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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Check-in with Matthew Epperson

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GEO Original
April 27, 2020
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Many of us begin our meetings with a round of check-ins, to re-establish connection with each person. In this time of quarantine and mutual aid, crisis and solidarity, we thought it would be good to do some check-ins with people in the cooperative and solidarity economy world. We asked each person four questions:

1. Who are you?

2. "How are you spending your time these days?" or "How are you keeping your peace these days?"

3. "Have you seen anything inspiring as it relates to cooperation and the solidarity economy during these times?"

4. "Can you describe one fruitful change, as it relates to cooperation and the solidarity economy, that you think might arise as a result of the pandemic?"

We hope you enjoy them.



Sarah Eppley: So first question is just who are you? Can you identify yourself how you're involved in the co-op movement?

Matthew Epperson: Yeah. So my name is Matthew Epperson. I'm the executive director of the Georgia Cooperative Development Center. Yeah, that's my main role.

SE: Okay, cool. So how are you spending your time these days or how are you keeping your peace on a personal level, I guess?

ME: Yeah, something a lot about, you know, people who are being more directly impacted than myself. I've been relatively fairly privileged. I've been able to keep going to my regular, you know, kind of work that I do 9 to 5. So I haven't been too much influenced on that level. So I've been thinking a lot about those who, you know, who definitely are on the frontlines doing essential work and oftentimes in the most precarious situations and with the least protections.

So I try to I think a lot about those folks and ways that I can hopefully contribute meaningfully to making this an easier process through this pandemic than it maybe otherwise would be. One thing I've been thinking about too is about the future, of course, to  what will actually happen after the pandemic as well. So how do we organize for that, that future that's coming before too long, hopefully?

SE: Yeah, I think that's something that's on all our minds these days for sure. Now, just because I don't know and I'm curious, is there a physical location now for the Georgia Co-op Development Center? Or have you been working from home before that anyway?

ME: No. Yes, we were. We've been in all remote's virtual centers since founding in mid-2017. So that part hasn't been a shift for us so much as it seems like it is for everyone else to go remote for pretty much everything.

SE: Yeah. And the co-ops that you serve, are there are a lot of them that are also remote, or is it a lot of brick and mortar stores?

ME: It's more brick and mortar. Yeah. So we work with mostly food related businesses. I've noticed so far food co-ops and different stripes, like a couple of start-up grocery co-ops. Also, some, worker co-ops, make different value added products like vinegar, pecan milk, for example. And a few farmer co-ops as well. So for them it's definitely it's more of a challenge and a bit strange to be thinking about the digital economy. Not really having to in the past.

SE: Yeah. Have they been hard hit? Because obviously grocery co-ops I'm sure are still operating but have they've been really badly impacted, as far as you can tell?

ME: Yeah. So we did a survey recently and actually we're still trying to gather as much survey data, so if any Georgia cooperators happen to see this, please send your information. I can send you the survey link. But yeah, we did a survey recently and we found that there was about on average about a forty five percent sales drop for the co-ops that responded. So that was kind of all over the board. Some people said it was a hundred percent and some people said it was 20 percent. Yeah, that would be the average. So we've definitely seen some major sales drops, cutting hours, some terminations, trying to use stuff like, you know, the voluntary leave or paid time off to try to cover some of those gaps. So our co-ops are doing the best they can, but there's definitely challenge with that. And we also asked about the question of how much cash reserve do you have? How long can you kind of sustain yourself where you currently are? And the average came back at about three point five weeks. So that's less than a month. Yeah, most were at under a month. Fifty seven percent we're at under a month.

SE: What have you guys as a center been doing to support those co-ops?

ME: So yeah we've so far focused on, you know, utilizing the tools we have. So our newsletter and social media to try to get out positive messages about what are the co-ops doing, support each other, and what are the resources, focusing a lot on, of course government resources. Like a lot of folks I think are focusing on the EIDL and the PPP as these particular government programs that can be relevant for sustaining businesses with their working capital needs and their payroll needs.

