Getting Back to Normal?

I am looking forward to the future! For the last nine months, I have been in the role of General Manager of my co-operative. It has been a very difficult time made more difficult by the ebbs and flows of a business cycle based, in part, on government funded programs and bad weather. This year, the money was mostly ebb with little flow.

The biggest lesson that I am walking away with is the realization that hierarchy in a worker cooperative is dangerous at best. Creating a “boss” and recreating the dynamics of the traditional workplace do not allow a worker cooperative to succeed. It creates a fertile ground for petty political maneuvering around personal agendas instead of open and transparent discussions about the value of cooperation. It causes the workforce to engage in a bizarre form of sibling rivalry in which the GM and the Board play the role of indulgent parents.

I am very happy that our co-op decided to get rid of our GM position and replace it with a council consisting of department leaders and senior workers. We have yet to see how this will work, but we have spent the last nine months practicing. Although I accepted the title of Interim General Manager, I attempted to diffuse as much power as possible to the various work teams. By a previous board decision, discipline and accountability issues had already been turned over to a Behavior Review Council-this made me the first GM without the authority to discipline.

It is an exciting time to be in the worker coop world. New worker coops are starting every day. Older worker coops, like mine, are reinventing themselves, and new energy is coming into the movement from the Steelworkers and Academia. Hopefully, now that my interim period is coming to an end, I can return to chronicling and commenting on the exciting energy that is out there!

I will be in Halifax for two months beginning May Day. I hope to return to my Monday postings, so please start checking. The world really is changing. After 170 years, co-operatives are finally coming into their own and we get to be a part of this incredible transition.

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 Getting Back to Normal?

  1. Hey John,

    It’s good to realize the dangers of hierarchy within the coop. Many of the coops we work with use coordinators rather than managers.

    Also, keep in mind how language effects social relationships. Oftentimes, it’s good to get rid of language that reflects hierarchy and traditional ownership in the workplace (manager, employee..even salary can be dangerous (try withdrawal)).

    You can follow our twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/workingworldorg to hear a little more about the coops we work with.

    The Working World

  2. Mark R. says:

    Wow, that’s the reality. Seeing how it happens at such a basic level is sobering. It sounds like The Working World is already working at a sophisticated level by addressing the issue of language.
    I’ve studied and worked in psychology and anthropology, and can appreciate the semantic levels involved. The 12 Step groups gave me a lot of inspiration as a practical experience. The parliamentary rules of Robert’s Rules of Order make an interesting exercise. A chairperson of a business meeting, for example, is in the role of facilitator, not decision maker. Good luck, John!

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