Sustainability-Coops Leading the Way

In the 2013 Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, the ICA authors make the following case:

“Quite simply, a co-operative is a collective pursuit of sustainability. Co-operatives seek to ‘optimise’ outcomes for a range of stakeholders, without seeking to ‘maximise’ the benefit for any single stakeholder. Building economic, social and environmental sustainability should therefore be one of the over-arching motivations and justifications for a growing co-operative sector. It offers an answer to the question of why co-operatives are necessary and beneficial, at this historical juncture. Put simply, co-operatives are more efficient than investor-owned businesses, once a more complete range of costs and benefits (present and future) is taken into account.”

The concept of sustainability includes more than being good stewards of the Earth and the life it supports. The blue print specifically calls for action in the co-op community regarding innovations in accounting, promoting distinct management practices, strengthen and integrate the co-op business network, and be leaders in human centric technology advances. The authors also urge evidence gathering and case studies to further promote the co-op difference and advantage in creating true sustainability beyond a marketing message.

Co-ops have definitely led the way on this front over the last 10 years. Even I have played a role in helping to meet this challenge goal.

  • In the worker co-op world, at least three bookkeeping/accounting co-ops have sprung up to provide support for co-operative with co-op knowledgeable bookkeeping. The ICA just recently announced a push for a Co-op version of accounting standards distinct from those designed for capitalist profit centric firms.
  • A number of colleges picked up co-op management classes (Amherst, The Evergreen State College, and most recently Rutgers) as well as a broader offering by my alma mater, St. Mary’s that includes a certificate and diploma option along with its Masters. Some have these efforts include partnerships with development groups such as DAWI and NWCDC. In the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, The Cipriani College of Cooperative and Labor Studies has been active in creating a 4 year degree on co-op management. Even Mondragon University moved slightly away from its traditional “Chicago School teaching” and created the Teampreneur model the Mondragon Team Academy.
  • NCBA and others have worked to help create regional and local networks. Locally, through initial leaders of the Olympia Food Co-op, an organization called Co-Sound seeks to promote and network co-ops in the Thurston County community. The recent series of roundtables were part of this effort as well.
  • NCBA/CLUSA also created the annual Co-op Impact Conference held in D.C. with a biannual fair on the Capitol Mall to promote the co-op model to policy makers.
  • The year after the blueprint, Canadian co-ops and universities published a collection of case studies and reports on the community impact of co-ops (which you can download here). I authored one of the case studies based on Union Cab and was also an editor. If I can further toot my own horn (and why not), my dissertation was a comparative case study of three types of worker management in cooperatives (you can access it on the resource page).
  • Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative and 1Worker:1Vote will be launching a national network of union-coops next year and holds its 4th biannual Symposium in a couple of weeks (I will be there and reporting).
  • CDF started a National Homecare Co-op Conference to specifically assist the home care co-ops (about 15 of them now) in networking and mutual support. I think that they need to move it away from Dulles and not make it an annual event, but it is a very important event.
  • CooperationWorks! celebrates its 20th anniversary and has created a strong network of co-op developers based on a set of ethics known as the Madison Principles and committed to build mutual support within the co-op development community.

I think that the only area that I haven’t really seen the co-op world move forward, in a really focused way, is in creating new technological tools. Of course, this is starting to change. Groups like Clatskanie Co-op offer a model for controlling our internet. There is a new push by Electric Co-ops to offer broadband. Platform co-ops are being talked about and there are some apps such as Resonate which is a multi-stakeholder version of Spotify. Both Resonate and Clatskanie use blockchain technology and digital currency. I’m a member of social.coop which is trying to create a social network to offset Twitter and Facebook (but its functionality is a bit limited). Resonate needs a couple of big names to move from Spotify to its platform. Most of the tech is nibbling around the edges, but I can that they are today’s version of the “buying clubs” that created the consumer food co-op network that we have today.

Could the international co-op community create its own digital currency that would be accepted by every co-op on the globe?

