Becoming Human Through Cooperation

“Work is, before anything else, both as a service to the community and as a path towards personal development.”-José María Arizmendiarrieta (reflection 263 from Pensamientos)

As a member of a worker cooperative and as a co-op developer, there are few quotes from Mondragón’s spiritual founder that resonate as much as this one. The quote expresses my lived experience. I have heard people in the co-op community also express this concept such as Tracy Holland Dudzinksi, a founder and long-time president of Cooperative Care in Wautoma, WI. She had a great stump speech entitled the “Mouse that Roared” about her personal growth that came about from being part of the Co-op. But her story is one of many and these stories are what makes the worker co-op model so amazing.

Of course, I think that the concept of “work” that Arizemendiarrieta refers to is work that is meaningful and aligned with human dignity. What is meaningful, to me, can be defined on an individual basis. Turning a crank or working on an assembly line may not seem meaningful to many, while being a transplant surgeon might; however, the task doesn’t make the work meaningful. If the assembly worker enjoys their work, has a voice in the planning and operations, has a work environment that encourages collaboration, it is meaningful.

At Union Cab, I saw people change as they become more involved with the management and governance of the cooperative. For some, it may have been a natural progression in their lives as people who grew up in privileged communities (like I did) and they may have had a predilection to moving into leadership positions, but for others, especially in the working class world of cab driving, the co-op model provides a paradigm shift. People change because they are suddenly in an environment that values them as human beings, not as a means to generate profit.

As a developer, I see the paradigm shift happen with conversion projects and it is amazing. One group that I worked with had a fair amount of fear about how they would manage. The sellers were in a horrible cash flow battle (it wasn’t dangerous, but it wasn’t healthy). However, once the workers took over the shop, their productivity spiked and suddenly the cash flow problems disappeared. Something happens to people when they quit being an “employee” and become an equal member of an organization. We, as a movement, should create a word for it!

At the same time, it is also interesting to watch people who were the principal owners change as well, almost always for the better. The reduced stress and the realization that they can now explore other paths in their life is remarkable. A sense of ease comes over them.

I spoken mainly about the existential shift that occurs at the moment of becoming a member. However, another important part of the quote refers to the nature of co-managing that develops new skills with people. People are perfectly capable of managing themselves and do not need professionals (or a boss) to do it. I imagine that most people reading this, already believe that statement, but many don’t. Many business owners believe that their employees could never manage the business–this is actually one of the reasons why business owners don’t sell to their workers.

Worker co-ops give people the opportunity to learn new skills and develop their perspective. This isn’t just about reading spreadsheets, it is also about creating relationships, building communication skills, and developing empathy. Engaging in a democratic workplace helps people become more engaged citizens in their communities (adding a second meaning to the “service to the community” concept expressed in the quote).

Worker co-ops benefit the community by creating jobs at a living wage or better in a safe, humane, and democratic environment. This model benefits the community not just through better compensation but also through acknowledging and enhancing the humanity of its members, which creates a cascade effect through the community served by the cooperative.

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 Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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