the discussion and bids to be reviewed by the team. This allows an overall concept to be forged and still allows the “manager” to negotiate and close a deal. It also works internally.

Well, my discussion drifted a bit here. I was originally hoping to discuss how managers in worker co-ops engage in negotiation on a daily basis. Encouraging members to operate at a high-level of functionality and efficiency, working with consumers to adjust expectations, and meeting with vendors to get the best deal available all while maintaining high levels of loyalty and commitment to the co-operative. Internally, it is all about recognizing the member as an owner and helping them understand their role as an owner. We can’t “crack the whip” or bark orders at people. We need to nudge and educate the individual worker-owner, but we also need to communicate. We need to listen and be willing to learn a better way to do the job. It really is a negotiation which, I am learning, is a major part of  “co-operation” although it is something that we don’t really talk about.

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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