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Discovering Workplace Democracy

By Shirley F. Grigsby

The Community, Faith, and Labor Coalition (CFLC) was established in 1999 to fight for a more economically just Indianapolis. Our original purpose was and still is to get a living wage ordinance passed by the Indianapolis City-County Council.

Like most major cities throughout the US, wages in Indianapolis have not kept pace with real living expenses faced by the average worker. For instance, a single parent with two school-age children needs to make at least $15.43 per hour working full time to meet the family's basic needs, yet most single parent households in Indianapolis are lucky to earn half that.

Meanwhile, the city is experiencing a major budget crisis—a one hundred million dollar deficit. Municipal leaders are too often trying to balance the budget on the backs of the working poor by cutting already inadequate social services, while giving tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations looking to develop large luxury buildings on the last remaining green spaces in downtown Indianapolis.

In this political climate, I began to realize that getting a living wage ordinance passed would not be enough. Several months ago while searching on the Internet for innovative solutions, I came across the term “workplace democracy” and was intrigued with the idea of workers actually owning and controlling their own businesses.

My internet surfing eventually led me to the National Cooperative Business Association (www.ncba.coop). and Richard Dines who told me about the upcoming U.S. Conference of Democratic Workplaces. (He also mentioned the ICA Group in Massachusetts, which helps workers form cooperatives. I e-mailed them and received a call from Executive Director Newell Lessell the next day!)

After reading about the conference, I decided that I should attend to learn more. Because the CFL is volunteers-run, I had to find an affordable way to get there. I was pleased to learn that free housing was being offered and contacted Erik Esse; he along with Tom Pierson, graciously arranged housing for me. Also due to my limited budget, I embarked on a 14-hour bus trip to Minneapolis. It was a long ride, but I was excited.

On the first day of the conference, I met people from all walks of life committed to social and economic justice. I learned that worker-owned co-ops exist in almost every sector of business, from bakeries to bicycles.

I was glad to realize that many other people at the conference had little or no traditional business background. And that like me, they viewed worker co-ops as something much bigger than simply a business model: a real alternative to capitalism.

Unlike most gatherings of people involved in business endeavors, information was freely shared. I thought this to be very odd—that people would be so encouraging of potential business rivals. But that was the whole point, they did not see each other as rivals. All the participants operated with the belief that there is more than enough for everyone. Any questions I had, no matter how elementary I felt them to be, were answered respectfully.

I left the conference with a strong desire to help start a worker-owned co-op in my community. Although at times, I was overwhelmed by all of the information I gathered at the conference, I now know there are resources and people willing to help.

Shirley F. Grigsby is a social worker and activist currently working as an organizer with Central Indiana Jobs with Justice. She is also active in Indiana ACORN, Indiana Earth Charter, and the Community, Faith and Labor Coalition (www.indylivingwage.org), where she served until recently as Chair of the Education Committee. She now chairs the New Initiatives Committee, which includes the development of worker owned co-ops.


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