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.

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The Resilience Doctrine

My good friend, Dr. Zoltán Grossman, just posted these videos from his contribution the “Pandemic Academy”. If you share, please give him credit. . .

The Resilience Doctrine: Disaster Cooperativism in the Climate & Pandemic Crises (Part I: Individualism & Community)

The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA is holding a “Pandemic Academy” lecture series in spring quarter 2020. On April 7, Dr. Zoltán Grossman (Member of the Faculty in Geography and Native Studies) here presented “The Resilience Doctrine: Disaster Cooperativism in the Climate and Pandemic Crises,” as two narrated powerpoint presentations. This Part I (26.5 min.) examines the question of “Individualism vs. Community” (https://youtu.be/9iP-HCloTPs ) and Part II (31.5 min.) looks at “State Authority vs. Mutual Aid” (https://youtu.be/dlIR8UVoN9g). Links that appeared in the presentations are available at https://sites.evergreen.edu/zoltan/The-Resilience-Doctrine Please feel free to share the videos, and comment here or on on the youtube channel.

The Resilience Doctrine: Disaster Cooperativism in the Climate & Pandemic Crises (Part II: State Authority & Mutual Aid)

Dr. Grossman holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin. His expertise is in political/cultural geography and Indigenous Studies, and he twice co-taught “Catastrophe: Community Resilience in the Face of Disaster.” He was co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012) and author of Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands (University of Washington Press, 2017). His faculty website is at https://sites.evergreen.edu/zoltan

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Get Ready for the Recovery

“The old temptation of Esau, who sold his birthright for a plate of beans, is something that is something that is constantly being offered to people. Workers, with their hope and right to a new order, have the same temptation in front of them: the options to obtaining immediate advantage.”–Don J. M. Arizmendiarrieta

It may not feel like it, depending on where you live, but the efforts to flatten the curve have begun to take effect although as a friend of mine, The Evergreen State College professor Zoltan Grossman points out, there is still a long way to go: “Even if the slope has become a little less steep, the toughest part is still ahead, when we’ll be most out of breath—figuratively and literally. We’re not yet at the top, the point of maximum human suffering, and only then will we start to descend on the other side, and it will take a while to go down.”

Nevertheless, co-op people, and especially those of us working with co-op people need to think ahead to when the stay at home orders get lifted and the rubble of the economy can have our full attention. As Naomi Klein documented so well in Shock Doctrine, not planning for the recovery now may allow the worst aspects of humanity to jump into the void to seek their advantage. The vulture capitalist class likely already has a plan.

As the quote suggests, of course, people are in a tough position and it may be tempting to take the short term hand-out ($1,200) instead of pressing for change. We need to be formulating plans to help workers buy their companies as co-ops (not ESOPs). We need to create new financial instruments to help homeowners collectively buy their homes as limited equity co-ops not condos. Most importantly, we need to be ready for the next time–we need to create solidarity funds wherever we can create them.

Our CDFIs that service co-ops could dedicate a percentage of the interest to a solidarity fund that would protect those with existing loans. Co-op networks such as the US Federation, NCBA/CLUSA, NCG* could build funds into their membership program through their dues structure and our insurance mutuals could provide a backstop for extreme once-in-a-century events (like a global pandemic that forces 1/2 of the world’s population to shelter-in-place).

More importantly, though, we need to create some messaging for our co-op members and workers in the non-coop workers, that this is, despite how horrible it may seem, a moment of opportunity to change our economy to one that values human life and a dignified workplace. There will be all sorts of calls to “return to normal”, but I don’t recall that “normal” was all that great. The siren call will be that people need to enjoy life again and get back into nightclubs, restaurants, and the beaches. I agree, and our messaging should reflect that urge. We just should argue that those venues could be cooperatively owned and managed.

The last pandemic on this scale was the 1918 Flu. It also occurred as the most horrific war to that point in human history came to an end. It shouldn’t surprise people that the 1920s became a decade of hedonism that led to a global depression and a war even more horrific than World War I. But that wasn’t the only story. The labor movement gained new life: three general strikes in Toledo, OH, Minneapolis, MN, and San Francisco, CA led to a rebirth of the radical and industrial labor movement. The Harlem Renaissance revived the push for civil and human rights for African-Americans. The decade wasn’t just gambling on the stock market and speakeasys. Unfortunately, the structurally unsound foundations of the system remained intact.

