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(Co-) Operating from the Center of the Heart

By Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo

Before Tom Pierson discovered worker cooperatives, he was so deeply alienated from his traditional corporate job that he couldn't get up to go to work—even with four alarm clocks going off.

Four years ago, Pierson, 24, was living in the ‘Twin Cities' area (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota) selling nuts and bolts at Home Depot for $12 an hour. He was late for every shift, even if it was in the middle of the day.

His condition literally got so bad that he slept through four different alarm clocks going off one day. The next morning, he just did not go to work at all. “I felt I was a joke, to be doing this to myself,” he says. “I had this strong sense in my body and my bones that I couldn't work for a boss any more. I had to stop fooling myself.”

A trail of co-incidents

One day not long after this, Pierson was discussing his alienation from corporate culture with his friend Jay Burrit at Hard Times Cafe, a local restaurant cooperatively owned and run. Burrit made a statement that changed Pierson's life.

“They don't have bosses here,” Burrit told him. “It's a collective.”

The idea was totally new to Pierson. Excited, he whipped out a resume that read: “I don't have any experience, but I'll do anything, and I learn quickly,” and submitted it to Hard Times. They brought him aboard.

A year later, while planning a backpacking trip to the Cascade Range, he heard about the Western Worker Cooperative Conference in Breitenbush, Oregon, close to his destination. He attended, and went home with the idea buzzing in his head of organizing a similar event in the Midwest.

Shortly after that, just before leaving for a trip East, he checked his email one last time and found an invitation from GEO's Bob Stone to attend the first Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy, about to take place at the University of Maryland.

There, Pierson was again inspired by cooperators from around the country. “I had more organizing energy than I ever had in my life,” he recalls. “I was thinking in a whole new way.” He attributes much of this to Bob Stone's energy. “He encourages people,” Pierson remarks.

Local to global

On returning home, Pierson got a job at Seward Community Café. In his off hours, he was working to organize a Midwestern worker co-op conference with Christopher DeAngelis and others. At the first Midwest Worker Cooperative Conference in April, 2003, 80 people representing 20 worker co-ops came, including a cab company, web designers, bakeries, retail grocery stores, restaurants, and more.

Bruno Roelants, President of the international worker co-op federation CICOPA, gave an inspirational address about the significance of workplace democracy around the world, and the need to join together.

High on the cooperative experience, Pierson paid his own way to CICOPA's international conference in Oslo, Norway that fall. “It was really great to get an international perspective on what's happening here in the U.S.” he points out.

The Pierson POV

Of his journey thus far, Pierson comments: “Worker co-ops are not the saving grace [for everyone], but listening to yourself will always lead you in the right direction.”

“It's not logical, in our current culture, to work in democratic workplaces,” he reflects. “But it's not about what's logical, or what someone told me is right. It's what I feel in the very center of my body, everything I think is right. I have to operate from the center of my heart. I have to make decisions based on that, not on what's logical.”

Pierson, who did a lot of the footwork that led to the formation of the first U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces, believes the effort was a complete success. “We got everything done we wanted to,” he said. “It was a lofty ambition to start with, and those lofty ambitions were met.”

Now that the hard work of organizing the conference is over, Pierson has more time to think about what's ahead. His heart is stirring a bit, and his feet, as he plans another trip on the co-op trail. In August, he's off to the annual meeting of the Association of Cooperative Educators, in Montreal. Sounds like another good place for one of Tom Pierson's famous ‘co-incidents.'

Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, a member of GEO, is the elected representative of the Eastern region to the new U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces. She lives in Washington, D.C. where she is helping to form a worker cooperative. She learned about co-ops while taking a course in community economic development at Southern New Hampshire University. “I was so excited to know that I could start a business with other people, and help the community at the same time,” she says. “We have thirteen, sixteen, sometimes twenty percent unemployment in D.C., and co-ops can be an alternative to standing around on the street corners,” she says. “There are a lot of people who don't want to work nine to five jobs for companies who're doing things that are totally against people's values,” she adds. “Co-ops teach us how to work together, to create unity.”


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