I haven’t talked a lot about carbon sequestration or the more traditional concepts of sustainability with regards to environmentalism. Largely this is because co-ops tend to already be ahead of the curve (although some producer and electric co-ops still cling to carbon fuel). Organic Valley has been a major leader with a pledge to use 100% renewable energy by 2019. Worker co-ops also tend to have a strong environmental focus since they live in the community where they work.

In terms of the Co-op Decade, Co-ops have absolutely led the way in terms of creating sustainable, human centric communities. There is always more to do, of course, and in the US co-ops still largely remain isolated from each other by sector and industry (and even within sectors at times).

There is also a fair amount a territoriality and sectarianism within the development community. Some groups really don’t play well in the sandbox with others (refusing to share resources, operating in territories without giving a heads up to the local developers, refusing to acknowledge other groups in the same development arena). I have gone to conferences where I hear speaker from some groups talk as if they are the only ones doing co-op work in the country or even in State of Washington. It is frustrating and can cause a lot of confusion and distrust.

Nevertheless, the co-op community is growing. Its overall message of sustainability resonates with more and more people everyday. I recently attended a traditional business conference and found a general understanding of co-ops and eagerness to engage with co-ops. That would not have been the case 10 years ago. Co-ops are human centric and non-partisan. That strength provides them with the ability to push this message of sustainability that other business models can’t.

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Participation Reward

In the Blueprint for a Co-op Decade, one of the five pillars is “participation” with the stated goal: ““Elevate participation within membership and governance to a new level”.

I am not sure how this will be measured or even if it realistically can be measured. Of course, participation is really what make a co-op “cooperative”. The word essentially means “work together”. This pillar also attempt to address the rather passive nature of ownership that exists in the consumer sector (food co-ops, credit unions, etc.).

From my experience, a lot of co-ops don’t seem to really want their members that involved except as consumers. The demutualized Group Health Cooperative (PNW) created incredible barriers to voting (members had to opt-in a certain number of days prior to the vote or meeting and figuring out how to do that was almost as complicated as figuring out how much a procedure would cost out of pocket).

Most co-ops, in my opinion, use relatively passive methods: signage in the store and blurb in the newsletter. What should co-ops do to meet this goal?

I’m mainly thinking about consumer co-ops since the worker co-ops tend to have a fairly engaged membership (although I imagine larger worker co-ops might have problems as well). Some things that hinder participation that I see all too often:

  • Nominating committees that screen out potential board candidates instead of inviting people to run for office.
  • A nominating process that privileges connected social groups within the co-op.
  • A committee structure that only includes directors.
  • Not providing childcare for membership meetings
  • Not providing interpretation at meeting or multi-lingual publications.
  • Not enabling direct communication between people running for the board and the membership.

Here is one approach:

Assiniboine Credit Union has a very proactive path for its board nomination. Each year, its nominations committee conducts a gap analysis of the current board to determine areas where the board needs support (this is based on a number of criteria). As they note on their website:

“ACU’s board is committed to strong, responsible and ethical governance of your credit union. Integral to this commitment is ensuring that the composition of the board has an effective and well-rounded mix of skills and experience in the following areas: finance, community development/social inclusion, human resources, co-operatives/credit unions, community involvement and leadership/business acumen.

In addition to the mix of skills and experience noted above, the board wishes to be representative of the members and communities we serve. We strive for gender balance, ethnic and cultural diversity, and diversity of age and life stage.”

The nomination committee will create an “endorsement” for candidates that fill the gap, but that doesn’t preclude other candidates from running. Sometimes, even incumbents don’t receive the endorsement because they don’t meet the gap criteria.

Keeping Participation Centered

There are other things that co-ops can do. A credit union here in Olympia has a monthly social event at all of its branches so that members have a reason to engage with each other and staff outside of the day-to-day business. At Union Cab, we tracked engagement outside of normal operations and considered ways to support that work. Ultimately, it seems that the co-op leaders need to see the co-op as a socio-economic enterprise, not just a business. We are creating a society.

For example, the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op based in Madison, WI is actually the fourth largest democratic organization in the county. Its membership is bigger than every other community in the County of Dane except for the City of Madison. The other two organizations bigger than the co-op are the Madison Metropolitan School District and the County Government. We should definitely start thinking of our consumer co-ops in this light. Likewise, directors at these larger co-ops should also see themselves in a role similar to a city council member.

