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Abe Karl-Gruswitz Interviews Co-op Activists

Frank T. Adams

(author of Putting Democracy to Work)

AK: What do you think needs to come out of the new federation?

FA: The Federation should promote the broad interests of worker owners, and their businesses, with local, state, regional, and federal governments, including the development of uniform cooperative corporate law and uniform treatment by the law.

A second, but equally important challenge for the Federation will be to form an educational institution owned and managed by worker owners for
worker owners. Every lasting, successful workers' movement for cooperative ownership has been preceded by education for work ownership and for entrepreneurial labor. Since, as Americans, we have no real experience with fulsome civic democracy, imagining a democratic workplace remains an elusive idea. To begin fully understanding the democratic workplace, our experiments with democratic tools, norms, and values in cooperative workplaces can be tested for results, then shared widely through the Federation.

Dan Swinney, Director,

Center for Labor & Community Research

AK: What would you like to come out of the conference?

DS: I suggest doing a survey, to be able to document the scale and size, and the character and composition of the co-op movement in the U.S. That should be an important first step, because I think a lot of people underestimate its size or think of it very narrowly. Then when you have done that, you can then identify sections within the co-op movement that will really be interested in promoting the solidarity economy, as opposed to some very large co-ops that are really conservative. We should be looking at all of the co-operatives in all sectors, not just the industrial sector, not just retail, not just craft, and not just agricultural.

The second thing is, even with scarce resources, to have a communications strategy that tells about co-operatives in mainstream journals, not just the alternative journals. As the economic situation deteriorates it is very important to get the message to people who are not comfortable in the intellectual circles, or the anti-globalization movement, or activist circles. So I think a portion of the communication budget should have to be directed toward more mainstream media, to get to people who haven't heard of this. Finally, I think the Federation has to prove the skill of its leadership by showing its ability to become established and grow. Those should be the first steps.

In the last year or so, there seem to be more and more people looking for alternatives than we have seen in a long time. At the same time, the co-operative model and the co-operative experience has become increasingly mature and sophisticated and appealing.. There couldn't be a better time to launch a concerted effort to promote co-operative development and to provide assistance to people who are interested in doing so.

The idea of a Federation is superb; and I think that part of its program needs to be to assemble technical people so our numbers are known around the country, but also to do an exceptional job at promotion and broad education on the co-operative alternative.

In addition, the Federation should be very closely identified with international development. I think there can be a conservative tendency in co-ops; just because it is a co-op doesn't make it inherently progressive or even visionary. In fact, there are tendencies in both Mondragon and Italy, where the co-op model is really a model where a very small group of people protect themselves from outsiders. Our federation needs to be distinguished from that. I think this federation needs to concentrate on building the co-operative alternative inside the U.S., but also has to be linked with international efforts that promote international economic development, solidarity, and support.

AK: What should be the mission of such a Federation?

DS: To promote the growth of co-operatives as part of a broader movement for economic democracy. The Federation should anchor itself in a broader movement for economic democracy, more than just co-operatives. It is very important that the Federation recognize that there is a high road and a low road, or there is a narrow vision and a broad vision, there is a parochial vision and there's an international vision; and not just be an apologist for anything that calls itself “co-op”, but look at its real impact in terms of promoting the solidarity economy.

AK: What, in your view, makes a workplace “democratic”?

DS: It should, of course be owned and managed by the workers in an active and participatory way. It should also be linked in a meaningful fashion to the broader community in the way that is made possible by the social councils in Mondragon, and linked to the broader sector and other worker organizations including unions and other components of the Solidarity Economy. We want co-operatives to be a significant part of an economy that can and will compete with Low Road globalization and low road trends in the US economy. Co-ops need to be identified with a broader vision for transforming society, not just a model for a utopian community that can be a haven in an increasingly decadent world.

Stu Schneider,

Associate, Paraprofessional Health Institute

AK: What would you like to see come out of the conference?

SS: A viable roadmap for a successful national organization that is specifically focused on the needs of worker cooperatives; that complements the services provided by the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) but provides a more targeted forum for networking, information sharing, support and problem solving regarding issues specific to worker owned and democratically managed cooperatives.

AK: Do you think that lines should be drawn between co-ops that have some element of democracy in them, but have less worker ownership or worker management, and full worker cooperatives or collectives?

SS: No, I guess that is one key difference between this new national federation and the NCBA; in that the federation seems more inclusive — by helping workers or small business owners who have an interest in introducing democratic elements within their workplaces.

AK: What should be the mission(s) of such a Federation?

SS: I support the process summarized in the conference prospectus in that attendees will have the opportunity to collaboratively decide on the new organization's mission and programmatic activities.

AK: And what, in your view, makes a workplace “democratic”?

SS: The key element that makes a workplace democratic is an organization's ability to honestly accept the feedback and recommendations of its workers and systemically incorporate them into formal policies and procedures regarding governance and operations.

Richard Dines, Member Service Director,

National Cooperative Business Association

AK: What do you want to see come out of the Conference?

RD: A commitment on the part of participating cooperators to work with each other, to strengthen our own businesses, to unify and grow the worker cooperative movement, to bring the idea of worker cooperation to those who are not yet aware of its potential, to focus on the future of worker cooperatives by working in the public policy arena both on the federal level and at the state level, to look for threats and opportunities that exist for worker coops, to recognize the value in working with other types of cooperatives Specifically I'd like the Federation to recognize the value of working closely with the National Cooperative Business Association to achieve these objectives, as NCBA has a very long and proud history of bringing co-ops together to strengthen their own businesses and expand the co-op business sector to serve all those who want and need to be served by it.

AK: What should be the mission(s) of such a Federation?

RD: The mission of the Federation (similar to that of NCBA), should be to develop, advance, and protect worker cooperation or worker cooperative enterprise.

AK: What, in your view, makes a workplace “democratic”?

RD: Worker control is the issue, but a very broad range of structures can be employed to achieve that control, anywhere from a very traditional business structure, where management is hired by a board of directors, but that board is elected by a worker co-op and the manager manages day-to-day operations, all the way to a collective type structure, where all of the workers make all of the decisions as to the governance and the day-to-day operations. All are valid forms of worker cooperation and a democratic workplace.

AK: Are there any cooperative structures that you believe should not be included in the Federation?

RD: I would say that it should be very broad and serve all kinds of businesses that either have true democratic control by the workers of the business or are working toward that. I guess the only kind of business this wouldn't include would be one where there was some employee ownership but not true worker control or commitment toward moving toward that.

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