For the last decade, the Co-op community has been saying that this is “our moment”. Now, more than ever, it is our opportunity to claim our moment and make it an era. We can replace the foundation with a solid cooperative model. Between the retiring small business owners and the pressure of the pandemic, there has never been a time to engage in wholesale change of the economic system. To do so, we need to keep true to our values and avoid short-term solutions to long-term problems.

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Human Dignity

“We should begin by considering all humans as citizens of equal dignity and destiny.”

“The destiny of each one of us is linked to that of others”

–Don José María Arizmendiarrieta

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. –John Donne

The common line between all worker co-ops around the world lies in the connection to each other as humans. All workers are essential precisely because they are human.

The role of worker cooperation exists primarily to connect each other through our labor and create a community of equals. Engaging in a worker cooperative is living the value of solidarity. However, the connection to other workers doesn’t stop at the borders of our cooperative. Even though co-op members have the ability to control their labor and manage the wealth that they create, they must still recognize their role in the larger labor movement.

I would love to see a world where all workers control their companies, link together within their industry to build networks, and create a pathway to a truly democratic economy with a commitment to human dignity and social justice. Some of you might see this and think “Mondragón“, but I am also thinking the ideals of the Industrial Workers of the World from more than a century ago.

Regardless of the structure that becomes created, all workers deserve dignity. Even those workers who don’t work for a cooperative or work for a co-op that competes with a worker co-op. A caregiver faces the same struggles in their day-to-day whether they are members of a home care co-op or work for an agency or as an independent contractor. Likewise with grocery workers, cab drivers, and down-the-line.

Ideally our worker co-ops can grow in a sustainable way to keep their identity while also building a community that brings human dignity to all the workers in their industry. This may seem like a given, but at this unique point in time, while our world facing a raging pandemic. It is important to remember that our struggle to recover and repair our economy lies with supporting all workers. Today, we are “all in this together”, but as workers we will always be all in this together even if, in the day-to-day, we are forced to compete with each other for scraps. We need to move forward to build a labor movement that combines the labor power of unionism and the identity of cooperation.

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The Unnamed Co-op Value: Gritty

Calvin Coolidge, the US President that symbolized the 1920s, has been credited with this statement: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”

I think of that quote often when working with co-ops, especially these days. Embracing the values and principles of the co-operative identity is important; however, it is not enough. The people stepping in to create a new co-op or convert an existing business into a co-op also need the value of perseverance. This value, while not stated in either the ICA’s Statement or Mondragón’s list of principles, plays a deciding role in the success or failure of a cooperative. In many ways, it is the expression of this value that creates the cooperative difference of worker co-ops.

Perhaps the essence of being “gritty” provides a more working class way of thinking about perseverance. The value of Gritty combines with that of Solidarity, Self-repsonsibility, and Mutual Self-help to create an almost unstoppable force. The synergy of these values combined in the leadership of an organization can overcome so much.

A co-op, that I worked with, was struggling a bit, but making a go of it. About a month after adding a new director to the board, almost everyone else on the board quit (for personal reasons) leaving this person holding the bag. I would have completely understood if they just left as well (since they really hadn’t anything invested). Instead they pushed forward, recruited new leaders, got the co-op operational and made it a successful and well-respected co-op in its sector.

I see this a lot. I usually encourage people who seek to start a co-op to find a group of five people who will be champions. By champions, I mean, really, the people who are gritty enough to see it through to the end. Why five, because the value of gritty is expressed differently in every person and life gets in the way: a family member becomes ill, a once in a lifetime opportunity arrives, and people discover that the project doesn’t really tap into their gritty after all. The value of grittiness doesn’t manifest until it is needed, so we can only guess and hope.

Today, as our co-ops fight hard to survive the covid-19 pandemic, the gritty manifests. My day job supports a number of co-ops and part of that now includes helping to promote their covid-19 survival models and the US Federation of Worker Co-ops also promotes the efforts of these gritty co-ops.

Stay Gritty!

