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Education Into Action: Reflections on the Eastern Workplace Democracy Conference

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May 24, 2010
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By Aaron Dawson, Equal Exchange

In reflecting back to the 2009 Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, what impresses me the most is how much more action it has generated since the meeting! This is exciting to me as I have been to five worker co-op conferences and this is the first time that I feel so much movement is happening on so many levels.

ECWD '09 Panel

For example, on the national level, there was a wonderful workshop on the Democracy at Work Institute's new project, the Democracy At Work Network, a peer technical assistance network. This initiative, soon to debut, will train worker cooperators to be effective technical assistance providers and establish the infrastructure of a national network of low-cost advisors to support the development of worker cooperatives.  In this workshop, we went through a few role-plays to imagine how a peer technical assistance network would work. Thus, if you are a worker co-op start-up, or an established worker co-op looking for some help or advice, you could contact this network and it would put you in touch with one or more technical assistance providers who actually work in worker co-ops and could provide some guidance and support. And although the workshop was just a series of role plays, a lot of work has resulted from it. The result is DAWN, soon to be fully operational with the following services:
  • Worker Coop 101/The Basics
  • Support in Choosing an Entity (offered as a supplement to the work of your legal professional, not a replacement)
  • Democratic Process and Structure
  • Worker Cooperative Finances

For more information, check out the Worker Cooperative Peer Technical Assistance Network website for updates:

On the local level, the conference offered a number of educational workshops on creating regional linkages and networks among cooperatives, e.g., on existing regional networks in the U.S., or on the regional structures and networks that can be found within Mondragon, Spain or Northern Italy. These workshops inspired all of us to think big and network locally; as a result, Equal Exchange held a company-wide one- and-a-half hour discussion of how to get our cooperative more involved in regional co-op networks and will be hosting two members of the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops to talk to us and hopefully other co-ops in the Boston area about their worker co-op regional network model in western Massachusetts.

Finally, we have the bridge between the two levels in the US Federation of Worker Co-ops/Regional Networks Working Group. This working group came out of dialogue from the ECWD's business meeting on strengthening the linkage between the U.S. Federation and regional and local networks. As I am on the US Federation Board as the East Coast Regional Representative, I will be part of that small group along with a number of other folks who are interested in creating tighter linkages between the national, regional and local initiatives.
All of this shows, I believe, that this latest Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy was a outright success. Not only did it bring many co-op members, co-op enthusiasts and future co-op members together and create valuable connections among them. But it has helped us learn in ways in which we can strengthen our co-ops, our networks and the overall representation of worker co-ops in the United States economic sector. Beyond these, it has created the momentum, the energy, and the passion to carry this work forward, past the conference and into our co-ops, so that we can continue the dialogue within our movement and grow the worker co-op sector. When we meet again, in 2011, I expect we will have more co-ops, greater visibility, and stronger co-ops!

"We will know when democratic ownership has come of age - when the leaders, writers and spokespersons for democratic ownership speak primarily from inside their own profitable, democratic firms."
--Steve Dawson in "Changing Work", GEO's predecessor.

Sidebar: Worker Ownership, Coming of Age and Out of the Shallows

Aaron DawsonAaron Dawson has been the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives' representative for the Eastern Region for the last year and a half. For over six years, he has also been a worker owner at Equal Exchange, where he is the Interfaith Customer Service Manager. He also served on the Eastern Coordinating Council, the ECWD Board, for two years, as well as holding the elected position of "Worker-Owner Coordinator" for Equal Exchange. Finally, involvement in worker co-ops runs in Aaron's family. His father, Steven Dawson, is a co-founder of the ICA Co-op Loan Fund and helped to set up Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York City.

When citing this article, please use the following format: Aaron Dawson, (2010). Education Into Action: Reflections on the Eastern Workplace Democracy Conference, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 5,

Photo courtesy of Michael Crowell.


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