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Education for and by Worker-Owners: The Vision of Frank Adams
by Bill Caspary

At the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democ-racy, Frank Adams spoke about the historical background of workplace democracy. He surprised and intrigued us by beginning with the Magna Carta, which, he explained, had included workers rights—since destroyed by the rise of capitalism. Not only were constraints codified on monarchs’ power over the nobility, but constraints on arbitrary powers of the nobility over the commoners were set down, too. Out of the Magna Carta came the concept in English Common Law of job property rights, a concept all but forgotten today. Freemen, villeins, even serfs, had clear rights to their jobs—tenancies, equipage, wainage, etc., as do today’s worker owners through their capital and labor investments. Relationships between employer and employee formulated in 1215, over 780 years ago, survive today as seniority systems or union contracts, both of which are vanishing rapidly.

Worker ownership, Adams said, is and has been never far from the surface—since the enclosures started pushing freemen, villeins or serfs off the land into jobs in swelling cities—as a tool workers use to keep a grip on these remaining rights, or to restore them fully. Frank Adams has had a long and distinguished career building workplace democracy and people’s education, working with the Industrial Cooperative Association (I.C.A.), and the Highlander Center. Currently, Frank is a co-founder and co-worker-owner of The Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership (SACCO), a for-profit consulting firm specializing in worker-owned and managed businesses. After the conference I spoke with Frank about his exciting ideas on education for worker-owners in democratic firms. The thoughts that follow were inspired by our conversation (they are not a transcript, and Frank is not responsible for my possible misinterpretations).

The Need to Learn

Worker-owners are eager to learn, and are almost always anxious to participate in decisions, particularly around working conditions, hours and wages. Fewer, although not a minority by any means, want to understand the financial, production, and marketing issues that arise. The more worker-owners know about the variables of management, finance or marketing, for example, the more productive and efficient they become. This basic, commonly seen desire to learn keeps our shops profitable in the face of cutthroat competition from capitalist firms that exploit workers. It helps worker-controlled firms to stay flexible and to adapt to the rapidly changing economy. Managers in capitalist firms keep workers ignorant, in order to control them, and to obscure how much profit they are extracting—even if this hurts productivity. In the democratic firm, where workers participate in management, the incentive is to become as informed as possible. To be true to itself, a cooperative or democratic ESOP must become a learning community.

A Learning Community and A Learning


To make a real commitment to learning, not just lip service, ten percent of each democratic firm’s after-tax profits should be devoted to education—as is done, for example, even today in the spirit of the principle laid down by the Rochdale Pioneers. In the Mondragon Cooperatives, substantial funds are devoted to education, and “social animators,” in close touch with the workers, decide on their wise use. In addition to funds, released time from work assignments should always be available for education.

Democratic workplaces cannot survive and grow in a hostile capitalist market environment unless they band together in a cooperative movement. The work of GEO on inter-cooperation, and the effort underway to create a national co-op federation, advanced at the East Coast Conference, are vital steps in that direction. To make that commitment effective, 10% of after tax profits should go to a national organization that supports co-ops and expands the co-op sector! The organization should send out traveling educators to help each co-op form its own worker education curriculum and process. Co-ops should give a year’s leave to those workers selected as traveling co-op educators. The national organization should help create new co-ops, and, therefore, to train the new worker-owners. It should help educate the public to be consumers of co-op products and to think about forming co-ops themselves.

Worker Initiated and Directed Education

Workers almost always know what they need to learn in order to keep their firms profitable, and to continue the struggle for job property rights. And even if an expert guesses correctly what that is, workers will be more motivated to learn if the topic is one that they propose. This was the profound lesson learned by Myles Horton at the famed Highlander Center in Tennessee, as Frank Adams describes in his classic book, Unearthing Seeds of Fire, [and Horton describes in his autobiography, reviewed in this issue]. At first, eager to impart all the wisdom he had gained from his education, Horton presented his ideas to the workers at his new adult education center. His voice seemed to fall on deaf ears. But when the workers began to choose the questions and share their local experience and knowledge with each other, lively education began to happen.