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Adding a Pop-Up :(

This is news about the site. I added a pop-up today. It will be used sparingly. I mainly wanted to highlight several co-ops that I am working with that need your support. I got the idea of a pop-up from one of them (Capital Homecare).

The pop-up doesn’t “pop” until one has stayed on the site for more than 3-4 seconds and it has a very easy to access “close” button.

Any money donated to the co-ops goes directly to the co-ops. This is a free service that I am providing them.

Please support our co-ops during this pandemic!

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Are We Not Owners? We Are Workers!

Last Winter, Fifty by Fifty ran a series of blog posts about the sale of the ESOP New Belgium Brewery to Kirin. It was a great series of posts of which I was honored to participate. This was and is an important discussion about the role of worker (or employee) ownership. However, one editiorial didn’t appear on the site, but was published in one of my favorite publications, Counter Punch by one of my favorite thinkers on worker-focused economics, Bernard Marszalek. In this article about the sale of the 4th largest craft brewery, Righteous Capitalism vs. Cooperative Values, he discusses the notion of being a worker owner and it is worth for all of us to consider his position.

Specifically he argues:

“The fatal error of cooperatives decades ago was to emphasize ownership in imitation of the ESOPs. Almost from the inception of cooperatives as collective economic projects in the early 19th century, they were characterized as urban commons, duplicating in those new settings the centuries old practice of rural lands held in common by an exclusive group, like the families of a village or parish. So, the operative term for participants in cooperatives isn’t owner, but member. Retail co-ops serve consumer-members, housing co-ops have members whereas condos have owners, and worker-members manage worker cooperatives.”

As Bernard argues, neither the “employees” (to use a term of wage-slavery) of an ESOP or the workers of a co-op are truly owners. For the ESOP, the workers have little control over either their shares (which a Trustee often manages) or a say in the operations (although this can vary a bit). For worker co-ops, the members often have significant control over the workplace, but cannot actually sell their share of ownership or take their retained equity (I should know, Union Cab still holds my equity from 1993).

I agree with Bernard–let’s retire the concept of calling ourselves “worker-owners”. We are worker-members. We are stewards of the co-op doing the work to keep it resilient to honor the work of the previous members (who built a co-op for us), and maintaining the co-op’s ability to provide for the members of the future.

The concept of community ownership (in this case the community of workers) is fundamentally different from capitalist ownership. The latter seeks to use up assets and resources. It is extractive in nature and anti-communitarian. The former seeks to build a community that transcends the individual and builds a thing of lasting value to society.

Worker-Members creates a conceptual model of considering the generation of members prior and those yet to be. The term creates a community that challenges the extractive concept of ownership. A co-op member builds communal wealth and connects the individual to something bigger than themselves.

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Co-ops in the Time of Corona

A Special Message to My Readers:

I don’t get a lot of comments on this site these days. That is likely my fault in my attempt to keep the bots at bay. However, I really want you to comment. I want to hear about what your co-ops and your community is doing to support each other right now. Perhaps we can make this a record of this historic time (perhaps GEO will coordinate the stories in an anthology). Please register and comment (or upgrade your status and post).

I Return to Your Blog Post. . . .

As the Corona Pandemic continues to build steam, worker co-ops are at a crossroad.

Like other small business owners, worker-owned businesses don’t neccessarily have a deep supply of money to weather this storm. While worker co-ops can prioritize the health and well being of the membership (share hours, across-the-board pay-cuts, etc.), ta bottom exists. At some point the the fixed costs have to be paid (the rent, the mortgage, utilities, taxes). As governments require people to shelter in place, no plan is presented to protect any small business let alone our worker co-ops.

We need to save each other. We need to fight for all of us.

At some point, the government will have to intervene and provide support, but how do our co-ops survive until the politicians of this age finally recognize that the neo-liberal model of trickle-down economics simply doesn’t work in a global economic and health crisis. Tax cuts are meaningless if there isn’t any income to tax.