But also the inter-cooperative support. You know, corporate bond funds, like Shared Capital are trying to put out there that they're also trying to step into the support role. Whatever, credit unions are doing to support their members with, you know, emergency loans, that sort of stuff. And still just showing up with whatever technical assistance they might have or if they have questions about how do they apply for those programs, trying to be a resource for them for that. And we've also been meeting a lot of our core peers for that. Like NCBA, for example, has done some really great webinars, informing me as hopefully someone who can help others too about those programs, and having the backup of Kate Latour, who does advocacy work with NCBA. Also US Federation of Worker Co-ops has been -- they were willing to share their data set about who all's applied for these programs, and what are their statuses? And it's really interesting to see a kind of a big picture view of how the worker co-ops are trying to utilize those programs. It seems like they are, but they're not actually hearing very much so far back, it seems, about really getting the loans and stop-gapping for their situations.

SE: Well, it sounds like you guys are getting a lot of really important coordination work, so thank you. All right, so my next question: have you seen anything inspiring as it relates to cooperation and the solidarity economy during these times?

ME: Yeah. So, some of the most direct examples I'm familiar with is just the creating of the masks and protective personal protective equipment. So Opportunity Threads, is this Mayan-owned worker cooperative in Morgantown, North Carolina. So seeing them step up to change their production because usually they're making, you know, other types of textiles. But now they've totally shifted their production to entirely making face masks. And similar with another worker co-op. Pretty different type. But it's an engineering co-op up in Madison, Wisconsin. I was just hearing about how they have changed some of their machine production. And yes, like other ways to kind of shift into shifting production toward personal protective equipment. But more locally, been talking to my board member Eric Simpson with the West Georgia Farmers Co-op. And a lot of what they're doing right now is, you know -- because part of that, of course, is the big hit to their sales. So they don't have the restaurants who are buying. But they do still have such a need from the school districts, even though there's not actually school in session. So jumping into still feeding kids even though schools are closed. So the West Georgia Farm Co-op is doing that and feeding the children of Atlanta where, obviously, you know, when they get cut off from the farms, that can't last very long. So, you know, they're still as dependent as ever on those farmers and really try to step into that. And a lot of our co-ops are doing that likewise. And we are in touch on the food co-op. They're kind of shifting the way that they do business, sort of, you know limiting the ingress and egress into their stores, how many people can be in there, and, you know, sanitizer everywhere and cleaning off all of their carts and hand the baskets. And, you know, it's really upping the cleaning game. So, you know, Daily Groceries, where I used to work, the food co-op in Athens, Georgia, they tried to up their online sales, which I think is pretty cool. Because they do have a local delivery service. So they're trying to really adapt, roll with the changes and hopefully really fit to this new situation to respond.

SE: That's great. That's great to hear about. And I guess I'll move to the last question. Can you describe one fruitful change as it relates to cooperation in the solidarity economy that you think might arise as a result of the pandemic?

ME: Yeah. So, my my real hope about this -- I was just hearing from another a few presenters. I mean, what I love about the opportunity of this moment is that because so much is now online, that there is an opportunity to connect into other types of co-op work that maybe wasn't previously connecting. I think a lot of people are paying attention to NCBA-CLUSA, but also the Highlander Center and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and all these groups that previously, because they're very in-person, obviously, they weren't necessarilly connecting as much with each other.

You know, I was just hearing a webinar that the title was "From Pandemic to Power Building." This is part of the Center for Economic Democracy did that. And they were talking about how it is that you can think about this as a metaphor. This was Gopal Dayaneni, with Movement Generation, was saying you can think about the Corona virus as a zero gravity moment. While we're going through this, it's almost kind of gravity has been suspended. We're kind of in midair because it's like everything suddenly changed. You know, like you don't have to pay rent right now. When was that a thing? But people understanding, and even making financial systems work with the hardship of dealing with the pandemic. It's like the rules are suddenly different and hopefully when we're in the zero gravity moment. My hope is that we reach out to each other and build bonds that once the gravity quote-unquote comes back, right, and we're going back to whatever business as usual means in this global capitalist system, that we'll come back with greater solidarity than we ever had previously, because now we're seeing what we're all doing and the ways we're all responding in somewhat in similar ways to the needs of our communities. And hopefully keep those links going and continue to do business inter-cooperatively. Because I think that the vision of a cooperative economy, I think a lot of people have that idea, but the practicality of how do you really do that, I think has been thrown into some amount of ability to see that almost, hopefully, amid these conditions. And I hope we can sustain that, continue going forward.