It would be great to see organizations such as NCG, USFCW, and NCBA develop some methods for tracking aggregate data, create a database of practices used by co-ops to spur participation by sector, and otherwise create a bigger discussion of how to get members to engage as collective owners. What does participation look like in a healthy co-op? I think that for a start it would include competitive elections, a committee structure with members and directors (and staff if not a worker co-op), and ownership activities (such as social events, letter writing campaigns, and other activities aimed to allow people to engage as owners outside of normal operations.

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The Co-op Decade and After

This month, I have posted about different co-ops every day in celebration of National Co-op Month (celebrated in Canada and the United States). I did this in conjunction with NWCDC’s daily Facebook post about the same co-op. Today, on the last day of Co-op Month in the last year of the Co-op Decade, I want to talk about our mutual success and what is next.

In 2012, the International Year of the Co-operative, the General Assembly of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) drafted a document known as “The Blueprint for the Co-operative Decade“. The blueprint called for co-ops to work towards the following by 2020:

  • The acknowledged leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability
  • The model preferred by people
  • The fastest growing form of enterprise

Cooperatives, in general, have made great strides in terms of leadership in economic, social, and environmental sustainability. The Blueprint considers five key factors in achieving its Vision 2020:

  • Participation: by members in their co-op governance.
  • Sustainability: co-ops leading the way on reducing C02 and being good stewards of the earth.
  • Identity: promoting the co-op identity as a preferred way of doing business.
  • Legal Framework: expanding the legal protection for co-op businesses to operate.
  • Capital: strengthening the network of capital and building more access to capital within the co-op community.

Overall, I will say, at the outset, the the Blueprint has succeeded. It was approved in late 2013 and launched in 2014.  How much of the success of the plan was due to the ICA catching a wave that started with the 2008 economic crisis and how much was because of the plan’s articulation is debatable. Nevertheless, I think that I can definitely say that the co-op community in 2020 has become remarkably stronger in all aspects that it was in 2010.

My initial idea for today was to talk about how well the blueprint was implemented since 2020 is just 61 days away. I wasn’t able to find much in the way of reporting on it (which is to be expected with strategic plans). I also forget how detailed it was for a single post. As a result, I am going to keep the daily posts going for another 6 days (skipping the weekend) and discuss what I have seen with regards to each of the 5 factors and then a general summary on November 8.  My summary will largely be limited to my area of the world: the Pacific Northwest and worker-coops. However, if you are reading and want to offer your take, please comment!

I hope that people have enjoyed these daily takes. I want to thank GEO for pulling the post and pushing them out to a larger community. They are currently doing their annual fundraiser. Support them (especially if you found your way here through their page). Your comments are always welcome as are guest posts–I never pretend to have either all of the answers or all of the questions. More voices are welcome!

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All Systems Go! Working Systems Co-op

In July of 2018, while the Main Street Employee Ownership Act was working its way into the Omnibus Defense Bill and NWCDC was preparing its Legacy Project aimed at raising the profile of worker ownership, I got a call from a senior worker at Working Systems about the possibility of converting the software company to a cooperative. 12 months later, Working Systems, Inc. became Working Systems Cooperative.

A Gear with the words Working Systems

One of the owners (who continued with the co-op as a worker-owner) told me that his parents were union organizers in New York City and they also helped create housing co-ops. I don’t know if they were part of this cohort, but it is wonderful to see his parent’s legacy transform a new generation of worker-owners.

Working Systems immediately became one of the more unique co-ops in the nation. They are software developers (both for desktop and web based apps). However, they write their software to support the missions of their clients. All of their clients are labor unions. They work with small locals and large internationals. The workers of the company were also unionized with Communications Workers of America.

Working Systems, already something of a unicorn in the tech world as a unionized workplace, is now the State of Washington’s first “union-coop”. There is a national movement channeling the synergy of labor unions and worker cooperatives and the Union-Coop Symposium will be held in Cincinnati in mid-November hosted by the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative. I am glad to see my home state with representation in this community!