In Olympia, the local co-op network, CoSound, has convened a meeting of co-ops in the region to figure this out. It meets later today to begin a process of working together stay strong (or at least viable) during this crisis. Ultimately, co-ops need to manage their fixed costs and hope unemployment insurance can keep the membership together. Combining this with group purchasing (which is how consumer co-ops started out in the 70s) and political action to force elected officials to do more than simply shut down the ability to earn a living. We must demand that the supply side also supports workers ability to survive during the crisis. I expect that local co-op networks across the country will be doing likewise.

What does this mean? I am sure that everyone has a favorite tactic. Seattle is currently providing $800 for families to buy groceries. There are a number of ways to go, but we need to make sure that we support each other and work together to demand that our elected officials recognize that there is no “safe” path forward. They need to make the hard decisions to keep our communities solvent even if that means losing the next election. We also need to reach out to the larger labor movement and work with them to protect all workers. Today, more than at any point in my lifetime, the need for class solidarity means survival.

A nice thing about the time-off is that it provides the means to organize, agitate, and lobby. Even if we can’t rally in front of their offices, we can make sure that they hear us. I don’t have a good rallying cry, but we must argue that our communities remain intact.

Assuming that our movement survives, we need to plan for the next crisis. The US Federation of Worker Co-ops has done a good job getting in front of the wave and helping us to navigate resources. We need more. We need a Solidarity Fund. This could follow Mondragon’s model: 10% of surplus before disbursement form every worker co-op to be held by the Federation. It could be distributed on either an at-need basis or in a national crisis through grants or low-interest non-extractive lending with the aim of covering fixed costs through the crisis.

This is a crucial moment for our movement. We could easily lose the majority of our co-ops but we can also fight hard to make sure that we keep as many as possible. It is ultimately up to us.

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Tech Co-op’s Are on the Rise. . .

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the desires to create co-op version of “Uber”. One respondent on a different forum noted that I was in “violent agreement” with the platform co-op community. I was glad to hear that! But some also saw my post as technophobic focusing on my age (Ok, Boomer!), so I feel the need to talk about some of the incredible tech co-op that are popping up!

Here in the PNW, a couple of communities are using Althea-mesh software to provide direct access to the internet with cooperative ownership by the users. These ISP co-ops (Clataskine Co-op and Tacoma Cooperative Network) provide true net neutrality through community ownership and control of the ISP. The payments are made through Althea blockchain cryptocurrency (which is linked to the US dollar).

Other tech based co-ops include Motion Twin, a worker-coop which produces on-line games, and Modo (a consumer car sharing co-op in Vancouver).

I’ve also mentioned Resonate, a music streaming app that has membership for producers (artists) and consumers and uses blockchain as well.

Last year, Working Systems, a software developer servicing labor unions, converted to a worker co-op and I am currently talking with a couple of platform start-ups (since they are still in the start up phase, I don’t really want to name them, but one will be about encrypted storage and file sharing. The new Employee Trust in Washington (a project of SIEU, PHC, ICA Group) will be working with the independent contractor caregivers providing homecare through medicaid. Of course, The Workers’ Paradise has always been hosted on Electric Embers, a worker cooperative. A common theme in these co-ops is taking control of the technology and operating an ethical basis.

This was the point of the previous article: we can’t simply replicate a corrupt extractive model, offer memberships, and then call it a day. We have to make the operations aligned with co-op values and principles. and that means strengthening communities, not just disrupting them because that is what technology does. When I hear the word “disruption”, what I hear is someone saying that they don’t really care about upending people’s lives. That the folks losing their jobs or community are just collateral damage in the march of progress filled with a unfounded optimism that everything will work out in the end.

On one of the social sites on which this blog posts, some asked about Eva. Eva was presented to me as a retort to my post: “hey, what about Eva” but it wasn’t easy to find information. Eva is a platform co-op offering “ride sharing”. I use the scare quotes because, as someone on social.coop argued, “it isn’t really ‘sharing’ if your charging for the service”. Anyway, the website doesn’t offer a lot of information about the co-op (they told me that the site is do for an overhaul in April), but this interview on Each for All Radio (a co-op itself), with Dardan Isufi, Eva co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, provides a deeper dive into their model. If you listen to the recording (about 49 minutes), you will hear that Eva works with brick-and-motor cab companies, has staff in the cities it serves, insists on 35 hours of training, police background checks, and maintenance reports. Most importantly, Eva doesn’t engage in price gouging (known as “surge pricing” in the industry and covers the insurance cost directly for the drivers (another core difference from Uber/Lyft), the latter is likely an aspect of Canadian and Quebec laws).

