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/ 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.


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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Power in Purpose: Part 3-Strategies

This is just a short post.

It was an incredible day at this Co-op Round table. We shared stories and strategies.  We discussed how to help the Co-op Movement keep its incredible momentum.

As we enter the final week of National Co-op Month, I am finding this year to be exhilarating. As I plan on writing next week, The Co-op Decade concludes this year (depending on how you count decades, of course), but we are on the verge of a Co-op Century. What our communities do between now and the next recession will be crucial to (dare I say the word) capitalizing on the the 7 years since the Year of the Co-op.

Thank you all for reading! I hope that we continue to have great stories to share and are willing to talk about where we can improve!

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Power in Purpose: Part 2-Policy Breakout

The first break out group considered the barriers to cooperatives and what policy changes can occur to break down those barriers.

My group (and many of the others) focused on three central areas: Education, Awareness, and Incentives.

Education needs to begin at the high-school level. People need to learn about co-ops and the economics of co-ops as part of the high school curriculum. By raising co-ops as a viable and important business model early can mainstream the model and help people start seeing co-ops.

Awareness can be facilitated through the State The Secretary of State can create a “co-op” option on business licenses and create an annual impact report that would allow elected leaders in every county see the impact of co-ops in their communities.

Finally, how can public policy incentivize co-op development? tax breaks? right of first refusal to tenants and employees? State development grants to to create co-op jobs?

These are just a few rough ideas from the discussion in the room and at out table. I am looking forward to the printed report outs and the rest of the day!

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Power in Purpose: The NCBA/CLUSA Olympia Roundtable

Morning Presentations

Diane Gasaway, Executive Director of NWCDC, starts the session discussing the variety and number of co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, how these co-ops focus on core needs: housing, food security, employment.

The day begins with brief presentations from around the co-op ecosystem. Unfortunately some of the technology did not work as hoped. Unfortunately, we missed presentations from Michael Droke, Jason Wiener, and Brian Estes.

Grace Cox (Olympia Food Co-op)

Grace Cox is the staff liaison to the Olympia Food Co-op Board of Directors, a member of the staff collective for 35 years as well as a long-time community activist. Food Co-ops in the PNW are in their 40s (part of the third wave of the co-op movement). These co-ops started because people wanted access to good, wholesome food. Most of the PNW food co-ops started as a ragtag group in buying clubs. The timing was a convergence of a lot of issues (chemicals being used to grow food and fight wars, farmworker justice movements, and higher rates of cancer in farming communities). These founders wanted to correct the inequities in our food system and society. We wanted to fix it all–the food co-op movement came out of social justice. As a result, many food co-ops have become a voice for their communities and represent their communities. Each co-op is unique to its community. Co-ops owned the natural and organic product line, but as this market developed, for-profit companies moved in and now many co-ops focus on local and supporting local farms. The centralization of our food supply still is untenable and wasteful.

Kent Lopez (Washington Rural Electric Co-op)

General Manager of the Washington Rural Electric Co-op Association–there are 15 electric co-ops in Washington headquartered in the State and a handful from out-of-state that serve customers in Washington. Some of the electric co-ops have been around for over 100 years. Co-ops arose in rural areas because there was not enough money to make for the for-profit companies. The first co-op started in Corinth, Mississippi after learning of the model in the UK. The first appliance attached to the power grid was often a washing machine (the most labor intensive house labor and mostly done by women). FDR pushed this model out nationally. WRECA co-ops serves 25% of the land mass and only 5% of the population. Even today, rural electric co-ops still provide access to things many urban dwellers take for granted. Electricity is a unique commodity in that it cannot be stored and the payment comes long after its use. Directors need to learn how to manage a co-op and run an electric utility. Today, Electric co-ops are beginning to use broadband and 4G service.

Cindy Brooks (Washington Small Business Development Center)

Cindy Brooks works in Skagit County and Islands County. She shares a passion for co-ops and with the passage of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, has a new found role as a Small Business Development Center advisor. Just getting ESOPs and Worker Co-ops on the SBDC menu is a major deal for the region. SBDCs are still learning how to be good partners. One role is to help people find the co-op developers, but also work with the developers and develop pathways that allow both groups to work together and create synergy that allows more people to be served. The areas between urban centers tend to be underserved in a lot of areas. Problems with affordable housing, accessible transportation, as well as general isolation. In addition, as mentioned by others, there are more businesses for sale today than ever before. We need to find owners willing to plan their retirement now, not when they are ready to shut the door. If we can help people get into co-ops, either housing or workplaces, we can shift the sense of inequity in our communities.

