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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

What I'm Bringing Back to My Co-op From the 2007 ECWD

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November 26, 2007
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By Jim Johnson, GEO Collective

I had such a great time at this year's conference in Asheville, NC. Too many workshops, I wanted to go to all of them! But it's impossible, of course; quality over quantity is the only way. Armed with my laptop, I vowed to take careful notes and make at least a couple of presentations back home that would help my comrades and I become better worker-owners. Of course, my motive also was to demonstrate that attending the 2009 conference would be a worthy investment of time and money.

I'm a worker-owner at Sligo Computer Services, a small programmer's co-op on the northeastern border of Washington, DC. We've grown a lot, and then shrunk a bit in the last few years, and are now growing again, taking on our fifth person earlier this year and looking for more. After several years of structural flailing, we formalized our bylaws in early 2004 and got rigorous about regular meetings. We've been working intently on our internal systems and have been watching our lengthy meetings get shorter and more productive, with the occasional emotional check-ins to keep our process strong and sensitive. It's amazing how much there is to learning workplace democracy, how long it seems to take for ownership culture to take root -- and then one day we look back, astonished at how much we've grown.

A Great Town

Asheville is a great town. I'm glad that I arrived Thursday night to get settled in and see a bit of it. The vegan tempeh wings at Rosetta's Kitchen were awesome, highly recommended! Friday night several comrades piled into my aging Ford Escort wagon and we all went to a drumming circle in downtown Asheville, then hooked up with a few more ECWD folks and went in search of a bar with no cover. We stayed out way too late playing drinking games, but it was one of those always-memorable bonding experiences. What happens in the drinking game stays in the drinking game; my lips are sealed.

The sessions started early Friday afternoon; there were five pre-scheduled workshop, and one open space. "Story Sharing: How We Work Here" jumped out at me and seemed like a very participatory way to warm up to the conference and meet some people. Much to my delight, it was minimally structured and there wasn't much of an agenda -- mostly, "What's going on at your co-op, and what do you want to ask others?" Some of the co-facilitators were still getting settled and showed up late, but the distinctions of facilitator and participant soon became invisible anyway.

The "Freak Factor"

Terry Daniels from Long Island Home Enterprise spoke about finding someone's "freak factor" - those things in your day-to-day work that you'd rather not be doing, and finding others who like to do it, and then hiring them. This seems particularly relevant to my co-op, where some of us have been dialoguing recently about doing too much drudgery work and not enough of the creative and satisfying technical stuff that programmers crave. Terry's experience made me hopeful that if we grow carefully and mind everybody's freak factors, we can end up with a lot less "grunt work" and become a bigger crew of more satisfied worker-owners.

Jessica Hiemenz expanded on that point. She's from Equal Exchange of West Bridgewater, MA, a co-op now 21 years old with 71 worker-owners. She spoke of having work planning meetings once a month that set goals, while also identifying areas that were going well and areas in need of improvement. It's a time to get clear on what makes a worker happy, and what they'd rather not be doing. They have reviews every three months and each year. The reviews are open, and they're looking into how to make them "not scary."

Heroics Not Required

The discussion then took an interesting turn into concerns about working more than 40 hours a week, and the burnout and over-specialization that can accompany overwork. Someone made the point that it's important to show that you don't have to work long hours or get burned out to be a worker-owner; in a well-organized co-op, heroics aren't required.

John Zippert, from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, pointed out that long hours can mean passion and not burnout, and that people simply love what they do. Colleen Gorman from the Little Grill Collective in Harrisonburg, VA, explained that clear expectations are one key to avoiding burn-out. This is something that my co-op has discussed a lot but is still working on. For us, being a smaller co-op means that the normal waves of day-to-day business often hit us harder, and sometimes we just have to find a way to do what it takes. Hopefully, getting more people on board will help mitigate this.

Policy v. Management

Regarding internal systems, John Abrams from South Mountain Company, a worker's co-op in Martha's Vineyard, said that they recently had all of their decisions indexed (there are decades of them, apparently). He said it has become one of the most useful of their tools, especially in helping them reconcile their bylaws and their minutes. He pointed out that it's important for a member committee to be clear on whether or not a given issue is policy or management. It's validating to hear this; our own co-op has been discussing the importance of this distinction, so that member meetings might be more focused on setting and clarifying the policies that guide day-to-day operational decisions.

The "Promoting Cooperative Group Dynamics" workshop was facilitated by Ron Copeland of the Little Grill. Ron is the founder and formerly the sole owner of the Grill. He sold it to the workers, and is now an equal worker-owner. I've done my share of facilitating democratic group processes, but I was a bit humbled by how succinctly this workshop put it all in perspective. Ron pointed out that people resort to non-cooperative behaviors when they don't know or don't trust that cooperative behaviors will get them the empowerment that they seek. Put another way, humans naturally tend to gravitate towards power, and if it's not obvious how to get it, they're more apt to seek it in subversive ways.

In a related vein, Ron validated that an under-responsive co-op structure can actually encourage a crisis-oriented approach to situations. That is, if a perception of crisis is the only way to draw necessary attention or to get things done, people will naturally adapt by learning how to create a crisis (real or imagined) as a way of motivating the group to action. Most conflicts have a subtext, something behind the scenes that is really what's going on. Maybe feelings, maybe related issues, or maybe unrelated issues - in any case, something that needs to be dealt with.


We also discussed the concept of "transparency". This is an idea that my co-op has embraced as a way of affirming that everyone is both included in, and responsible for, everything that goes on. Although this might seem to go without saying in a co-op, many of us carry serious baggage from hierarchical and oppressive work environments, and we've often adapted by becoming suspicious and untrusting, just to protect ourselves. So it's important to emphasize transparency, to practice it explicitly, and to be vigilant about it.

My favorite take-away: "Be curious about what other people think and feel." Too often, really tuning into my fellow worker-owners is something I do only out of a sense of solidarity or duty. The word "curious" emphasizes that true solidarity is a spirited and proactive practice; don't just listen and validate, be genuinely curious about where other people are coming from, and how they got there.

A Little Hurt

Just as the conference was wrapping up, I took some time between workshops to sit down with Jim Megson from the ICA/Local Enterprise Assistance Fund of Brookline, MA. Jim is one of the most experienced co-op developers around, and it was a real treat to get some quality time with him. Jim has said that the appropriate capitalization amount is one that "hurts a little bit," something that affirms that people are serious about joining the co-op and "putting skin in the game." This year he helped me to understand that having a carefully-designed capital account system doesn't just help build a culture of ownership, it can actually save the worker-owners money on their personal taxes, too.

Of course, the conference was over way too soon. There were lots of good-bye hugs as cars and vans filled up and rolled away. My head reeled all the way back to DC, trying to condense it all into a form that I could coherently pass on to my co-op. We've spent so much time working on our group process, but what I learned seems like we should give it even more study.

I'll be able give them only the slightest taste of the sense of community, validation, and enthusiasm that I experienced. For a conference like this, there's just no substitute for being there.



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