This is a great group of people to work with! Without breaking any confidences, it was exciting to see how software developers write bylaws. They also had two members of the former Beluga Software Cooperative (also based in Olympia) and featured in the documentary: Beyond the Bottom Line. This was useful since they had practical experience of how to improve the co-op model. They a very high functioning community, thoughtful, and a strong focus on equality and equity.

It was also my first chance to work with Shared Capital that did an excellent job of working with the crew and being flexible to meet the needs of the membership. I served on Shared Capital’s board for a time (when it was still North Country Development Fund). I look forward to the next project with them.

Today, Working Systems Co-op is holding its first Annual General Meeting. They will be electing their board, amending their bylaws, and celebrating the transition from employees to worker-owners! They asked me to facilitate and I really consider that an honor. Solidarity and Democracy in action!

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My 2nd Birthplace: Union Cab of Madison 40 years on

I am a bit glad that this post came so late in the month. I needed some time to get back in the practice of blogging before taking tackling this–so many thoughts and emotions run though my mind that this cannot be the mid-effort, stream of consciousness post that I tend process. I joined Union Cab when I was 24 and left when I was 50. Including two leaves of absence, I spent 25 years, 11 months, and 13 days as a voting member of Union Cab. I still own non-voting stock worth $25 and have over $9,000 in retained equity. I spent the majority of my adult life as a worker-owner of Union Cab of Madison. It really was the best of times and the worst of times.

I started my career at Union Cab of Madison Cooperative on November 7, 1988. I had graduated from the UW-Madison in the spring and was ready to move on. I was planning to become a professor of English literature. I wanted a year to plan it all out and was looking for something to do. I was bartending at the 602 Club and had just finished my time at the Crystal Corner Bar. I knew many cab drivers and my roommates had started at Union Cab earlier that year, so it seemed like a natural fit.

There are a lot of funny stories about this time. My first attempt at getting hired was in August, but I failed the map test. I didn’t know the names of the streets, so I wrote in the names of the taverns that were on each street. The Operations Manager, Sal DiGosia, later said it was the funniest map test that he ever saw and while he realized that I knew where the bars were, he couldn’t pass me. I retook the test in October with a perfect score and was hired. On my first training night, my trainer, Kate Werner, (who was driving) got lost trying to find the airport! It turned out she was definitely not an “aircab”. . .

But those war stories are for a different outlet. The story that I want to convey about Union Cab on its 40th anniversary is two-fold: the origin myth and the Union Cab experience.

In some ways, I think that this short video produced by Heartland Credit Union ended up capturing a lot of the spirit of Union Cab (I am dressed so casually because I was taking a break from writing my Comp Exam).

The Origin of Union Cab

You can still read the almost complete history of Union Cab’s first 10 years (and beyond) on their website. I changed it to the first 20 years, since the struggle that created Union Cab began in 1969 as part of the general upheaval happening in the country over imperialism, racism, and sexism (sadly, little has changed). The “TL/DR” version:

After ten years of struggling to create safer working conditions with decent pay and benefits through the traditional labor movement, Madison cab drivers, dispatchers and mechanics came together to use the cooperative model to meet their needs of jobs at a living wage in a safe, humane, and democratic environment. The first year was challenging as they were unable to get a yellow page ad into the January 1980 publication (a big deal back then). It was an immense struggle! Even though it was winter, drivers (who worked on commission) made pennies an hour (the minimum wage was $3.10/hour). The non-driving staff took a solidarity pay cut to below minimum wage.

The ghost was almost up on the experiment when something happened. It was a Horatio Alger moment. It was an expression of the American Dream. By pluck and by luck, the workers of Union Cab succeeded. In March of 1980, the other metered cab company closed shop (the remaining company was a “shared ride” service which means that the driver picks up and drops other people on the way to you destination). At the same time, the drivers of the bus company (which had just been taken over by the city) went on strike to get their contract. Madison Metro was on strike for 6 months! The co-op hired striking drivers to meet demand–this helped the drivers stay out on strike until their demands were met and helped Union Cab become profitable at a time of the year when the business dies. By the first anniversary, Union Cab was established. From then on, it was green lights; however, as one of our consultants, and a dear friend of mine, Bobby Morris, commented. “you guys have an amazing ability to run head-on into a brick wall, dust yourselves off, and keep moving forward, but eventually you will hit the Grand Canyon.”