Nora Edge (Capital Homecare Co-op)

General Manager for Capital Homecare Cooperative based in Olympia. Nora started in caregiving 10 years ago. The average wage nationally is $11/hour and average income is $18,000 a year. It is a very demanding job both emotionally and physically. As the population ages, caregiver demand is rising, but it is a high-turnover industry (over 80% annually). Home care co-ops tend to operate at a 30% turnover. CHC started with 2 active members and 18 months later has 14 people on staff. For every active caregiver in Thurston County, there are 23 people who cannot afford care. Homecare co-ops offer better working conditions and benefits to caregivers by empowering them.

Miles Nowlin (ROC Northwest)

NWCDC’s own Miles Nowlin speaks about the ROC Northwest program. ROCNW is an affiliate of ROCUSA that serves 16 states. The work is to help preserve affordable housing through the purchase of manufactured home parks. This involves knocking on doors and setting up the purchase as well as providing on-going technical assistance for a decade or longer. There are 15 co-ops in Washington with 2 in conversion. Many of the parks are senior or immigrant communities. ROCNW manages about 2 conversions per year, but it is not enough. Limited Equity Co-ops need greater support. Most of these co-ops low-income and diverse communities (race, age, ability). In the last year, we advocated at the State level to raise awareness and build support from the State to further grow home ownership within this community. Some of the victories included a real estate tax exemption for sellers, property tax exemption for co-ops, and more. We hope to see an opportunity to purchase law that would allow residents the right of first refusal and housing preservation grants.

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Circle of Life: The Washington Homecare Model

Circle of Life Caregiving Cooperative based in Bellingham, WA and serving Whatcom County came into existence 10 years ago. It was the first care giving co-op in Washington and created what has become the model for home care co-ops in the state.


As the Co-op’s website points out, Circle of Life, like the other home care co-ops in Washington has largely followed a “top-down” model of organizing. Activists in the community pitched the idea and then found willing caregivers to take the plunge. In cases such as Peninsula Homecare, the champions showed up quickly and leapt at the chance–other projects have had a bit tougher climb. In any event, CoL’s model has worked and there are now four caregiving co-ops in the state with a couple more in pre-development  stage.

Once of the features of CoL’s success is the location (and this is true for the other co-ops as well). Bellingham has a strong history cooperation. There are a number of Ag co-ops (seafood production and berries), preschool co-ops, credit unions, and the food co-op is almost 50 years old. The founder of Circle of Life, Jo Ana McNerthney who worked as its administrator, but was not actaully a member, was part of the Hoedad Cooperative.

Circle of Life adopted a private pay model that has also become the Washington model. To access medicaid billing, an agency needs three years of experience. This prevented CoL from starting out with medicaid. By the time that they were eligible, other hurdles popped up such as a desire by the state that they agree to cover a larger area (which would have driven up administrative costs). By then, they were also doing quite well and didn’t really need the state dollars.

It isn’t always easy getting this type of home-care co-op off the ground, especially since Washington has two registries and independent contractors can access medicaid billing through the state. Nevertheless, Circle of Life blazed a trail that others have now followed.

The lessons of CoL, and a successful top-down strategy:

  1. The champion needs strong administration skills and commitment to the co-op model
  2. The community needs a familiarity with co-ops and history of cooperation.
  3. The founding caregivers need the grit to see the project through.
  4. There needs to be significant support from the co-op community (technical assistance providers and financial support).

10 years on, Circle of Life has shown a resiliency and fortitude. The caregivers have created a model followed by other communities in the state in Port Townsend, Olympia, and Port Angeles. Circle of Life created a model that works for its community and many of the communities throughout Washington. Imagination is the only limit to cooperation.


Note: One of Circle of Life’s staff members, Deborah Craig, joined on with NWCDC the same year that I did and leads the Center’s efforts to develop home care co-ops.

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