The First Midwest Worker  Cooperative Conference
by Jessica Gordon Nembhard

The U.S. worker cooperative movement is continuing to make history. Young people and activists in the worker cooperative and workplace democracy movement made up a majority of the 65 participants of the historic first Midwest Worker Cooperative Conference. Worker-owners and members of collectives mostly from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois gathered in Madison, Wisconsin, April 11-13, 2003, to increase their skills, create the first elected board of the Midwest Conference, and join the East and West Coasts in support of the creation of a National Worker Cooperative Federation. The participants were happy to be together, were enthusiastic, bursting with ideas and new projects, and dedicated to movement building. Many were still fresh with and from anti-war and human rights activism, which they find not only compatible with but inseparable from their cooperative and collective economic activities.

After a dinner catered by Peacemeal Vegetarian Restaurant Collective and Nature≠s Bakery (all meals were vegan), participants introduced themselves. Worker owners came from around the Midwest from a range of cooperative and collectively run worker-owned enterprises: restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, bakeries, farms, book stores, taxi companies, cooperative development agencies, organizational development agencies, intentional communities, etc.

The evening keynote panel provided updates on citywide (NOBAWC, Minneapolis, Madison), regional (west coast and eastern conferences), national (proposal for the national federation) and international (CICOPA) efforts.  CICOPA Secretary General, Bruno Roelants (see GEO #56 for an interview with him), spoke about the international movement and delineated the benefits of regional and national federation. Roelants suggested the following benefits of a national federation: provides support and visibility, promotes favorable legislation and policy making, advocacy, development, sometimes financing, and a link to regional organizations as well as the international movement. He noted that the current lack of a U.S. federation is a serious deficiency at the international level. Questions of the panel and discussions among the group included issues about diversity in the movement, better outreach, how to secure more institutional supports, difficulty getting city-wide and regional associations going (mostly because of lack of time and resources), and how to ally with ESOPs (companies with Employee Stock Option Programs, particularly the democratically run and majority worker-owned ESOPs).

The remaining program through the week-end consisted of workshops, elections, the scholarship auction, and a tour of local worker-owned cooperatives. Saturday morning began with rejuvenating workshops in Yoga, Improvisation, and the Feldenkrais Method. Participants then attended workshops on finance (basic and advanced), facilitation, self-care and burnout, ≤Creating Autonomy with Accountability,” ≤Developing Cooperative Leadership,” ≤Your Co-op and Your Community,” ≤Connecting to International Cooperatives,” and ≤Multicultural Anti-Oppression Training.” Most workshops were run by members of cooperatives and collectives from around the country, but mainly the Midwest. Open Space topics included, a worker-ownership label; management, staffing and pay issues, idea for a loan fund, and ≤isms” (sexism, racism, ageism, etc.) issues in the movement.

Elections were held for an 8 member Midwest Conference Planning Committee. Winners were Tom Pierson, Ellen Barlow, Christopher deAngeles, Erik Esse, Pam Burrows, Dave Fint, Val Benner, and Vesna Voynovich Kovach. Tom and Ellen were elected to the National Committee. The proposal for a National Federation was accepted. The auction raised $500.We ended the conference with a short tour of some of Madison≠s cooperatives, particularly some of the members of the ≤Madison Post Capitalist Business Association.”  [More next issue.]

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