by Bob Stone

With ninety participants, the seventh annual Western Worker Cooperative Conference at Breitenbush Hot Springs grew a full fifty percent over last year, reaffirming this conference’s movement-building leadership.

“It was our most successful of the seven conferences so far. And we had more regional representation than ever,” said Tim Huet of San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and a member of the board that plans the conferences. Participants from Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, Montana and Canada were drawn to the conference October 22-24.

Conference founder Tim Calvert of Citybikes in Portland first gathered Oregon and Washington worker co-ops in Portland in 1995. Absent then, Californians’ numbers now equal their northern neighbors. California’s contingent is top-heavy with the 50-plus member co-ops in the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NOBAWC, pronounced “no-boss”)—the nation’s largest worker co-op group.

Since 1996 this annual gathering has been at Breitenbush Hot Springs. This wilderness spa in Detroit, Oregon is also a worker-owned cooperative and a major sponsor of the conference. Its beauty attracts and inspires participants. The conference’s elected board was charged in 1999 with exploring a national network of worker co-ops, but the conference was job enough. This year new interest from Minneapolis/St. Paul and the East coast renewed the idea in a session including NOBAWC, the Breitenbush board, and National Cooperative Business Association. Board members will work with East coast organizers of the worker co-ops/democratic ESOP conference in 2002. Discussants on the coasts hope for a national meeting in 2003, perhaps in the mid-West, building toward something like the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation. [Editors’ note: See the report on the meeting of the Canadian Federation on the following page].

Workshops followed 3 tracks: co-op basics and human development; business and finance; and movement building. One workshop compared decision-making processes at Rainbow Grocery, with its 200-plus workers and no managers, with Burley Design Cooperative, a bicycle-product manufacturer with an 8-person management team and 100-plus workers. Other workshops featured: consensus decision-making with Grace Cox of Olympia Food Co-op; financial statements with Don Reynolds of Rainbow; advanced finances with Steve Sutcher of Berkeley’s Cheese Board—a grandparent of the worker co-op movement; multiculturalism with diversity trainers from two co-ops (main theme of the 2000 meeting); internet marketing with Matt Purvis of Burley and Thomas Roche of Good Vibrations; how a leadership culture can apply to all and not be the burden/privilege of a few, with Tim Huet. Rebecca Bauen of WAGES (which provides technical help to low income women starting worker co-ops) reported on Mondragon and explored its lessons.

“Open Space” discussions are a central feature of Breitenbush conferences. Two sets of 5 concurrent structured dialogues take on hot issues in co-ops, sharing successful and unsuccessful resolutions. “For the movement to kick start we need more government support of worker co-ops,” said Tim Calvert. “Workers prefer a worker-owned environment and co-ops are great for communities. But to fulfill their promise in a globalizing economy, small democratic units need fostering.”

Calvert said that while Citybikes, benefitting from Portland’s explosion in bike commuting, has the workhour flexibility that allows him to work on Breitenbush, its worker-owners are seeking a way to secure benefits. Links between labor and worker co-op movements were explored by keynoter Peter Kardas, director of Labor Education and Research at Evergreen College in Olympia, WA. Kardas’ message of the promise of solidarity, after healing the disconnect between the two movements, resonated in the meetings.

Conference sponsors included: National Cooperative Business Association, National Cooperative Bank Development Corporation, UC Davis Center for Cooperatives, Breitenbush Hot Springs, Burley Design Cooperative, Good Vibrations, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and Equal Exchange.

For information on the Breitenbush worker co-op meeting in the fall of 2002, contact Kirsten Marshall

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