So if the credit union and the grocery co-op and the worker co-op are all working together for their different pieces of making sure people are fed, they have personal protective equipment, they have money, you know, all the things that they really need. You know, housing, you know, real estate co-ops that are buying up properties so that they can defer rent payments. Those types of things, hopefully those bonds really come together and get stronger and then they'll be especially strong when the gravity comes back. And then we move on, unfortunately, maybe to the next crisis. But, you know, because I think part of the problem is that we haven't dealt with the underlying crisis, which is really the way that we do the economy. In the way that we orient profit and people, so until we really deal with that, these other crises will layer on top of what was already there in terms of the crises that we face. And I think we'll keep coming back to that. But every time that we face these challenges, I hope that we kind of dig a little deeper into the real challenge that we're always facing pretty much.

SE: Right. Have you noticed or could you say that any of this, I don't know, imagining what's coming next has trickled down to member level, especially for workers? It's hard when we're all staying indoors to really know what's what's going on kind of on the ground and in different people's lives. I have a concept of, you know, there's lots of people who are out of work right now and can't you know -- their financial situation has been thrown into question. And then there's people who have more work now because they're working from home and trying to understand how to work from home for the first time, maybe. And also deal with just household and family matters at the same time. So, you know, I'm just wondering how much of this conversation is happening at the developer level versus actual members and stuff?

ME: Yeah, the members of the co-ops themselves. It's a really interesting question. And I mean, part of what we were trying to figure out with our survey also was, you know, if you were to think about what services we could be potentially offering right now, that would help build something for the future, to help you weather and sustain the future. You know, we did ask the question of, you know, what about online trainings about how to sell your product online? I think that's at least one example. Hopefully at the developer level we're still stirring the ideas in people's heads about what could the future hold? And what do you need in order to adapt to a new future that might feature more pandemics? To be ready for this kind of situation to come again. So be ready with your online sales. Can you pivot to doing it online? Can you really sustain yourself that way? I mean, It's a really good question about how do the members see it right now? I mean, I'm sure that for those who are just kind of, you know -- depending on their co-op, maybe it's in new ways, like maybe they got a loan for the first time from the credit union because they were trying to make ends meet in a sudden way that they never had to before. Hopefully that will also somewhat change the relationship that people have with their co-ops, that they can really see. And I think this becomes all the more apparent in moments of crisis, that we depend on our co-ops, that they exist to serve in need, and in some ways they do it best when there is these unfortunate circumstances that we're facing, because co-ops have always existed to kind of respond to what you might call market failure, or just capitalism as usual. You know, there's disposable people, you know, and lives, unfortunately. So we're always having to respond to that. So hopefully there's new relationships and new appreciation for the cooperative business model that goes forward and continues to drive greater and greater cooperation. I hope that members can see that. But that's my hope.

SE: Yeah, I definitely hope that it will bring bring forth some sort of more collective conscience, because I think, you know, like I said, it's just really hard to imagine what's what's going on outside of your own home right now, in spite of all the connectivity, I think.

ME: Right. And not get total zoom fatigue or go to meeting fatigue from all these online meetings.

SE: Well, anyway, thank you so much. Your answers have been really insightful from from a developer perspective, definitely. And it's good to hear about what's going on kind of in Georgia and other things you've heard about going on around the country. Did you have any last thoughts?

ME: Well, I just want to say thank you for the opportunity. And, you know, I'm always trying to emphasize that, Southern cooperation is a distinctive type of cooperation. And I think that our response to the Corona virus will be likewise, I think in some ways our interconnectedness can be a little bit less. Maybe so in terms of being hip to what is new in the cooperative space doesn't necessarily happen as much in the South. But I think that the need is especially stark, and as such the practices of cooperation are pretty well-learned within the South. And I think it just kind of comes naturally in a lot of ways. You know, nobody had to ask the West Georgia Farmer's Co-op, "you know, you should really step up to help the kids." They just knew that that's what needed to happen. So, I think it's really beautiful. And yeah, I'm just happy to help to lift up some of what's happening.

SE: Thank you so much, Matthew.


 [This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.]


GEO Collective (2020).  Check-in with Matthew Epperson.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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