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U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops & Democratic Workplaces

By Jane Livingston and Jessica Gordon Nembhard

More than one hundred worker owners from around the country met in Minneapolis May 24-26, 2004 to found the first United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces. The new national federation is the result of decades of discussion and organizing at local and regional levels. This activity has intensified in the past few years, largely through the increased participation of young cooperators fueled by the vision that “Another world is possible.”

Held at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Center for Public Policy, the national federation's founding event was co-sponsored by The Cheese Board Collective based in Berkley, California; Chroma Technology of Rockingham, Vermont; the Cooperative Foundation (based in St. Paul, Minnesota); Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy; the National Cooperative Bank's Development Corporation, and the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative located in San Francisco.

Productivity through participation

For three days, 115 people enjoyed a rich mix of information, training, and participatory democracy. They learned about regional organizing efforts and explored how to build a national workplace democracy movement. The role of democratic workplaces in the global social justice movement was a hot topic, as were discussions of how worker co-ops can oppose oppression and embrace diversity and multiculturalism.

The daily challenges of worker ownership were addressed in nuts and bolts workshops on democratic meeting process and facilitation, conflict resolution, strategic planning, start-ups, finances, capitalization, personnel, and other critical ingredients of successful cooperative enterprise, summed up by one participant as “passing on skills, sharing power and responsibilities.”

In plenary sessions, the new federation took shape. Participants hammered out the framework for membership, governance, and possible services. They chose a name for the new entity: United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces. Delegates elected the founding board of directors.

The considerable amount of work accomplished in such a short time, and without ignoring those who wished to speak, is widely credited to a hard-working planning board who spent a year getting ready for this historic event. At the beginning of the conference, they outlined meeting, facilitation, and voting procedures, and supplied professional and constructive facilitation.

A new web site, used to help plan and prepare for the decision-making that occurred at the conference, continues to provide information and opportunities for dialogue at www.usworker.coop.

Directors take the reins

Elected to the nine-member board of directors, which must represent the Western, Eastern, Northern (Midwestern) and Southern regions of the country, includes Lori Burge of People's Co-op in Portland, OR (West); Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, based in Washington, DC and a member of the GEO collective (East); Bob Cahill of Arise Bookstore & Resource Center in Minneapolis, MN (North); and Alice Murphy of Blue Moon Café in Asheville, NC (South).

Five at-large members were also elected: Brahm Ahmadi, People's Grocery in Oakland, CA; Kirsten Marshall, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and the Western Worker Cooperative Conference; Omar Freilla of Green Worker Cooperatives in the Bronx, NY; Tom Pierson of Seward Community Café and the Center for Prosperity in Minneapolis, MN; and Ajamu Nangwaya of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, based in Epes, AL.

To move the federation forward the group set some ambitious goals: Define democratic workplaces. Finalize the official name. Formalize the association into a functioning organization. Join the international worker co-op organization CICOPA. And prioritize more than two dozen possible member services identified by conference participants. In addition, members will explore joint health insurance plans and retirement funds, and create new educational resources, a national database, and a development fund which already has $65,000 in contributions.

Going global

Attending the federation gathering were representatives from CICOPA, the worker co-op arm of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), and the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation.

Rainer Schluter, President of CICOPA, delivered a stirring keynote on the final morning of the conference. He reported that in Europe they have seen a leap from 2,500 worker co-ops and related models in 1980, to 85,000 today, with a membership of one and half million worker-owners.

Schluter also stressed the growth of the “social economy” in Europe, where businesses are increasingly based on serving people's needs rather than maximizing profits for absent investors. Cooperatives, as well as other group-based democratically-owned businesses and many non-profits and associations, should be included in this vision, he said.

“There have been two major failures in recent years,” Schluter told the worker-owners. “The state model failed, as we saw with the end of the Soviet Union. But the [speculative investor, profit-driven] model is failing as well.” He stressed the importance of being flexible and open to all kinds of innovative forms of economic democracy. There is not just one type of worker-owned business.

Cooperatives have a golden opportunity to help build an economy based on equality and justice, Schluter continued, “but if we are going to be effective, we have to be heard, and the only way to do that is by linking at the local level, the national level, and the international level.”

Jane Livingston is a journalist and publicist specializing in cooperatives and telling the co-op story to the mainstream public. She is co-editor of this issue of GEO, with Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo.

Jessica Gordon Nembhard is a member of GEO and the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland where she also is Assistant Professor and Economist in the African American Studies Department.


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