Frank Adams tells a story with the same moral. He was doing community organizing in a racially mixed neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, at a time when the legislature of Virginia ordered schools closed in Norfolk, Prince Edward County and Front Royal rather than follow the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case. At each successive meeting the attendance was dwindling. In desperation Adams asked, “What do you want to learn?” The surprising answer was, “We want to learn to pour tea.” It turned out that many of the women at the meeting worked in domestic service for wealthy white families who were important decision-makers in the community. It was after dinner, over cups of tea that they discussed and decided upon issues vital to the lives of the Black community. The women wanted to be there, pouring tea and listening in. Adams and his co-organizers went out and borrowed a fine china tea set and silver tea service, and found someone who knew the ritual of tea serving, Southern style. Of course the discussion from then on was not all about pouring tea, but always about the concerns the neighborhood people put forward. Attendance at subsequent meetings rose rapidly, until within months 600 citizens, Black and white, had paid $1 membership fees to belong to a neighborhood group challenging the policy closing public schools, and the city’s policy of urban renewal that was disproportionately displacing Blacks and poor whites.

The idea of learner initiated and directed education is not new. The first universities grew out of gatherings of students who decided what they wanted to learn, and hired (and fired) their own teachers. Great educators in recent times—like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, and John Holt—advocate this approach to empowering people as learners and citizens. As soon as worker-owners acquire new knowledge and skills, workers should be teaching fellow workers, not just being taught by outside experts. Workers are often more responsive to our fellow workers, and the members doing the teaching will learn even more. (At the East Coast Conference, Tim Huett talked about using mediation to solve workplace conflicts at the Rainbow Grocery. At first, a professional was brought in to teach mediation skills to the worker-owners. Soon the members took over this function, and trained other members.) The idea of workers as teachers (or teacher-learners as Paulo Freire would say) should not stop at the doors of the firm. If colleges and universities form Co-op Education programs, worker-owners should be called upon to teach. This means breaking the rule that only Ph.D.’s have a right to teach college students—but that would be a blow for democracy in education.

Subject Matter of Worker-Owner Education

What will the co-op worker-owners ask to learn when the choice is really theirs? This can be discovered informally through conversation, and formally through surveys. After conditions of work, past experience indicates that the first thing wanted is business-related information. If we have to discuss and vote on key investment decisions, we’ll want to know, how to read a balance sheet, how to think about interest rates, depreciation, what the difference is between debt and equity and so on. [At the Eastern Conference, two sessions were entitled Understanding Financial Statements and Open Book Management.] Workers are interested in the production processes they engage in daily. We have questions about the technology and the work organization. And the question seems to arise inevitably about how to deal with workers who don’t perform. Finally, creating a good product or service is of no use if there’s no one to purchase it, so we will also want to know about marketing.

These questions set the early agenda for cooperative education, but as time wears on, experience indicates that other sets of questions emerge. Worker-owners are in a position to decide not only how to produce more, but what to produce, and with what effects on ourselves and our families, our community, and our environment. Can we organize the work so that we come home to our families satisfied and stimulated, not bored, exhausted, and tense? What products or services can we provide that make people healthy, not sick; that are available to everyone, not just the wealthy? What energy sources or chemicals can we use that don’t end up destroying the rivers we fish in or fouling the air we breathe? Co-op education turns to questions of what is good and bad in our lives, our work, and our neighborhoods; what is natural and healthy in our land, air, and water.

Another kind of urgent question may take time to emerge, and only gradually come into clear focus. If we are worker-owners, what does this say about the relationship between management and workers? If the profits of our labor are ours to share, what does this say about the usual relationship between investment capital and wages? What does it say about who has power and rights in our society, and who is powerless and unfree. A co-op educator can help people to get hold of and express their awareness of these issues. She should not, and doesn’t need to, impose this agenda. Cooperative enterprise is an implicit critique of capitalist enterprise, and sooner or later this is going to be talked about. The result will be worker-owners who are informed and aroused critics of the injustices of our economic system, and activists for a democratic economy. After all, worker owners may be the last inheritors of job property rights granted in the Magna Carta.

Bill Caspary Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Washington University (St. Louis, MO), Adjunct Professor, N.Y.U.: Gallatin School of Independent Study, and Politics

Department. He can be reached at caspary@aol.com .

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