Brick Walls, Grand Canyons, and the Value of the Co-op Identity

There were indeed a lot of brick walls to run into over the years. At the outset, Union Cab was ahead of the times and woefully behind them. Women worked as mechanics and cab drivers and dispatchers, but a Good Ol’ Boys club also existed and more than a few lessons were learned the hard way through legal action. One of the worst legal battles involved UCC’s management trying to control the make-up and jewelry worn by a self-identified male. Shortly before I was hired, I read a newspaper article that quoted the GM as saying “It isn’t so much that he wears make-up, but he looks like a whore.” Ugh. I came into the co-op recognizing that this wasn’t the workers’ paradise.

In my time as a director, I supported that driver and still consider him a friend. It didn’t just cost UCC financially (although we “won” the court case), his attorneys ended up becoming judges, county supervisors, and even the mayor of Madison (who ended up not supporting us during a dispute with the bus company-Madison Metro-in 2000). It really hurt our reputation as a different and better way of treating workers.

The biggest obstacle to Union’s success, in my opinion, was the adoption of an adversarial relationship between drivers and non-drivers. This aspect, of course, was somewhat expected coming out of several unionization drives by drivers; however, it didn’t really serve the purposes of cooperation very well. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but this aspect dominated the co-op (and I imagine that even today it remains an issue). I tell start-up co-op folks today that how they address conflict and make decisions is creating an organizational culture that will outlive their participation and be difficult to change. I ask them to be conscious about this to avoid recreating oppressive structures and mindsets that don’t promote the co-op identity.

Again, without getting into war stories, Union Cab used a trial-and-error approach to both management and conflict resolution during much of its first two and a half decades. This resulted in a boom and bust cycle that brought UCC to the brink of disaster on more than a few occasions. As I said, a lot of lessons were learned through legal actions, which I can tell you is much more expensive than using a Co-op Development Center. . . just sayin’. . .

But the point of worker-ownership and worker-control means having the ability to make mistakes. The workers of Union Cab have always controlled their destiny. There wasn’t a board of social do-gooders who could veto the workers’ decisions. The workers of Union Cab (including me, of course) made some really big mistakes, had some great successes, and always had agency. We always had the choice, it wasn’t ever made for us. We tried to decide based on our values. I have always been amazed and proud that we created our core values in 1995 that mirror the ICA’s Statement on Co-op Identity which was also adopted in 1995. We knew, in our souls, what cooperation should be. This set of values allowed people to base their arguments about the board and management’s short-comings on something tangible (for the record, I was President from 94-97).

Union Cab’s Core Values

  1. The safety and health of our members and the public are of paramount importance.
  2. We are dedicated to the principles of worker rights and membership responsibilities.
  3. Open and honest communication and direct involvement are our rights and responsibility as members.
  4. Managing growth carefully is fundamental to creating quality in our work life and fostering a strong sense of community.
  5. A living wage at a 40-hour work week is a priority.
  6. Customer satisfaction is everyone’s job and is critical for our success.
  7. We are dedicated to operating our business in an environmentally responsible way.

Union Cab provided healthcare for its drivers as long as I can remember. The co-op started paying for a percentage of the healthcare premiums in the mid-90s–and it is great insurance. Most cab drivers in the United States were not even able to get healthcare until the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009. For the industry, pretty much everyone except managers were making as much as 30-50% over industry average pay. Union Cab has struggled, but has largely met its mission of providing living wage jobs in a safe, humane, and democratic environment.

Union Cab created the “democra-beep” during the 2011 protests.

Union also inspired a new generation of taxi co-ops: Union Cab PDX, Alexandria Union Taxi Cab and others (although these co-ops are organized much differently). The co-op played a major role in the Madison community as well–helping to start MadWorC, joining the protests against Act 10 in 2011, helping to organize a one-day conference on co-ops in 2012, and providing leadership to the national and international movement on the board of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops and CICOPA North America.

