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Reawakening the Dream

By Len Krimerman

There have been other conferences here in the USA on workplace democracy or worker ownership. One of these, some 30 years ago at Cornell University, featured George Benello's eyewitness report of a uniquely democratic 20-year old Basque consortium of industrial worker co-ops, with its own bank, healthcare and educational systems: its name was Mondragon.

The conference led to the founding of FEDO, the Funding and Educational Development Organization, with chapters in Boston; Connecticut; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C. and Ithaca, New York. The goal was to bring something like Mondragon to life “in the belly of the beast.”
Needless to say, this initial energy fell short of its ambitious goal. But after three very full days this May in Minneapolis, where the US Federation for Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces was created, our earlier dream no longer seems out of reach.

The contrasts between 1974 and 2004 are vivid. Then, most presentations were from academics, and discussions were mainly theory-driven. The range and diversity of hands-on, practical experience with worker ownership was negligible, and although a tiny group of us met with George after the Conference to talk about next steps, no real sense of a common mission emerged.

In Minneapolis, this had changed dramatically. Several existing funding organizations gathered to discuss ways of working together to build a Federation-based loan fund. Successful co-ops talked with newcomers about replications, and nuts and bolts concerns were addressed by veteran practitioners.

Sticky, potentially controversial issues, such as who among us got to vote, and how to define a ‘democratic workplace' were deliberated in a tangibly cooperative and competent way: a mix of ‘let¹s hear from all' and ‘let¹s get the job done' prevailed.

Diversity with Democracy

Striking also were the substantial numbers of folks who had come to workplace democracy with years of active experience in other progressive movements: living wage, social justice, civil rights, student cooperatives, and more. This was hardly the case back in 1974.The Conference brought together an amazing spectrum of experienced, talented, and committed people. You could feel the collective wisdom, confidence, and enthusiasm fill and transform the normally stolid spaces where we met.

In large part, this could be traced to the almost invisible, tao-like work of the conference planning board; for they had structured, and then helped facilitate, our meetings so that a maximum of direction would come from the attendees, rather than pre-established agendas or priorities.
Of course, no one expected the conference to be totally perfect. One gap, for me, was the lack of in-depth discussion of the more than two dozen fertile ideas that surfaced during a session on the core services to be offered by the new Federation. Time was definitely not on our side, and so we had to settle for making a list of all the ideas, and having everyone entitled to vote check off their top five. That list went to the new board.

Goin' down the road, feelin' glad

This puts the ball in the court of an outstanding group of cooperators whom we ourselves elected. I expect that ball will be bouncing back to the general membership somewhere down that new road we have started walking.

When I left Minneapolis, a Board of Directors had been elected; a common mission had been discovered, and to some extent defined; and I was feeling elated. It seemed to me we had managed to turn a new page in our own, and maybe even our country¹s history.

This time, perhaps, we are together. We are strong and diverse, we are ready, indeed passionate, for the long haul. The dream of a democratic workplace sector of the economy, on a scale similar to that of the European Union (25,000 and growing!) may yet be within our grasp.

Len Krimerman is one of the original members of the GEO collective, and has been actively supporting worker ownership for decades. He is co-editor with GEO's Frank Lindenfeld of When Workers Decide: Workplace Democracy Takes Root in North America (New Society: 1992).


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