The response from me: Eva is not trying to replicate Uber or Lyft.

They are an example of what I was talking about. I am glad to learn more about them and they were very generous in answering my questions in a separate forum. I obviously write from a US perspective (and my Canadian experience is mostly english-speaking Nova Scotia), but avoid US exceptionalism and ackowledge that I can’t know the different laws in every country, province, and state. Eva told me, they can’t provide service to people who need wheelchair accessible vehicles or to people who don’t have a smart phone (and debit/credit card). Apparently this is the law in Quebec (and Eva is working to address that, but politicians move slowly). So, hourra por Eva!. The biggest lesson that I learned from this exchange is to tread lightly with the Quebecois!

The bigger story from all of this is that almost a decade after the forming of the Tech Co-op Network, tech co-ops have begun popping up all over. They don’t have the capital to become household names like Spotify and Uber, but they are building the foundation for a tech community based on human values and a lot of them organize as multi-stakeholder co-ops when it makes sense (such as streaming services). For an industry known notoriously as anti-union and libertarian, the new generation of developers promises a different future of tech in which the technology serves its community and not the other way around.

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The Government Will Not Save Us

Regardless of the outcome of the Iowa Caucus tonight, our salvation as a community (however you define it) and as a species will not come from politicians. It will will only come from our collective efforts to build a better world.

Government as it has been formed, does not exist to solve problems. It exists to control and maintain order. Claus Offe, in his collection Disorganized Capitalism, argues that the role of capital and government tend to feed off of each other. Specifically, the capitalist simply asks government to get out of the way, to do less while other groups (labor, communities) seek to have government intervene. This creates a form of social entropy that requires constant work to maintain.

Of course, sometimes the needle moves as it did during the abolition movement, the populist and progressive movements, and most recently the New Deal. Each of these efforts though further prove the point, that without constant effort, the government will default to doing less.

If we want a better world, it is imperative that we make that world. There is an incredible opportunity now to change our economy from a mercantilist/capitalist model to a more cooperative model. Project Equity estimates that only 20% of existing small businesses. According to JPChase:

“Over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses. The vast majority (88 percent) of employer firms have fewer than 20 employees, and nearly 40 percent of all enterprises have under $100k in revenue. 20 percent of small businesses are employer businesses and 80 percent are nonemployer businesses.”

Rather than trying to “get to scale”, we have an opportunity right now to help many of these businesses remain in their communities providing jobs as either worker cooperatives or community (multi-stakeholder) cooperatives. In 9 short years, every one born during the Baby Boom will be 65 or older and the majority will be over 70. Rather than watch the further consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, we can change communities, create cooperative corporations, and build an economy based on meeting needs, not maximizing profits.

What this could mean is that the majority of the corporations would no longer be asking government to do nothing. A cooperative economy might be asking the government to be a partner in building a better world. Gary Hart, a former Senator from Colorado, wrote his PhD thesis on the Jeffersonian view of what the US could have been. Jefferson, during the drafting of the US Constitution, was Ambassador to France and not part of the deliberations. Hart’s book, Restoration of the Republic: The Jefferson Ideal in 21st Century America, Jefferson envisioned a world that looks a lot like Robert Owen’s communities. Small, (5,000 people or less) but connected in networks and federations to meet the needs of the community. The common defense would not be through a police force or army, but more like a volunteer fire department (that are so common in rural Washington).

A cooperative economy might even make government somewhat obsolete. I have always been amazed at the similarity between Mondragon’s organizational chart and that of the IWW’s vision from 100 plus years ago. A government that is an outgrowth of the cooperatives that we engage to meet our needs would not need to be interventionist. It would be a true partner with the communities that feed into it.

Tonight, the 2020 campaign for president begins in earnest. Regardless of who wins tonight, the nomination, or the presidency, we can only make the world a better place and safe it from ourselves by working cooperatively to create an economy based on meeting the needs of the planet and its residents. The ability to be Masters of Our Destiny lies within us.

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