The most amazing embrace of co-op values of worker ownership occurred in 2010 when the co-op removed discipline from management and created a peer-review and support system to not only hold people accountable, but provide a means of mediating conflict and supporting cooperative behavior. It took almost two years of work to learn, educated, and debate how to move to a system that honored due process and break down the adversarial process of holding people to the rules of conduct agreed to by the membership. Following that we embraced a form of team management (it looks a lot like sociocracy), that ended up dealing meaningfully with customer complaints. Complaints dropped by 55% in the first year!

Of course, co-ops are about people and creating new institutions, changing culture, and building new frameworks is horribly difficult (which is why I tell new co-ops to focus on culture). This next video is about our switch to a Prius fleet. I helped push this through over a lot of hand wringing, but it saved 30,000 gallons of gasoline a month. The transition paid for itself.

For forty years, Union Cab has stood as a beacon of a better way to treat drivers and workers in the taxicab industry. At times, the process is messy, atavistic, and at others incredible elegant and forward-thinking. When Uber and Lyft showed up, they claimed to be a different model, but they weren’t. TNCs offer the same extractive and exploitative environment that preys upon both the drivers and the passengers as every other for-profit non-cooperative taxicab company.

Union Cab is hardly perfect and, to be honest, I was happy to leave. I was incredibly burned out and used up. There were times that its culture (adversarial in nature) became toxic and abusive. The culture fostered personality cults and narcissists found it easy to create a flock of followers. The passive-aggressive dynamic of “Wisconsin Nice” made it even more difficult to hold people (and leaders with soft power and hard power) accountable. I still have stress dreams about Union Cab five years after leaving. However, as I mentioned, those are war stories and for a different place. The co-op still provides a place where drivers don’t have to grovel to an owner and for that it is a success. As Allen Ruff once commented, the only people who can truly destroy Union Cab are its members.

It is fitting to end this post with the words that Richard Chamberlin ended his history of Union Cab’s first 10 years of operation:

“But Union Cab is more than just a business; it is an idea and an ideal. It is one of a very small number of worker owned and operated businesses in America. Some consider us the wave of the future, others think we will be relegated to the scrap heap of utopian idealism. Our Membership will determine which it will be.

Long Live Union Cab! Vanguard of the People’s Revolution!!

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Burial Grounds: Rising Up

Burial Grounds Workers Collective

I am currently providing technical assistance for an incredible group of people who work at the Burial Grounds coffee house in Olympia, Washington. The business has been around as Burial Grounds since 2010 with the stated mission: “to provide a welcoming environment to anyone who walks through the door. We strive to remain a safe place for those looking to indulge in a specialty espresso drink or hand crafted coffee house beverage. We focus on customer service, mutual respect and a community mentality. “

Since this is a conversion project in process, I won’t go into a lot of detail. Needless to say, the culture of the community is already based on the co-op values of equality, equity, solidarity, and democracy. The current owner created a participatory process and as the mission states, wants the coffeehouse to be more than a place to get caffeinated. While to some it may seem a typical coffeehouse, it offers more. A small room (the library) that provides meeting space and actually holds a sharing library (I’m not sure how many books, but easily over a 100 including the classic Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold).

What I like most about my job is working with people who believe in the future and have the passion to create the future world that they believe in. The organizing committee for the Burial Grounds Workers Collective is full of this energy. Engaged, hopeful, and motivated, I often feel that they don’t really need my help at all!

They hope to be up and running by the New Year and I am sure that they will become a benevolent force in the Olympia co-op community in short order!

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A Co-op to Die For: People’s Memorial

Washington and the PNW have a rich diversity of Co-ops: preschool, housing, consumer, producer, worker, multi-stakeholder and death. Washington “toddler to grave” co-op economy used to be “cradle to grave” but then Group Health Co-op sold itself. Still, there is a co-op for almost all human activity in the PNW, even that of decomposing.

The Co-op Funeral Home of People’s Memorial is the only funeral home co-op in the United States (they are much more common in the UK). There should be more. Sadly the for-profit death model has become a tragedy on the national scene as NPR reported. People, at a moment of crisis, suddenly need to make financial decisions that can be quite costly and ridden with guilt.

The People’s Memorial Association was formed 80 years ago by a number of Seattle area churches that had grown tired witnessing members of their flock go broke due to the high cost of funerals. The PMA contracted with an area funeral home to get set rates for its members.When that funeral home sold to a national brand, they found a new funeral home to work with that was subsequently bought up the following year. In 2007, PMA created the Co-op Funeral Home.

The Co-op Funeral Home provides dignified and affordable funeral services to the Greater Seattle area and even offers support state wide through partnerships with funeral homes throughout the state. I joined in 2015 (membership is only $50). My membership card says, “At time of death call. . . “

There is a certain peace of mind knowing that when I die, my remains will not be exploited one-last time for distant shareholders seeking to maximize a return on their investment.

PMA and the Co-op Funeral Home also advocate for better laws. Last year they were successful in bringing human composting and aquamation to the State. Washington is the first state in the nation to allow human composting. This organization is an incredible example of co-operation’s values and principles and we need more of them throughout the US. We don’t need shareholders literally picking at our corpses for profits.

Get Tickets to The After Party on December 14th.

Doors open at 5:00 pm to all After Party event ticket holders who will be greeted by a full cash bar and heavy appetizers as they explore interactive activities and art projects. Contemplate your relationship with death and learn about eco-friendly death care options, enter for a chance to win several exciting raffle prizes, and get your photo taken as you play with spooky props. Caitlin Doughty will treat us to a live performance of her popular YouTube show “Ask a Mortician”, tackling some of the audience’s most curious questions about death. Find yourself engaging in deep conversation you may not otherwise experience organically, ultimately building community.

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Self-Help and Grit City

grit cityOne of the key concepts of cooperation is the value of Self-Help. At some level, this means that if you don’t like your options in the market, create a co-op to meet your needs. Co-ops exist to meet the needs of the members, so if your co-op isn’t doing that, then maybe it is time for you and like-minded members to start a new co-op. This ties into Albert Hirschman’s concept of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. People can, and we see this everyday, vote with their feet. I was even heard that the history of Amish expansion is based precisely on this model. Every new Amish community is the result of dissatisfaction with the elders of an existing Amish community. I think that this works for the co-op community as well.

Grit City Co-op arose out of frustration with the sudden closing of the the Tacoma Food Co-op, which had just recently merged with Central Co-op of Seattle. The members felt, and I don’t think that I am being too strong here, betrayed by the promises of Seattle. The very name Grit City espouses an effort by Tacomans to reclaim their dignity and fierceness. This article explains the meaning behind the name “Grit City” but as the article puts out, here is the TL/DR version:

“Through the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Tacoma was regularly described as “gritty” by outsiders. The word was used as an insult until 2003 when Peter Callaghan wrote a column that explained the alternate definition of the word “grit.” His column inspired Sonja Silver to make some shirts that said Gritty Tacoman across the front and it grew in popularity from there. It also has nothing to do with boiled cornmeal.”

The article also begins with a definition of Grit;
“GRIT

/grit/ noun

  1. small loose particles of stone or sand
  2. courage and resolve; strength of character; firmness of mind or spirit”

Personally, I LOVE gritty cities. It is why we moved to Olympia. It is what I love about Shelton and Aberdeen. It is what I used to love about Madison. Gentrification gets rid of the grittiness and the soul of the community with it.

Grit City Co-op is still raising funds to open their storefront. It is a process, of course, but Tacoma definitely is big enough for two co-ops. The promise of Grit City is to be a community for Tacoma. It is about the courage and resolve of what makes Tacoma.

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Own the Internet: Clatskanie Co-op

There was a lot of talk about net neutrality a few years ago with regard to FCC repealing rules on Net Neutrality in 2018. This change in regulation restored power to the internet service providers to control content and charges among other aspects. However, there is another way for consumers to achieve net neutrality: own the internet service provider.

clatskanie

I was lucky enough to work with a group in Clatskanie, Oregon. In small rural areas, access to the internet can be incredibly expensive. When we moved out West, we lived off  Burns Cove (off of Totten Inlet on the Salish Sea). Our internet access was provided through Verizon and cost $60 for 3 GB and the $30 for each 1 GB block after that. If we streamed a couple of movies, we could easily rack up a bill of $120/ month or more. This is the rule for internet access in small communities not on the grid. A neighbor told us that Comcast could bring a cable in for about $30,000 per household (and then we would still have to pay their monthly rates).

Clatskanie, with only about 2,000 people is in this boat. A small group, formed an ISP Co-op called Clatskanie Co-op. This group of people (up to 60 members now, I beleive), connect to each other and the main antennae through a node system. They literally connect a web nodal structure to create their internet service provider. They use Althea Mesh technology. I will let Althea’s page speak for itself, however it is a very interesting process.

The big value here is that this creates an affordable pathway for rural communities to access and control the internet. This means access to work and education opportunities, it means access to news and entertainment.

The members of Clatskanie have also worked to help other communities and there are networks planned for a number of communities on the exurban/rural edge of Portland as well as Tacoma. I think that this is a great opportunity for Resident Owned Communities. Manufactured home parks could easily add this infrastructure to their communities and created an added benefit for their resident-owners.

As rural broadband becomes an issue of development, we also need to make sure that co-ops aren’t paying for the infrastructure only to allow AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon to extract the wealth. We don’t need to spend our co-op dollars to build infrastructure to extractive corporations. Althea and Clatskanie show a better path.

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Co-op Accounting: Business Services Co-op

One of the major contradictions that worker co-ops need to grapple with arises with the way they are forced to manage the books. For instance, if a co-op’s mission is living wages and a safe work environment, those mission items show up as expenses and detract from member equity. In fact, workplace safety is the equity of the co-op. In addition, this feature of mainstream accounting practices also make co-ops look financially inefficient from a lender’s perspective. The very form of accounting used by the financial system works against the co-op model.

This is why I am happy to see the rise of bookkeeping co-ops in the US. I know of three and will feature Business Services Co-op in Olympia in this post. However, I do want to mention the other two that I know about: A Bookkeeping Cooperative in Brooklyn, NY and Common Good Bookkeeping Cooperative in Madison, WI.

Business Services Co-op’s mission is “to strengthen a cooperative economy by providing comprehensive business & consulting services primarily to cooperatives & small businesses by skilled & helpful professionals.”

The co-op was formed by experienced co-operators in the Olympia community (founders of New Moon Café and experienced in co-op development). They saw the need that almost anyone dealing with worker co-ops sees–a need for accountants and bookkeepers that understand the needs of cooperatives. For the BSC folks, they expanded beyond bookkeeping to also provide support for financial planning and more. In addition to working with a number of the worker co-ops in Olympia, they have also branched out to serve the Resident Owned Communities.

For a lot of housing and worker co-ops, the bookkeeping part may not be within the skill set of the membership. In addition, the members may be dealing with enough just focusing the operations end (especially if the co-op is in a start-up phase). Larger co-ops can train folks up and create Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable departments, but even then, this is a bit out of the mission and might create conflict within the membership (income producers vs. non-income producers). Having an option to hire specialists for back-of-the-house functions and keep those dollars within the co-op economy is a great option and might reduce division within the co-op.

BSC offers a wide range of services, and also includes monthly meetings with the co-op to make sure that people understand the numbers. The work isn’t just about farming out a service, BSC streamlines the process for co-ops while also educating the co-op members on how to read financials and create meaningful ratios to track the ability of the co-op to meet its mission. This provides essential education and helps build a culture of fiscal responsibility within the co-op. Hopefully, as BSC’s clients advance, they can avoid the “boom and bust” model* that has traditionally been the argument against worker cooperation.

I hope that as more bookkeeping co-ops arise, that they will also help change the discourse of accounting. As mentioned earlier, co-ops are forced to used Generally Accepted Accounting Principles designed to value the maximization of return of investment over member benefits. At some point we need a GAAP for co-ops, but the only way to make that argument to hold water will be if it comes from accountants in the field.

*Worker cooperation has generally been dismissed as economists presume that workers will just raise wages to an untenable level until the co-ops fails.

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